I am absolutely giddy with art. One of the best things about living in Europe is the opportunity to see so many beautiful and important paintings, many of which I first saw as slides when I was still in high school.
When you enter a museum, you are not just visiting the art that is displayed there. (Although the art is almost certainly the first thing on your agenda. Mona Lisa – check.) As I’ve just recently begun to understand, you are also embarking on a(n unguided) tour of the architecture of that museum and a fascinating cultural study of how that particular city/art organization values and interacts with art. At the Accademia in Venice, my mom and I did not encounter one museum staff person between the entrance and the exit; this is relaxation past the point of good sense. Florence’s Uffizi which houses my favourite art collection in the world is plagued by long and inefficient lines, heavy security and some rather nasty staff. The last time we visited (and we had reserved tickets in advance), we came away from the arduous task of gaining admission to the museum tired and grumpy… a state of being completely incompatible with the sweet-cheeked cherubs and the lovely Botticelli women waiting within. Two of my favourite European museum experiences have been at the Thyssen in Madrid and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Both museums are large and boast bold and spacious interiors. They are also well-organized and make sense from a visitor’s perspective.
The breed of museum dedicated to the life and work of one single painter is still relatively new to me and a great art treat. I love to watch the painter’s skill and style develop and evolve as I walk through his (so far, it has always been his) body of work, often organized in chronological order. At the Picasso Musuem in Barcelona, which I wrote about here, it was clear, in the first room of the museum, that Pablo Picasso became a technical master at a very young age. He also enjoyed enormous critical and financial success during his lifetime and became a celebrity and seriously rich dude. (My useless trivia for today is Pablo’s birth name. Any guesses? He was named Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruiz y Picasso).
Vincent van Gogh’s journey to art was a different story altogether. He began his working life at an art firm where he was employed for a number of years. A brief stint as a teacher (only the bravest among us continue) was followed by a posting as missionary worker in a poor mining town. van Gogh took Christ’s words quite literally and gave away all of his earthly possessions to the poor; he was fired for being too zealous. He embarked upon a career as a painter at the age of 27 with the emotional and financial support of his brother Theo, an art dealer. Vincent was incredibly prolific, painting 900 paintings during his short ten-year career as an artist but, at the time of his death, only one of his paintings had been sold.
As you approach the ticket lines at the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, you are welcomed by huge images of the Sunflowers (1889) but, as I stood in front of the actual painting, I was unmoved. Perhaps I have seem one too many Sunflowers adorning dorm rooms. For me, the great surprise was The Bedroom, a painting that I thought DP and I had seen at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris several years ago. Had I been mistaken? A little research revealed that van Gogh painted three versions of his bedroom in Arles, France; one is at the d’Orsay and one is in Amsterdam. Somehow, the idea of this terribly unwell man painting the precious details of his simple French bedroom breaks my heart. When the original painting was damaged by a flood he painted two more copies while in an asylum in what was to be the last year of his life.
The van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam offers informative descriptions of Vincent’s life and paintings. I am such a geek that I read very word… it must be incredibly frustrating to be stuck behind the likes of me in a museum. I stopped in front of a painting called Wheatfield painted in 1888. This painting is one in a series including my favourite called Wheatfield, Sunrise. This field was the view from van Gogh’s bedroom window on the top floor of the asylum in San Remy France where he lived and worked from June 1889 to May 1890. He committed himself to the hospital a few months after he cut off the lower part of his left ear lobe. (If you are curious about what he did with it, apparently he gave it to a prostitute named Rachel and asked her to “keep this object carefully.”)
The description of van Gogh’s Wheatfield asked the reader to pay special attention to his use of perspective. In some of his paintings, he created a large foreground, full of action and colour, that would stop abruptly with an almost straight line. The background was almost non-existent. They say that life imitates art… or is it the reverse? In any case, this is the photograph that I found myself taking after I left the Van Gogh Museum:
What is your favourite van Gogh painting? Why do you love it?