Monday, October 7, 2013

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Fig. 1  Self-portrait, by Vincent Van Gogh
I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Van Gogh Museum to view the exhibition, Van Gogh at Work, which chronicles the artist's growth over a ten year time period.  Van Gogh at Work leads museum visitors chronologically through Van Gogh’s development as an artist, from his first experimental drawings to his famous later paintings.  Most people are familiar with Van Gogh's bold use of color and painterly, emotional style (fig. 1). In this anniversary exhibition, more than 200 works of art, including  paintings, works on paper, letters, sketchbooks, paint tubes and his only surviving palette, provide us with a unique insight into his thoughts and work process. 

The museum, located in Amsterdam, opened in 1973.  It faces the Paulus Potterstraat and has its back to the Museumplein.  The Museumplein, or, Museum Quarter, is the cultural hub of the city and home of Amsterdam's three most significant museums: the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art and the Van Gogh Museum.   
Fig. 2 Source, Van Gogh Museum

The Van Gogh Museum, now housed in two buildings, originally consisted of only one structure which held both the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions.  Currently, the main building is used only for displaying the permanent collection.  It was designed in a modernist style by Geritt Rietveld, and features geometrical forms and light, open spaces.  A staircase in the central hall, where daylight enters through a high atrium and floods into the museum galleries, is the main building's most striking feature.  A second structure, the exhibition wing, was designed by Kisho Kurokawa and was completed in 1999 (fig. 2).  In addition to architects Rietveld and Kurokawa, several others have contributed their skill and creativity to finishing, rebuilding or remodeling parts of both buildings (Van Gogh Museum, 2013).

Fig. 3  Olive Grove, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
My visit to the Van Gogh Museum was an enjoyable and enriching cultural experience.  One of the unique aspects about Van Gogh is that we are typically as intrigued by the artist as we are his work.  Many of us are familiar with Van Gogh's agonizing personal struggles.  He voluntarily entered a psychiatric facility in May, 1889, self-mutilated, and, unable to handle his personal demons any longer, committed suicide at the age of 37.  It is a testament to Van Gogh's inner strength, brilliance and passion for creating art for the people that he remained productive as an artist, regardless of his challenges.

Fig. 4  Tree Roots, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890
As is evident in the painting Olive Grove (fig. 3), Van Gogh's signature vibrant palette from his Arles period became more subdued while hospitalized in Saint-Remy.  Although he was limited to utilizing available subject matter at the facility, Van Gogh continued to find solace in his art, completing the renown Starry Night and Iris paintings (fig. 5).  The uncompleted Tree Roots (fig. 4) is thought to be his last work. Van Gogh was plagued by unstable moods, recurrent psychotic episodes and alternating periods of depression and mania during the final years of his extraordinary life.  Numerous physicians have since theorized about Van Gogh's illness, offering diagnoses ranging from epilepsy to absinth abuse to bipolar disorder, which seems likely as his episodes of depression were followed by sustained periods of energy and productivity as an artist.

Fig. 5  Irises by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890
The Van Gogh Letters Project, a special exhibit held in 2009, showcased the results of fifteen years of research into the correspondence of Vincent van Gogh.  All 902 letters to and from Van Gogh, both in their original languages and with English translations and images of the manuscripts are available on the website,, and in a six volume book, published in three languages.  The highlights of van Gogh’s life and letters are available, reviewed and discussed in an effort toward better understanding of the complexity of the man and his illness (Van Gogh Museum, 2013).

Fig. 6  The Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh, 1885
The Van Gogh Museum houses the largest collection of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh in the world.  It was an indescribable experience to find myself standing in front of my favorite painting, the Potato Eaters (fig. 6), which is considered to be Van Gogh's first great work.  The museum provides its visitors with an opportunity to visually learn about Van Gogh's development as an artist and also to view works by other 19th century artists such as Monet and Gauguin.  Perhaps the highlight of my experience at the Van Gogh Museum was the privilege of viewing multiple versions of paintings, such as The Bedroom, adjacent to one another.  I ended my visit with an enjoyable lunch in the museum's cafe, followed by an excursion to the museum shop, which is located on the ground floor.  The museum shop offers a wide range of books, clothing, accessories and reproductions to commemorate your visit.  To learn more about the Van Gogh Museum, visit the museum's website at http://www.vangoghmuseum.

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