Encountering Van Gogh in Amsterdam

On my recent trip to Amsterdam on a Globus Monograms independent travel program, I had three things on my list that I really wanted to experience: the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank Museum. Those were the touchpoints on my mental map of my itinerary. And then, beyond the must-see list is the real meat of the experience – Amsterdam itself, just walking around the city, seeing the canals, the streets, the shops, cafes and the houseboats. I wrote previously of going to the Anne Frankhaus (see http://tiny.cc/GJ81K), an experience I still haven’t gotten over, and could go on writing about at length. But there was much more of Amsterdam that left deep impressions on me.

Fortunately, seeing the Rijksmuseum was made easy by the fact that a tour of the museum was the last stop of a half-day tour of Amsterdam that was included in the Monograms package. Our guide was Suzanne Sevenstern, one of Globus’ Amsterdam guides. Because the museum is currently under renovation, only a small part is opened to the public and is housing an abbreviated collection. But it is still 400 pieces, far more than you could sort through in a single visit. So having a qualified person to show you around is of inestimable value.

Our guide was a buoyant and gregarious woman in her 20s with a degree in art history. She took us on a strategically designed jaunt through the museum, picking out paintings that represented particular high points in the history of painting, and giving us a short, penetrating analysis of each piece, then moving on, giving us a little time to look around one area before moving on to the next. She discussed techniques the painters used to achieve their effects, the social and economic conditions that gave rise to the paintings and the personalities and dramas of the artists.

The paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt were especially spellbinding. You can’t look at them without being transported in some way. The presentation was entertaining and full of fascinating details, well organized and executed very efficiently so we were in and out of the museum in an hour. It was a fine introduction, after which, the city tour was over, and you were free to linger around the museum a few more hours, if you wanted, or come back at another time. I wanted to stay and look around on my own, but I was hungry, so I accepted an invitation to eat at a Dutch pancake restaurant. I fully intended to return to the museum. I didn’t get around to it, but I did feel that through Suzanne I had gotten a good, comprehensive view of the museum. The rest will have to wait for the next visit.

And then there was the Van Gogh Museum. It was something I just could not miss under any circumstances. It was at the top of my must-see list and indeed, it was a mind blower. Seeing so many original Van Gogh paintings and drawings up close was astonishing. Sure, you’ve seen these images on posters, coffee table books, ads, even ash trays. Since Van Gogh’s time technologies of photography and lithography have made it possible to create excellent reproductions of works of art that can be mass produced and disseminated around the world. Today you can go on the Web and bring up the image of any famous painting in a matter of seconds. Van Gogh had to leave his small village to travel to the Hague, to Paris and London to see great works of art. If he lived today, he could access it on the Web. Today we can all see images of the great art of world history from the comfort of our own homes.

But when you are looking at the real thing, and you know that it is not a reproduction, not a printed product made from a photograph, but the actual piece of canvas that Van Gogh rendered into an immortal work of art – it does a number on your head. Just as a photograph of Machu Picchu or the New York Skyline cannot possibly convey the full experience of seeing it in person, there are dimensions in paintings that can be seen only in the presence of the real thing, things that elude the camera. There are layers of translucence, changes when you view it from a slightly different angle. There is texture in the paint and canvas that can be sensed in person but is lost in a reproduction. Standing before an immortal painting is one of those experiences that one must have directly. It can never be conveyed. The Web, books and magazines can bring us images, they can enhance our appreciation and our understanding. But there is nothing like the real thing.

The museum houses many of his most famous and delightful paintings, more than 200 of the 840 paintings and many of the 1,000 drawings he left from his 10-year painting career from 1880 to 1890. Included was the serene Langlois Bridge; The Courtesan, an image based on Japanese prints, which influenced his use of color and of perspective; The Yellow House, where he lived in Arles, and The Bedroom in the house; and the familiar Sunflowers. For anyone who appreciates Van Gogh’s paintings, the experience is an excellent building block in your understanding of him.

The most memorable moment for me was standing in front of the Self Portrait with Felt Hat painted in the winter of 1887-88. It’s one in which he was experimenting with pointillist techniques and the face is densely pixilated with colored dots with red dots swirling around his face like an aura. Standing a couple of feet from the painting you see much more in the glowing layers of paint than you ever see in a reproduction. As I stood gazing at it from arms length, I realized that I was seeing it from about the same distance he would have seen it as he painted it, looking into a mirror and seeing his own reflection staring back at him. It was a strange sensation.

To see people standing enrapt before his pictures, adoration hanging palpably in the room made me wonder: what if he could know how much his work would be loved long after his death? Could he have ever suspected it, he who could not sell a painting during his lifetime, who could not even earn enough to justify his own existence? Certainly he must not have believed it when he pulled the trigger and shot himself in the chest in July 1890. But one may hope that somehow, at some point he got a glimpse of it.

-- David Cogswell

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