Touching van Gogh’s sunflowers at the Van Gogh museum, Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh’s story is, on the face of it, straightforward: young man leaves rural Dutch religious family home to become an artist in Paris, moves to Arles in Provence, falls in to bad ways but creates exceptional art; is rescued by his brother but commits suicide. Van Gogh’s story is unusual because he produced such memorable work in the short productive period between finding himself and loosing himself through “madness”. I always enjoy visiting the town of Arles, but recognise for myself that the heady allure of its old stonework and streets, strong light and position at the head of the Camargue are best visited rather than made home.

The newly rehung collection of the Van Gogh museum, Amsterdam, exhibits both pieces which remained with Vincent’s family and those donated or acquired to make this a representative collection. The invitation to touch the surface of a reproduction of one of Van Gogh’s sunflower canvases part of an exhibit for the visually handicapped, typifies the approach of this exhibition: I came away feeling I had, to some extent, met and touched the artist.
We see in the new hanging firstly Vincent’s obsession with presenting himself as an “artist” by the numerous self-portraits he executed. Unintentionally these also document his physical decline and increasingly penetrating gaze as his mental decline progressed. Level 2 of the exhibition shows Vincent’s output as a member of the group of Paris artists whose work did not comply with the restrictive rules to be accepted for the salons. This grouping gave me a strong feeling of the group identity as well as the separate artistic directions of the individuals as they developed the techniques we now group as impressionists. It’s hard to say this was a happy period for Vincent but at least he was productive and developing as an artist.
The Van Gogh museum’s collection is representative but not comprehensive; by no means is every important canvas of his in this collection but most of the artist’s principal styles are represented.
Vincent’s move to Arles raises many questions. Clearly he was bowled over by the Provence light and lifestyle. His picture of the canal bridge near Arles shows a homesickness for his homeland in the Netherlands in its directness compared to the thickly painted laboured canvasses of his more constructed works, the pictures he though he ought to be painting as an impressionist artist. Similarly his portraits of men such as the Zouave (Arles, June 1888) show a direct intimacy and empathy with is subject which I don’t see in his various laboured and heavily painted portraits of women, particularly those where the artist is trying to portray the nobility of peasantry. Compare with the apparent ease with which his friend Paul Gauguin painted “simple women”.
The top floor shows a rich collection of van Gogh’s final period when he was in and out of mental asylum - the treatment apparently consisted of cold baths and rest. The final display, three canvasses of wheat fields, painted on radical formats which we would now call “widescreen” or “panoramic”, is to me the saddest of all the works on display. The display shows Vincent finally mastering his own voice and style rather than trying to be what he thinks he should be doing to be an “artist”.
The exhibition in Amsterdam includes an explanation of the incident when Vincent lost his ear but it’s not particularly convincing and probably we will never know the real story. More importantly for a major exhibition of a permanent collection, whilst there is much material shown for research and speculation, the question is hardly posed explicitly and I saw no answers or even pointers as to what was the trigger for Vincent van Gogh’s mental breakdown, was it the contradictions between the lifestyle he encountered in Provence and his protestant family background or was there a more specific trigger, maybe the rows with Paul Gauguin or absinthe or alcohol or smoking strong weed? Was this creativity and burnout inevitable and inherent in the person or was his creativity achieved at the expense of his burnout?
Nonetheless an exceptional museum to visit, at least midweek in late April and even having seen this museum in its previous incarnation. These works of Vincent van Gogh and some other impressionists are in good condition, are presented with enough space to appreciate them and the commentaries are informative.