Copyright Kathleen Ann Goonan
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In 1990, the centennial of Vincent van Gogh's death, the Kroller-Muller Museum in Arnham and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam held twin exhibitions of his work.  The paintings and drawings, assembled from international sources for this unique event, were returned to their homes afterwards, although each museum has much of Van Gogh's work in their permanent collections.

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 collections.
     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 day.
     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 Dutch Nation.
     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 intellectual.
     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 buildings.
     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 derisively.
     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 garbage.
     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 other.
     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 the man.
     "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 any more."
     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 important exhibits.
     We lingered almost three hours, then exited onto the hot, bright streets of Amsterdam in plenty of time to catch our train to Frankfurt.

If you enjoyed Kathleen's writing about this subject check out: Sunflowers (INTERZONE, Platt guest editor issue April 1995) a unique science fiction story inspired by Van Gogh's art.  It is also available from ACE in NANOTECH  (isbn #0-441-00585-3), French translation in Galaxies (September 2002:  Galaxies n 26), and Japanese translation in Hayakawa's SF Magazine (May 2003)

Copyright 1990 Kathleen Ann Goonan All Rights Reserved.

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