'Imagination will take you everywhere'
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is an unassuming modern concoction of glass and metal. Yet it houses the greatest collection of Van Gogh paintings in the world, which is no surprise considering Holland is the birthplace of the world-renowned artist. So as a lover of Van Gogh I was officially in Van Gogh heaven upon entering the museum – in fact I was almost salivating at the thought of all those masterpieces (imagine the responsibility of locking up the museum at night). The only bad point about the museum is that photography is prohibited, so sadly I don’t have any of my own photos of the wondrous works – thankfully Google has.
The first room of the exhibition contains paintings from artists who influenced Van Gogh’s style. So there’s plenty of eminent Impressionist painters nestled around Van Gogh’s work; Maurice Vlaminck, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and of course Van Gogh’s friend/rival, Paul Gauguin. There is much confusion surrounding Van Gogh and Gauguin’s relationship, but how I understand it is they both lived with one another in the ‘Yellow House’ (as Van Gogh dubbed it) in Arles, southern France; at first they were good friends and would constantly inspire each others’ work, as well as painting portraits of each other. They got on so well that they decided to open an artist’s studio in the ‘Yellow House’, but that didn’t attract many artists and soon failed, which is why Gauguin wanted to leave. But Van Gogh didn’t want to lose his best friend so (this is where it gets a little cloudy) Van Gogh apparently cut off his ear in anger, however there are some reports suggesting that Gauguin actually cut off Van Gogh’s ear with a sword after a vicious row about leaving. No one can be 100% sure what happened, but there is no denying that despite the complex history, the work of both of these artists are magnificent.
The rebellion that was Impressionism is a pervading light within the exhibition. Particularly notable is Pissarro’s influence on Van Gogh – his pointillist style inspired Van Gogh to put a fresh spin on it by adopting his trademark style of dashes and lines. This style is evident in his 1887 Self portrait with Grey Felt Hat, which includes a mixture of green and blue lines not blended in, that almost appear like whiskers on his face. His loose and distinct brushstrokes became one of his defining painting features, which is beautifully depicted in Garden with Courting Couples: Saint-Pierre Square (1887).
One of the most impressive pieces within the exhibition was Van Gogh’s real life easel. This collapsible ‘Field’ easel demonstrates how he was one of the most prolific ‘plein air’ painters – he would often venture into the rugged French countryside south of Paris to capture the fleeting delicacy of Mother Nature. Even Van Gogh’s very own paint palette and tubes of rusty paint are on display – complete with dried paint crusted all over them. You can just imagine old Vincent stood with paintbrush in hand amid a tangle of trees with the wind in his bright auburn hair and the sun highlighting his freckles. Katherine Pilz, conservator at the Van Gogh Museum, said that one of the first Van Gogh paintings she studied (Seascape near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 1888) she found grains of sand within the paint. He was certainly a true impressionist.
It was during 1880 that Van Gogh decided to be an artist. His early work contains dark earth tones – similar to the style of the Hague School (where he studied) – within depictions of dull, depressing scenes; a stark contrast to his later brighter, more light-hearted work. After Van Gogh visited Paris (1886 – 1888) he found many new ways to experiment with paint and consequently began to break through the traditional structure favoured by the Hague School. Dark colours were replaced with lighter ones, strict and precise lines ignored in favour of wild and loose dashes; all of which display his developing impressionistic style. Such simple, effortless-looking brushstrokes can produce such wonder, no more so than in his Vase with Cornflowers and Poppies (1886).
Van Gogh moved to Arles in the south of France, in 1888, which seemed to inspire his wistful ‘swirling’ brushstrokes and developed his penchant for vivid and vibrant colours. Having road-tripped through the rolling hills and sunny climes of the south, I am enthralled by his depictions, which really ignite my memories of the spectacular landscape. I particularly like the way he experimented with various materials on which to paint, e.g. cardboard, canvas and even a linen tea towel. I also like the way Van Gogh frequently exposed sections of canvas through gaps of paint, thus enhancing the free style, as well as creating a new texture and tone in which to play with. However this imperfectness also reinforces why critics complained of the unfinished quality of his work. Despite this, I can’t help but marvel at the allure of Farmhouse in a Wheatfield (1888), which has a gorgeously happy and relaxed feel to it.
Another exciting highlight within the exhibition was viewing the new discovery: Sunset at Montmajour, 1888. The painting was finally unveiled amidst much anticipation in September 2013, after the artwork was discovered in someone’s attic and matched the colour pigment from his other paintings in Arles. It is definitely a special addition to the museum’s monumental collection, with Van Gogh’s quintessential wide impasto brushstrokes evident in the sky which adds a sense of movement and establishes an expressive atmosphere.
Van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself to a psychiatric clinic in 1889. But he still painted when confined within the hospital’s walls – and was even permitted to go outside into the hospital’s grounds. Alas his work lacked the vigour of his past work; his colour palette was much more subdued – ironically similar to his dark early work, so it seems he came full circle. Van Gogh died in 1890 after apparently shooting himself in the torso in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise. However before the event he wasn’t showing any signs of madness and was painting frequently – he even painted a beautifully detailed Almond Blossom for the wall of his new-born nephew’s nursery. Despite the confusion and mystery surrounding Van Gogh’s life, this museum celebrates him for what he truly was; a splendid artist.