Before you read on I’d like you to take a minute to think about Vincent Van Gogh. What do you know about him? What paintings by him are you aware of? Do you like his work?
To answer my own questions as of this morning: he was a tortured artist who cut off his ear and took his own life, he painted ‘The sunflowers’ and I have no particular reaction to his work. That was before visiting the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam today.
Many reading this will know how much I love art galleries and museums. This place functions as both; it exhibits a huge range of Van Gogh’s paintings but is also very informative about his life and death. Whether you come here to be entertained or informed you are unlikely to be disappointed.
One of the first realities that hits you as you begin your visit is how painfully short Vincent’s life was; he died at 37. Because he didn’t begin to function as an artist until relatively late in his life, all his oeuvre was produced in a ten year period. Compared to Michaelangelo, whose life I studied recently in Florence, and to Rembrandt, whose works I will see tomorrow in the Rijksmuseum, the flowering of his genius seems movingly brief.
At the beginning of his painting career, Vincent was influenced by French artists such as Millet and Bastien-Lepage in their depictions of peasant workers. He identified with this group and produced many works of a surprisingly somber tone and palette, culminating in ‘The potato eaters’, an unsettling and somewhat dispassionate depiction of a peasant family at dinner; it was not well received.
As he reacted to this disappointment, we next follow Vincent when he moves to Paris and cooperates with Gaugin, Toulouse-Loutrec and Bernard. He absorbed their styles and his work changed to incorporate modern techniques such as pointillism; his palette of colours also becomes noticeably brighter. One of the methods this museum employs so well is to preface the display of Van Gogh’s work from a particular time with some examples by those artists who influenced him and this is particularly evident in this section of the tour.
One of the new things I learned today was that Vincent didn’t just paint emotionally at times of mental despair, as our concept of him normally dictates; he received formal training on more than one occasion, including while in Paris, worked very hard to hone his skills and was an excellent draughtsman. I had not seen any of his drawings prior to today but those on display bear comparison with the best. I had also never imagined that a ‘flair’ artist like Van Gogh would ever have used aids such as perspective tools.
Having tired of Paris, Vincent moved to Arles in 1888. He craved the bright sunshine in the south of France. We were fortunate today to be able to combine our visit to the museum with a temporary exhibition on ‘Van Gogh and Japan’, which was amazing. I have always really liked Japanese prints and recently began to study woodblocks of the ukiyo-e type. Many of you will have seen these; they are often either of typical Japanese landscapes around Mount Fuji or of Japanese courtesans or actors in stylised poses; perhaps the best known, in the first of these styles, is ‘The Great Wave’ by Hokusai.
Japan and in particular prints of the ukiyo-e school began influencing Vincent’s perception of colour and light as he moved south seeking inspiration. During this time he produced both copies and re-interpretations of his favourite prints, showing responses to the colour blocks and flat planes evidenced in the more than 600 prints he bought and pinned up in his workshop, many of which are on show in this excellent exhibition.
Another comment made in the main part of the museum is that Vincent painted from observation, not from his imagination. I hadn’t thought of this but it is true and an important point, especially in considering the creative process within an individual developing a mental illness. There are two important examples of times when Vincent did diverge from the direct observation approach to his art.
Firstly, the almond blossom painting he made in response to the Japanese prints representing cherry blossom was conceived as a celebration of the birth of nephew, son of his beloved brother Theo, to whom he wrote so many letters.
Vincent painted two depictions of a chair, one owned by himself and one owned and used by Paul Gaugin while the two shared the ‘yellow house’ in Arles. The two chairs depicted are very different in shape and colour, which is taken to represent the clashing temperaments of the two artists which saw their brief collaboration fall apart.
And so to the elephant in the room – Van Gogh’s mental illness. It’s symptoms are well known; admissions to psychiatric care, cutting off his ear in 1888 and shooting himself in the chest two years later, taking two days to die. Most of what is known about this most difficult of times is from Vincent’s letters to Theo, which I have never read. I have read of his illness described as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or epilepsy. Inevitably, one views his output at this time, which was prodigious (more than one painting a day over a period of several months) through a prism skewed by beliefs and preconceptions of mental illness. When viewing the clashing vibrant colours and incessant motion in many of his final works it’s impossible not to feel some of his inner torment.
And so, finally and somewhat unexpectedly I did find myself having an emotional reaction to his later works. As I read of him being confined to a psychiatric ward, able only to see and paint what lay directly outside his window, I could feel some of his pain and isolation. Looking at a depiction of the hospital garden, where the tones are so far removed from the vibrant hues of the south of France, paintings thrumming with hope and excitement, one feels the impending end of a life becoming increasingly intolerable.
A fundamental question that keeps entering my head as I further my attempts at art appreciation is this; does greater understanding of an artist foster appreciation of their work? Today, at least, the answer is yes.