Ironic, perhaps, that Vincent van Gogh spurned fame in 1882, reflecting that: “I’ve never felt a desire (and I don’t believe I ever shall) to bring the public to my work […] a certain popularity seems to me the least desirable of things.” His contemporary popularity is indeed certain, with his most famous works appearing in endless reproductions, from school children’s easels to fridge magnets and aprons vended in tourist-saturated streets.
This ubiquity of Van Gogh was brought home for me when staying in Hostel Van Gogh in Amsterdam with friends at the end of December. Here the walls are made up of enormous prints of the old favourites – sunflowers and his face in melancholy self-portrait. Whilst I’ve always liked Van Gogh, this over-exposure has made him liable to seem somewhat surreal and meme-like to me, a sunflower fridge magnet clinging to the sub-conscious, as it were. (In fact, the last time I’d come across Van Gogh directly prior to the trip had been in a meme captioned “Van Gohtye”, his missing ear lamenting: “You didn’t have to cut me off!” Very amusing. Love the pun.)
The museum seemed like it would be another tick-box gallery of famous paintings – mostly I was fearing the bathos of confronting something I’d seen a thousand times before transferred to a slightly small canvas. But perhaps my whirlwind trip to the Louvre was too much in my memory. In fact, the museum is incredibly refreshing. Firstly, it is a museum and not an art gallery, which made it particularly interesting. I don’t dislike art galleries, but with an artist as well-known as Van Gogh, the museum aims for visitors to get to know the artist rather than affirm their preconceptions of the art.
This idea is imbued in the new exhibition When I Give, I Give Myself, in which modern artists were asked to respond to Van Gogh’s musings on art and life expressed forcibly in his letters. There are contemporary responses which emphasise his use of broad brush strokes, and bold colours which create startling contrasts – these seem almost like a continuation of his career. The open call winner, ‘Being Unpolished’ by Gwen van den Bout, is strikingly different. Uncompromisingly modern, it features an unpolished gem embedded in a fractured wall – it doesn’t look like a Van Gogh at all. It expresses his sentiment of discovering the unpolished gem within reality, seen in his early paintings of rural life such as ‘The Potato Eaters’. Van Gogh’s insistence on a pre-existing external stimulus rather than a flawless unreal scene is also reflected in ‘Being Unpolished’.
This exhibition’s title is furthermore exemplary of what the museum conveys of Van Gogh – that he reveals himself through his work. Particularly memorable is the emphasis on letters to his brother Theo, containing thousands of eloquent expressions of his aspirations and emotions in pursuing his artistic career, amazingly started relatively late in life. The Van Gogh revealed in these is entirely passionate and dedicated; in fact, in his happier moments he often comes across rather like the product of a self-help guide advocating practice and perseverance for success. Van Gogh’s use of colour becomes particularly personal in the letter that discusses his frustrating struggle to capture the dazzling brightness of a yellow house and the particular blue sky in ‘The Yellow House’: “The theme is a hard one! But that is exactly why I want to conquer it. Because it is fantastic, these yellow houses in the sun and also the incomparable freshness of the blue.” He is obsessed with colour as an expression of emotion, justifying that the particular beauty of the scene is in its colour.
Whilst the museum does lay this on rather thick, with headsets so you can “listen to Vincent” (his letters read by an actor), the selection and presentation of this material is seamless – I don’t think I’ve ever left an exhibition feeling I had learnt more about an artist. From the paintings of Dutch artists who influenced him, progressing through his later impressionist influence in Paris and beyond, the development of his style which initially seems unique and natural is presented as a complex personal and artistic evolution. The well-known pieces are reinvigorated by his intimate expressions alongside his desire to combine reality with fervent expression of feeling. Appropriately for Amsterdam perhaps, this adds an almost hallucinogenic quality in viewing – we are aware simultaneously experiencing life as it was and as it felt.
Definitely worth the admission fee, then, if you’re heading on the Varsity trip this Easter, and if you still want Van Gogh fridge magnets there is a wide selection alongside the printed dog jackets in the gift shop.