ET AL: Visiting Van Gogh


We’ve all heard of Vincent van Gogh, the post-impressionist Dutch Painter. Well, who hasn’t? Who does not know about his passionate intensity, his potato eaters, his sunflowers, his women and his fits, in one of which he sliced a part of his earlobe.

Today Van Gogh is considered as one of the greatest artists ever. His life and work has inspired and influenced much of art history since his tragic death in 1890. He has become the most expensive artist and critics believe that what many people consider to be the archetypical “artist personna” is largely a result of his influence.

“Today,” I thought, “I will be face to face with what I thought existed only in books and history.”

The moment we took the road to the Museum square, the idea, or say the reproach, started worrying me. “Why didn’t I visit the place earlier?” I’d visited Amsterdam several times in the past, but it was only after meeting the German-Polish artist, Ania, that the idea came into being.

The biography of Van Gogh is spread throughout the gallery — you get highlights of his life in bits: Van Gogh was born in Holland, the son of a pastor. He became an apprentice at an art dealership, but was fired in 1876. Over the next decade he was employed in various ways, including as a preacher. By 1883 he had started painting on his own.

Van Gogh writes: “To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another, in a picture.”

In the museum, you learn how humble Gogh was in his artistic sojourn and how his kind brother Theo assisted him financially throughout his career, how he moved to Paris and understood the true meaning of his vibrant colours. His first impressions of modern art weren’t very rosy. He found them shoddy but soon after meeting two French painters, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, his perspective changed. With these artists, he discovered the stippling technique of Neo-impressionism, also called Pointillism, and freely experimented with the style.

Then followed a great creative surge in his career. This you realise when you see his early period upstairs, dark colours, depicting the black and white. The potato eaters and the hunger. At this stage, Van Gogh sensed how outmoded his dark-hued palette

had become. He painted flowers, in which he tried to “render intense colour and not a grey harmony”.

“What is required in art nowadays,” he wrote, “is something very much alive, very strong in colour, very much intensified.”

As you move through the museum, you realise how constantly sceptical of his success Van Gogh was. He led a frugal life, found it difficult to afford models while perfecting his skills and tur-ned to his own image: “I deliberately bought a good mirror so that if I lacked a model I could work from my own likeness.” Thus, he wrote in one of his letters to Theo.

He painted at least 20 self-portraits in Paris and in fashion of a Sufi poet, wrote to his sister Wil: “And when I painted the landscape in Asnières this summer, I saw more colours there than ever before.”

In December, Van Gogh experienced a psychotic episode in which he threatened Gauguin with a razor and later cut off a piece of his own left ear. He was admitted to a hospital in Arles and remained there through January of 1889. In the middle of it all, as you are mystified by the most amazing view of peach flowers, sun flowers, black birds over the green fields, freshly ploughed fields, you realise you are walking on the familiar trail of your own life journey.

You as a writer know why he would have painted the gallery owners or restaurant owners and women of easy virtue. He depicted the countryside woman and dreamt of them as perfect models, but the only women who modelled for him were prostitutes. You also know why he thought black birds came for him and why he shot himself in the chest and died two days later.

When I had to describe my visit to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam at a radio interview in London, this is all I could say: “Visiting Van Gogh was the most powerful experience; it was like visiting a Buddhist monastery where you stand vulnerable and naked before a benign god with the bleeding wounds of your life.”

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