June 16, 2013

Amsterdam Diary: "Van Gogh at Work" rebukes myth of solitary impulsive genius with the story of a disciplined artist influenced by his peers

Crowd at Van Gogh's Potato Eaters Sunday afternoon
AMSTERDAM, Sunday - This weekend the Van Gogh Museum attracted the same high-density crowd through its doors as the nearby Rijksmuseum. After a nine-month closure, the museum re-opened with "Van Gogh at Work", an educational exhibit focusing on Vincent Van Gogh's disciplined training to be a painter, independently studying drawing and color. It's a theme once confined to the subterranean level of the VGM in the exhibit on Vincent's drawings, but is now extended throughout four levels of gallery space.

Early paintings at the Van Gogh Museum differ in style (darker in color and theme) from those works in museums ( in California or Paris lighter more popular works later sold in the secondary market), serving as a reminder that Vincent sold only one painting and traded a few others; his family donated a huge collection which makes up the majority of the Van Gogh Museum's collection.

"Van Gogh at Work" puts the evolving styles of the artist into context as Vincent learned how to use materials and developed his style, evolving from an academic painter to a modern artist beginning at the age of 27:
In the 19th century, artists normally learned their trade by taking lessons at an academy or in a well-known artist's studio. They were taught by the traditional method, drawing from plaster copies of ancient sculptures and from nude models. Van Gogh, too, took lessons of this kind, although never for very long: no more than eight months in total. In 1880 he studied at the academy in Brussels and in 1881 in Anton Mauve's studio in the Hague; in 1885 at the academy in Antwerp, and in 1886 in the atelier of the painter Fernand Carmon in Paris. In the end, Van Gogh learned his craft mainly by spending countless hours at home copying drawings and paintings. He chose subjects of all kinds, from plaster models of the kind used at the art academy to a worn-out pair of shoes.
The exhibit includes paintings of a 'worn-out pair of shoes', black chalk drawings of a seated girl and another of a seated male nude, and his pencil drawing of a standing nude woman.

As a struggling artist, Vincent returned to live with his parents and worked in a shed behind the parsonage.
Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863),
Apollo Slays Python, is a preliminary
study for his painting ceiling at the Louvre.
In Nuenen, Van Gogh read books about colour theory. He learned about complementary colours (red and green, yellow and purple, blue and organge), which contrast and thereby heighten each other's effect. Yet this did not lead him to use brighter colours right away. Instead, he mixed complementary colours into his dark earth tones. It was only later, in Paris, that he saw paintings with powerful colour effects and gradually began to appreciate the potential of colour. Eugène Delacroix became his chief model. Other major influences included Neo-Impressionists such as Seurat and Signac. They used dots and short brushstrokes to set up contrasts between complementary colours, creating bright, colourful paintings. Van Gogh incorporated these diverse influences into his own personal style. This opened the way to the expressive works for which his is well known, in which colour plays the leading role.
In addition to the famous two-month living arrangement with Paul Gauguin in Arles (for which occasion he painted the series of sunflower pictures), Vincent had other relationships with painters, including Emile Bernard (1868-1941). Vincent asked Gauguin and Bernard for their self-portraits in a trade, and those paintings are on display (with each of them showing the other in the background).

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Les Misérables
 (Self-portrait with portrait of Bernard)

Repeatedly in the exhibit, conservators site examples of paint analysis, such as the 'grains of sand and bits of grass and leaves' 'discovered in the paint layers of some of his works' that indicate the artist worked outside on some canvases (Van Gogh at Work Highlights, page 6). Research showed that Vincent re-used materials -- x-ray photographs and pigment analysis showed that the artist painted over pictures to save money on purchasing new canvases (as it was he often felt guilty for purchasing supplies on the limited funds his brother Theo sent him, according to Vincent's letters).

Metal Detectors at the VGM

The Van Gogh Museum uses metal detectors to screen visitors (the Rijksmuseum does not); all restrooms are located in the basement of the four-story building (the Rijksmuseums places toilettes in pairs on each floor); and the cafeteria and large seating area accommodates crowds quickly (lunch at the cafe at the Rijksmuseum can take an hour). But both museums give the option for female security guards to wear scarves instead of ties (just saying).

Discussion of security can be summed up by a comment from another security museum official:
As you may know, we never speak about our security in public. But in general, I can tell you that one of the main challenges for every museum is to create the optimum balance between protecting the collection and offering the best hospitality for all visitors.
And with free Wi-Fi, the Van Gogh Museum also encourages visitors to promote the institute through social media.

The exhibit ended with 'probably' the last known painting by Vincent Van Gogh, Tree Roots, 1890: "He did not complete it: the top is almost finished, but the lower half had not yet been worked out in detail."

Vincent Van Gogh, Tree Roots, 1890
The exhibit is a result of the research project 'Van Gogh's Studio Practice', initiated in 2005 by the Van Gogh Museum, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and Shell Netherlands. A symposium on the subject is scheduled for June 24-26, 2013.


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