Thursday 7 August 2014

Van Gogh in the Van Gogh Museum

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The wonderful new wing of the museum was being renovated during our last visit to the city, so unfortunately, I was able to only visit the 'old' wing

This is nevertheless, a modern building, beautifully designed and a pleasure to visit.

It's one of Amsterdam's most visited attractions

and security is like in no other museum I have visited. It's like going through security in airports. You put all your belongings on a tray and then go through X-ray.

I took this photograph while I was waiting for the lift - it's not very clear, but you can see people queuing while the blond guy is dishing out the trays.

I was intending to take another photograph and zoom in, but the minute I took this photograph I was approached by a security guard who asked me why I was taking a photograph of security. I explained that I had never seen such tight security in a museum before, and wanted the photograph to remind me of what it was like. She responded by saying that security was tight in Amsterdam. I said that we had not found it so at the Rijksmuseum or the Stedelijk where we had just sailed through. She seemed to be impressed by the fact that we had been to the Stedelijk - not sure why, maybe not so many tourists visit that particular museum. She then asked to see the photograph I had taken and I showed her. She seemed satisfied with the photograph and did not ask me to delete it, but I still thought it would be stretching it too far if then I zoomed in and took another photograph so I took the lift instead.

Here is a very small selection of what I saw:

Woman Sewing, 1885

A dark silhouette against the window, the light falling on her sewing. At the time he made this study, Van Gogh was much preoccupied with the problem of painting a backlit figure in an interior. 'Especially figures a contre jour. I have studies of heads, both lit and against the light, and I have worked on the whole figure a number of times, a seamstress, someone winding yarn or peeling potatoes. En face and en profil. I do not know whether or not I shall ever finish it, as this is a difficult effect, although I believe I have learnt one or two things by it', he wrote to Theo.

The Potato Eaters, 1885

Like Jean-Francois Millet, Van Gogh wanted to be a true 'peasant painter' during this early phase. He tried to paint his subjects with deep feeling, but without sentimentality. He spoke of them leading 'a way of life completely different from ours'.  He strove to paint the faces 'the colour of a good, dusty potato, unpeeled naturally' and to convey the idea that these people had 'used the same hands with which they now take food from the plate to dig the earth ... and had thus earned their meal honestly'.

Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette, 1886

A small and somewhat macabre painting, probably executed during Van Gogh's stay in Antwerp where he enrolled at the art academy. This skull with a cigarette was likely meant as a kind of joke, and probably also as a comment on conservative academic practice.

The Courtesan, (after Eissen) 1887

The Courtesan illustrates Van Gogh's interest in Japan and Japanese prints. He based this painting on a work by the Japanese artist Kesai Eisen, which had been used for the cover of a special number of Paris Illustre. The border around the figure is a unified whole. The watery landscape with bamboo canes, water lilies, frogs, cranes and, in the distance, a little boat - are all motifs Van Gogh borrowed from other Japanese prints. The choice of animals was certainly not accidental: in 19th century France, prostitutes were often referred to as grues (cranes) or grenouilles (frogs) - they are a reference to the woman's profession.

The Sower, 1888

Bright, unnatural colours, and an unusual composition, in which the knotty tree in the foreground constitutes a diagonal division of the canvas. Van Gogh's inspiration for this may have come from a Japanese print.

Gauguin's Chair, 1888

It is evening or night time. The central object in this painting is a chair of dark brown wood, with curved backrests and an upholstered seat, upon which books lie. The space is illuminated by gaslight. With great sureness of touch, Van Gogh painted the blue shadows and reflections thrown by the lamplight onto the shining wood of the chair. This painting of his friend's chair was made in November 1888, when Gauguin was staying with Van Gogh in the so-called Yellow House.

In the Café: Agostina Segatori in Le Tambourin, 1887

A strikingly-dressed woman is shown seated at a small table, smoking a cigarette and staring into space. The tambourine-shaped tables and bar-stools tell us that she is in the Café Du Tambourin on the Boulevard de Clichy. Van Gogh used to frequent this café with his friends and used to pay for his meals with flower still lifes, which were then hung on the walls. It was here that his paintings were seen by the public for the first time.

Self-Portrait with Felt Hat, 1887-88

Van Gogh painted this self-portrait in the winter of 1887-88, when he had been living in Paris for nearly two years. Since his arrival in the city he had devoted much study to the Pointillist technique
thereby learning how he might apply it in his own fashion. His use of brushstrokes running in a variety of directions created a self portrait with a halo-like circle round his head.

Emperor Moth, 1889

Van Gogh found this moth - which he in fact believed to be a death's-head moth - in the garden of the hospital at Saint-Remy. It had 'wonderfully fine colours, black gray, a nuanced shade of white with a red sheen that, instead, sometimes seems to be olive green - it is very large. To be able to paint it, I had to kill it, and that was a pity with such a beautiful beast'.

Almond Blossom, 1890

On January 31, 1890, Theo wrote to Vincent of the birth of his son, whom he had named Vincent. Van Gogh immediately set about making him a painting of his favourite subject: blossoming branches against a blue sky. The gift was meant to hang over the couple's bed.

Tree Roots, 1890

At first sight, this painting appears as a jumble of bright colours and wild abstract shapes. Powerful strokes and thickly applied paint mark the canvas. The subject only becomes apparent when you look more closely: tree roots, plants, leaves, with the brown and yellow of a sandy woodland floor under them. Van Gogh painted other scenes of trees and woods. He often cut off his compositions in an unusual fashion, often painting trees without their tops, or a piece of woodland showing only undergrowth and flowers - or, as here, only the rots of the trees.

This was probably Van Gogh's very last work. He did not complete it: the top is almost finished, but the lower half had not yet been worked out in detail. The discoloration of the red paint eventually undermined the effect of depth: the tree trunks were originally purple and the soil had more light pink hues. These changes imparted an abstract quality to the painting beyond that intended by Van Gogh.

Irises, 1890

This was painted in the psychiatric hospital in the southern French village of Saint-Remy where Van Gogh stayed in 1889 and 1890. 'A purple bouquet (which extends to pure carmine and Prussian blue), which is set against a bright lemon-yellow background with other yellow tinges in the vase and the base it stands on. Its effect is one of enormously divergent complementary colours that are exalted by their oppositions', he wrote in a letter to Theo.

Pieta (after Delacroix), 1889

This Pieta - the Virgin Mary mourning over the dead Christ - is based on a lithograph by Nanteuil after a painting by Eugene Delacroix. Van Gogh painted it during his confinement at the hospital in Saint-Remy. As he wrote to Theo, the pretext for the painting was an accident which had occurred during his illness: 'The Delacroix lithograph La Pieta, as well as several others, fell into my oils and paints and was damaged. This upset me terribly, and I am now busy making a painting of it, as you will see'. The stained lithograph has survived.

This post is getting quite long, so the rest will have to wait for another time.

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