You think you know Van Gogh. Don’t we all? His sunflowers, the time in Arles, his self portraits, and of course, the dreadful ear. Maybe you’ve heard about the recently discovered Sunset at Montmajour, or the record-setting price ($39.9MM) Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers won at auction in 1987. This is the Van Gogh that most of us know. In Amsterdam, however, here’s what I learned: we don’t know Van Gogh.
When I was young, my father brought me a poster from a Van Gogh exhibit. It was the ubiquitous painting Bedroom in Arles, and I loved it. I found peace in its broad brush strokes and strong outlines, both hallmark Van Gogh, and the unapologetic use of color, which in this piece, he specifically chose, “to suggest a certain rest or dream,” as he noted in a letter to his brother. And of course, I loved that the blond wood frame bed closely resembled my own bunkbeds, recently unstacked to accommodate my imminent adolescence.
For years since then, I have still loved Van Gogh for the same reasons – his boldness, his outlines, his color. The crazy flawed humanity that accompanies the desire to remove one’s own ear. At some point in college, I learned where he fit in the larger canon of artists and I’m sure that it made perfect sense, but over time, those are the things I forget. The color, the vision, and the sense of calm they bring are a sense memory that sticks with me.
What I got when I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam was far more than I expected. With so many of his the works so close together, I could understand the development of Van Gogh as an artist – one, I learned, who died when he was only 37, and was most prolific during the last decade of his life, which ended in 1890. While I recognize him for these more well known works that have been easily accessible to me, I discovered much more of his beauty in smaller, quiet pieces, like Sloping Path in Montmarte.
I gleaned a bit of his sense of humor in his Head of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, which is familiar now as the cover of the David Sedaris book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. When I learned that the details of cadavers (anatomically accurate) were part of Van Gogh’s art schooling, and that he added the smoke as a humorous act of rebellion or boredom, I enjoyed him – and this painting – even more. How Sedaris must have loved learning this fact given his own adoration of smoking and his exclamation that he loved Paris because you could smoke everywhere, including the waiting room of the hospital. I loved it for entirely different reasons: I could imagine my grandfather, an accomplished painter and irreverent soul, doing the same. And there I am, closer even still to this painter who died a century before I graduated high school.
Where the museum really wins is in the science. Want to know how art historians determine whether the artist was mixing his paints and creating his works plen air or back in the studio? It may be something that never occurred to you, but even those who aren’t into art will love the pigment analyses and microscope images of sand grains embedded in the art that help determine where it was created, and with what. It’s common knowledge that artists reused their boards or canvases, but in Amsterdam, you can see the x-ray photographs of cross sections of canvases revealing multiple layers of paint that confirm more than just the masterpiece on the surface, and you can view the recto and verso of boards with practice paintings, including some of the many birds nest series.
This is barely scratching the surface. Speaking of surface scratches, want to know how different an art may look over time, or how it is restored after years of exposure damage the paint? There’s an app for that. Really, there is. In the museum, there is an iPad set up with my beloved Bedroom in Arles, and on multiple touch points I could be enlightened about restoration work, letters about the painting between Van Gogh and his brother, and see the Yellow House in Arles in which the bedroom lay. The app is available for free in the App store; just search for Touch Van Gogh (there is also an android version for the rebels out there).
I suppose I could learn all of this by reading the beautiful coffee table book on Van Gogh that I have in storage, but it isn’t the same. There’s a magic to playing with these interactive exhibits and then walking out into Museumplein to catch the tram home down Marnixstraat, with the canal at your side. If you can catch a glimpse of a windmill in the distance you can imagine the reapers who may have worked beneath it. It’s part of the magic of the place, and brings with it the magic of the person who created the art. And that, my friends, is worth the $39.9 million, but costs a whole lot less.