Thursday, January 26, 2012

Holiday Travels, Part 5: The Van Gogh Museum

We interrupt the otherwise sort-of-consistent chronology of my tale to bring you this unnecessary ramble about an overpriced museum dedicated entirely to a single artist.

But seriously, it was great.

First things first: Whoever decided to put the Van Gogh Museum in a city where a large percentage of the tourists are high a large percentage of the time was a freaking genius.

I'm not saying I was high when we went (and even if I was, I wouldn't announce it on the internet); I'm just saying those are two things that I think would go very well together. Van Gogh did so many cool things with color and texture and shape that his work is fascinating when you're completely sober. Imagine being surrounded by it when all you want to do is stare at interesting things.

I love Van Gogh. I always feel like kind of a turd saying Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists, if not my very favorite, because it seems like a cop-out—everyone knows Van Gogh, you don't need any knowledge or appreciation of art to claim Van Gogh as your favorite. It's an answer for people who aren't actually that interested in art but have enough culture to like famous pretty things. But it's true. I'm not super well versed in art by any means, but I've taken art history classes, I've been to countless museums, and I have deep attachments to some works of art much more obscure than anything Van Gogh ever painted... but I still love Van Gogh.

And it's a very different love from my love for other famous painters. I love Monet and Sisley and assorted other Impressionists because all of their work is superhumanly beautiful. I love Rubens and Vermeer and assorted other seventeenth century painters because their subjects are interesting and because I could spend hours just looking at the use of light in baroque paintings. I love Leighton and Waterhouse for beautifully painting beloved legendary/mythological figures. I know next to nothing about any of those artists themselves, only their art. With Van Gogh, on the other hand, I know his life story, and I did even before I could recognize much of anything other than "Starry Night." He fascinates me. I guess all tortured artists fascinate me, but I tend to go for writers rather than painters—except for Van Gogh.

And that's why I love the Van Gogh Museum (aside from the mere fact that it's full of Van Gogh paintings): It's all about context. It's a museum that tells a story, which is something I'm not sure I've ever seen from another art museum (as opposed to, say, a history museum). Art exhibits, sure, but never an entire museum. The Van Gogh Museum is the story of Van Gogh's artistic progression, but also of his life, and I thought it was wonderfully designed.

It starts with an exhibit that describes Van Gogh's development as an artist and puts his work in a stylistic context, displaying works by artists who influenced him as well as by his contemporaries and those he influenced.

Upstairs, almost all of the paintings on display are Van Gogh's work, with a few more from his friends and contemporaries scattered throughout. They are grouped in chronological order in rooms arranged according to periods in Van Gogh's life and accompanied by extensive biographical information, both in the introductory text for each room and in the information about particular paintings, especially those of people or of views, as well as the more unique paintings. Each chronological period is also associated with a particular place where Van Gogh was living at the time, making everything even more organized.* So as you make your way around the floor, you see not only the distinct periods and changes in his art, but you are able to place each painting squarely within the framework of his life. Most museums give you a time and place; at this one, you also know why he was there at that time, what his life there was like, and where he'd been before. You've learned about his family, his friendships, his pre-painting life, and his illness--and all the while, you know where things are headed, even if you haven't already glimpsed the photograph of his grave that stands at the very end of the exhibit. You watch his life unfold through the lens of his paintings. Or perhaps you watch his paintings unfold through the lens of his biography. Whether it's Van Gogh's life story told through his art or the story of his art told through that of his life is something of a chicken and egg question. Which one shaped the other is a matter for debate. Either way, the two are inextricably bound up together.

I realize there's a school of thought in the art history world that says that an artist's biography and social/political/historical context don't matter. I think that's crap, and I don't care if you pardon my French or not. Context matters. It always matters. No, I don't think everything a person ever creates is necessarily autobiographical or a statement of their religious or political beliefs or a social commentary about their surroundings. Obviously sometimes a flower is just a flower, let's say, and it's there because it's pretty and for no other reason. But all of those things influence what a person does overall. What they're interested in. How they relate to the world around them. Even if it's subconscious, even if it's not super important for interpretation, it still makes a difference. I write instead of painting, and my poetry is super personal and autobiographical; my fiction is not, at all, but it still reflects things about myself and my relationships and my views on life. People create based on what they know, what they think, and what they feel. How much is open to interpretation--maybe there's a direct connection between all of the darkness and grotesqueness of Caravaggio's paintings and the drunken violence of his own life, and maybe there's not; I don't know. Maybe Virginia Woolf wrote stream of consciousness because her mind was damaged, and maybe it's a coincidence; I don't know that, either. But to completely discount all of the things that make a person who they are, to dismiss them outright and say they have no bearing on that person's art, is ridiculous and narrow. I guess if all you're interested in is technique, then fine, but if you're after the big picture... life matters. Even artists who choose their style and subjects for entirely pragmatic reasons still have reasons, and what makes them practical depends on the time and place and circumstances. Nothing in this world happens in a vacuum.**

On the floor above are temporary exhibits. When I was there, there was one about the influence of Asian art styles on Van Gogh and his contemporaries, and a really fascinating one about conservation work and research on the famous bedroom painting, with lots of before and after photos, photos comparing the different versions of the painting (one is in the Van Gogh museum, of course; another that I've also seen is in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris; I don't know where the third is--NYC, perhaps?), and a full-size reconstruction of the room and its furnishings. It was pretty great. Also, I feel like I've seen a lot of conservation exhibits in various museums over the past couple of years, about everything from paintings to decorative art and furniture to architecture. which is also great. It's good for the public to be aware of those kinds of issues and realize there's a lot more to museum work than just rearranging pictures on the walls, and it's a good way to get the more science-y minded among us interested in the art world.***

The very top floor is a more wide-ranging exhibit of late nineteenth century art, mostly of Van Gogh's friends and contemporaries. Lots of Gauguin and Pissarro.

So that's pretty much it. We were there for probably somewhere between two and three hours altogether, and I could definitely see spending even a little more time there without being bored. I thought I had a lot more to say, and maybe I do and it's just not in words yet. (Or it was in words at the time and now I've waited too long to get them out properly. That's also possible.) And maybe a lot of it isn't really about the museum, but about Van Gogh himself, which doesn't necessarily have a place on a travel blog. Anyway, it was one of the highlights of Amsterdam for me. I bought seven postcards, which I think is a record for any one museum, let alone any one artist at a single museum, and they didn't even have postcards of a couple of my favorite paintings. I haven't figured out what to do with them yet.

Now back to my story, speaking of things being in order. Stay tuned for tales of adventure (and NOT of museums) in Eastern Europe.

* You know, now that I'm thinking about it, it's possible one of the primary reasons I like this museum so much is that it conforms so perfectly to my obsessive-compulsive tendencies: Everything is in order AND broken up into neat categories. Plus, for the most part, there's really only one way to move through the museum, so there's a set path. No chaos anywhere.
** See also my rant about anthropological theories of culture that insist that social and political history are immaterial to understanding the present-day functioning of society.
*** I never really thought of myself as being science-minded OR art-minded until college, but when both of those things changed I was really excited to discover the field of art (and archaeological) conservation. If I'd known earlier in life, I might even have attempted the necessary chemistry coursework to get into conservation myself.

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