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From Darkness to Light:
The Dutch Van Gogh Exhibits
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Life was van Gogh's vanishing point, a
powerful apex of light and meaning which he pursued and made
uncompromisingly visible, without rest, for ten intense years.
The fruits of his labor, the twin Dutch exhibits marking 100
years since his death, amply revealed his depth, honesty, and
command of the medium. Many works in these exhibits are a
permanent part of either the Kroller-Muller museum in Arnhem or
the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam; both should be visited not
only for these but for other portions of their excellent
With our Eurail passes, my husband and I
took a sleeper train from the Paris Nord station after a day at
the Museum of Modern Art at the Pompideau Center, and arrived at
eight in the morning on a sunny spring day in Arnhem, Holland.
Our goal was to first view the drawings at the Kroller-Muller
museum there, then see the paintings in Amsterdam the following
It was well worth the trip.
As soon as we crossed the border from
Belgium to Holland, we saw floods of cyclists on their way to
work or school. They were often on their own bike paths,
evidence of a high order of civilization. This dedication to
biking must be the reason the Dutch can drink so much rich,
creamy milk with impunity. We got off the train in Arnhem,
about 60 miles southeast of Amsterdam.
While I ordered breakfast, my husband
visited the Dutch tourist agency close to the train station,
which made reservations for us that night two blocks from the
Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. As I was discovering that "ananas"
are not bananas, as one might assume, but pineapples, he
returned to the restaurant. He had been told that in order to
visit the Amsterdam exhibit we would have to walk several blocks
to the "Bank with the big red S" and buy tickets there.
Arnhem is a small, neat town of
flower-flanked homes and streets swarming with cyclists. I
thought the lumbering bus which took us to the museum would
squash one at several points, but we squeaked by. Apparently
they are a great danger to one another--Holland is the world
capital for head-on bike fatalities (and world-famous for its
canal-plunge accidents as well) but I never saw anyone wearing a
helmet in Holland.
The Kroller-Muller museum has a superb
setting in the middle of a 5500 hectare park. The
Kroller-Mullers, wealthy industrialists, collected some of the
most important art in Europe. In the nineteen-thirties they
donated the park to the Hoge Veluwe National Park Foundation and
the art, which includes works by Monet, Mondrian, Picasso,
Renoir, and 93 paintings and 183 drawings by van Gogh, to the
Though it was early when we arrived, the
museum was packed. And the drawings were a great surprise.
One does not usually hear of van Gogh's
apprentice work--how he studied with several masters, and the
great amount of thought he put into his life's work, chosen
after trying to be a minister. A grand, illuminating vision and
sense of mission sustained him through ten years of apparent
failure. The sheer volume of drawings and paintings is
overwhelming. He completed over 1100 drawings; on display are
243 carefully chosen pieces.
The gallery was packed three deep as we
filed past the drawings. It was a serious crowd. Many people,
including myself, were taking notes, and studying the dark,
serious, sad drawings with a sense of awe.
After a day at the Museum of Modern Art in
Paris, van Gogh's titles were especially striking.
In Paris, where the titles were in French, I
realized how linked many pieces of modern art are to the
verbal. The title illuminates the intention of the artist,
almost like a crutch. The piece and the title play off one
another; they are intimately related. The intent is
Van Gogh is a complete contrast to this form
of art. Every ounce of meaning and emotion he intends to convey
is subsumed into lines on the paper. Each title tells, simply,
what you see in the picture itself. "Alley of willows with
shepherd and peasant woman, 1884," is just that, two rows of
recently pruned willows with new branches shooting up, receding
toward a vanishing point against a bleak sky. A peasant woman
walks past one row of willows, a shepherd accompanied by his
sheep down another. Meticulously detailed and absolutely
realistic, the command of shadow and light, the mastery of
effect in this picture is quite powerful. It is full of
emotion; the scene, as do many in this show, broods.
Social injustice was one of van Gogh's early
themes. His experience as an evangelist in a mining town moved
him to portray the simple, difficult lives of peasants in his
drive for realism. As he said about "The Potato Eaters": "I
have tried to emphasize that those people, eating their potatoes
in the lamp-light, have dug the earth with those very hands they
put in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor, and how they
have honestly earned their food." (Letter to Theo #404, April
20, 1885). Drawings of these working people, in the fields,
cooking, or on their way to the mines constitute the bulk of the
exhibit, along with many landscapes which admit of a tinge of
color, such as a lone streak of orange sunset. A large
proportion of these drawings were studies for paintings, and
this aspect gives the exhibition even more depth.
Not to be missed, while at the Kroller-Muller
museum, is the permanent collection and the sculpture garden.
It was a short train ride from Arnhem to
Amsterdam. The square in front of the station was full of
musicians and shaggy layabouts; a canal glimmered between us and
ancient, twisted, mysterious streets of quaint, colorful
This was our first introduction to the trams
of Europe, which have not vanished like those in America.
Cheap, convenient, and electric, several lines make the rounds
of Amsterdam. Our operator told us where to get off, and we
searched out our hotel.
I went out during the long northern twilight
to explore. At the Leidseplein, where cafes sprawl onto
the cobblestones, I settled into a white wicker chair and found
that I was in a British enclave. After vigorous hand signals
and other gestures of impatience, I had to rise, seek out the
waiter, and say, Twist-like: "Please, sir, could I have a . . .
beer?" A pattern in Amsterdam--no one seems much inclined to
wait on anyone, but it fits the relaxed cafe pace.
As I quaffed with my crusty companions, a
demonstration erupted onto the square--a singing, chanting
column marched through the crowd with raised banners,
accompanied by mounted policemen. The Brits around me muttered
I rose, paid, and made my way through the
crowd and asked a participant what it was about. A bearded man
in a turban told me, "It is May Day--we are asking the Kurdish
people to unite, and demanding the end of Facist rule of
countries in which Kurds live."
I left the square in search of food. The
leaves of great trees overhanging the canal rustled in the
breeze. A duck splashed down on the green, slow-moving ribbon
of water. Languorous music, vaguely Thai, and the shouts of the
Moslem demonstrators mingled with the smell of heaped up
Evening sun cascaded through the upper
leaves. Two old men sat in front of one of the many wine bars
of Amsterdam, its only patrons. They engaged in light argument
as the sky shimmered in the canal before them, a glass of ruby
wine at the elbow of one, a glass of amber at the elbow of the
Though hungry, I couldn't settle on a
restaurant. Tibetan, Afghan, Dutch, and "Barbeque" nestled
improbably together, but none offered the correct invitation of
cheap food and an open seat next to the canal. I sat at the
wine bar for a few minutes writing and enjoying the old men in
their frayed, dignified dark suits. No one came to ask me what
wine I would like to taste, so I packed up and left. They
hadn't seemed to have food there anyway.
Further down the canal, I sat next to a
friendly couple from The Hague.
"I hope you don't think that Amsterdam is
always this messy," the woman said, referring to mounds of
garbage and the litter of bottles and cans. "Yesterday was the
Queen's Birthday, and we had a party with 2-1/2 million
people." Every country in Europe celebrates May Day, but they
all seem to have a different reason.
After several requests for food, which
including me going inside to find that the waiter had completely
forgotten my order--not that he had anything else to do, since
there was no one inside--I receive my wine and anchovies. He
also brought bread, which constituted an effective apology.
The couple booked tours through the van Gogh
exhibit, so I ask them how Theo died. I had worried all day
about a passage I read in my guidebook: "Theo . . . could not
bear to survive him, and so followed him, less than six months
later, maimed and destroyed both in mind and body" (Van Gogh,
Masini, Thames and Hudson, 1980).
"Oh, apparently he was grief-stricken," said
"Did he kill himself?" I asked. To me, the
above passage intimated that he had. If so, how annoyed his new
young wife, having just given birth, must have been!
"Well, no, actually he had cancer. He'd had
it before Vincent died, but after that he didn't want to live
So. He didn't die from pure, unadulterated
grief. It was like pulling teeth to find out. Apparently the
Dutch preferred a romantic cloud to shimmer around all aspects
of Vincent's life. One can hardly blame them.
In the spring of 1990, Henry Mitchell in The
Washington Post attributed van Gogh's recent surge in value to
the groundless blatherings of art critics and museum officials.
He says, "Flashy movies and novels about his odd life have more
to do with the van Gogh sales than the painter's palette. . .
Since the average human has no idea why a van Gogh is a
masterpiece--you sure as hell can't tell by just looking--it
falls to the efforts of professional promoters to do the rather
tricky work of persuading people. It's a dirty business, but
somebody has to do it (May 18, 1990)."
Although recent sales prices have been
astronomical, I believe that had Mitchell attended these
exhibits, he would not so blithely dismiss van Gogh. Seen en
masse, the drawings and paintings speak for themselves. The
energy of the artist has been translated to canvas with immense
mental and emotional transparency. To put his opinion into
perspective, Mitchell would only have to leave the Smithsonian
and venture into a European gallery where pictures by artists no
one has ever heard of languish for good reason: they were not
worth hearing about. Why is one artist doomed to obscurity and
another lavished with praise? This exhibit provides answers,
and the answers lie in the pictures themselves, rather than
hype. After seeing the drawings, one realizes that each
painting was supported by scores of studies; the paintings were
not dashed off but agonized over, repeated again and again by an
artist who wanted to make a very definite statement. It is the
opinion of the world that he succeeded.
In 1886, van Gogh went to Paris, where he
studied Impressionism for two years.
There, he made a stunning transition from
darkness to light. Whereas, early on in his endeavor he had
written to Theo "Speaking of black--the more I see of those
pictures in a cold, childish color scheme, the more I am glad
that my studies are found too black (October 10/11 1885)," his
entire outlook changed in Paris. Witnessing the transition and
the enormous difference in his work before and after Paris is
proof of his devotion to growth and his eagerness to absorb
whatever would take him to the next stage of his avowed life's
work. He passed through a continuum of art history, mastered
it, and emerged with a style and vision absolutely unique. How
quickly and eagerly he threw off his brooding Dutch mein and
turned toward the light. The timid, though highly effective
streaks of color in his drawings were transformed into the
wondrous palette for which he is most widely known.
On the advice of several people, we showed
our train reservations to the museum guards and they let us in
early. But even at eleven a.m., the exhibit was packed. One
had to exercise patience.
The exhibit was chronologically arranged,
and began with paintings such as Zola With Bible. Van Gogh, as
evidenced in his letters, was acutely aware of the intellectual
climate of his day, and expressed it in this painting.
Self-portraits, depictions of cafes, and successful experiments
with pointillation give way to a series of pear trees in bloom
as he takes leave of Paris after two important years.
It is, of course, in Arles that he found his
voice. One surprise to this art amateur was learning that van
Gogh painted several of almost all of his paintings, including
the most famous. Here many are exhibited side by side. The
differences in the two versions of "L'Anglois, Bridge at Arles,
1888," are subtle--a change in the color of the house, a
different proportion in the bridge--and absolutely deliberate in
exploration of effect. Three paintings of the famous "Bedroom"
are shown, completed over a period of three months in the fall
of 1888. In the final version, the objects seem to leap out of
the picture toward the viewer; the colors are much more intense
than in the first rendition.
The sad, dull colors of some of his asylum
pictures contrast with the bright raw energy of his final
paintings, done in the frame of mind in which he composed "Wheat
Field With Crows" just before he shot himself in the chest. Two
odd pictures are on display--"Village Street" has a sky which
trails off onto bare canvas, incomplete. "Landscape in the
Rain" has streaks of blue falling vertically in the foreground
of the picture, an attempt to draw the observer into the rain,
into the very consciousness of the painter, a desperate attempt
at intimacy. One imagines him painting it in the rain; in
describing one of his earliest paintings to Theo he says, "I
brought two small seascapes home from there. One of them is
slightly sprinkled with sand--but the second, made during a real
storm, during which the sea came quite close to the dunes, was
so covered with a thick layer of sand that I was obliged to
scrape it off twice. The wind blew so hard that I could
scarcely stay on my feet, and could hardly see for the sand that
was flying around (Letter to Theo #226)."
This complete immersion in nature, in life,
and in his work was the hallmark of van Gogh's life. His
dedication, mastery, and depth is made abundantly clear by these
We lingered almost three hours, then exited
onto the hot, bright streets of Amsterdam in plenty of time to
catch our train to Frankfurt.