What is inevitable in popular museums, I have noticed, is the visitor’s desire to affirm their preconceptions of the art collection, to immerse themselves in gift shops rather than to familiarise themselves with the artist. But, this wasn’t merely a ‘bucket-list’ visit.
Of course I would have liked to see the post-Impressionist 1889 masterpiece, ‘The Starry Light’ (which I later discovered is held at The Museum of Modern Art), but when I was face-to-face with Gogh’s collections, from his innocent early years of stout-hearted perseverance to his late sombre studies, it was impossible not to sympathise with him. Gogh’s paintings were of great sensitivity and suffering. They stood out for his jagged, gestural handling of oil and arbitrary use of colour. It’s hard to believe his now-acclaimed works were once underrated. This is the only fault I can pinpoint, that a man of such talent despaired of seeking recognition.
Although the Dutch artist was a latecomer to the influential art world, finding his calling in the field at the age of twenty-seven, he was intent on bettering his creative abilities. As I was poring through his permanent collection, making personal sketches of ‘Head of A Woman’ (1885), ‘Self-portrait with Grey Felt Hat’ (1887) and the humble ‘Sunflowers’ (1889), I was also taken aback by his letters to his brother and art dealer, Theo van Gogh. Even his letters were sensitive portraits that spoke of personal anxieties, ambition and hardship. Here, I could follow the distressed artist’s life when, in time, he was able to create a new art form, one capable of provoking existential emotions.
He chose dark ashen tones to complement his studies on peasant life. He found dignity and beauty in the common people, eventually coming up with ‘The Potato Eaters’ (1885), a provocative painting that, I believe, was accomplished without mercy, a sombre landscape of manual labour in Nuenen. Seeing the oil figural piece in person was a comfort to me somehow. Gogh didn’t paint a mediated reality for the sake of profit. It was candid, thoughtfully rendered in a dull colour palette.
He sought inspiration from Impressionism, Pointillism and Japonism, painting for comfort during his stay at the asylum. Painting was cathartic, a diversion. Here, he was allowed to capture the wistfulness of decidedly beautiful landscapes and still lifes. He could favour vibrant colours and produce winding gestural strokes across his canvases.
He stayed in the French suburbs, Auvers-sur-Oise, in the last two months leading up to his suicide. I could see in ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ (1890) and ‘Tree Roots’ (1890), Gogh’s Romantic view of nature and influence from Charles-François Daubigny. Although the rural French commune had an evidently fortifying effect on him, there is still a note of loneliness and extreme misery. His late works heralded a change in his style. His paintings were more striking, playful in texture and lighter in tone.
As I was exploring the modern Rietveld building, I was comforted by the works dedicated to Gogh’s inspired contemporaries. The animated emotion and energy of Van Gogh echo in the temporarily displayed works of Zeng Fanzhi. The contemporary artist united his own expressionistic techniques that recall Chinese calligraphy with Gogh’s palette of rich colour to create paintings like ‘Van Gogh III’ (2017). A cloud of interwoven lines altered and submerged Fanzhi’s impression of Gogh’s face, beautifully communicating Gogh’s beautifully humble artistic vision.
Over a century prior to his death, the tortured artist with self-destructive talent, the man who sold a single painting in his lifetime, still inspires.
Zeng Fanzhi | Van Gogh Exhibition
From 20 October 2017
Until 5 March 2018
- Cover Image, Self-Portrait as a Painter, courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum