Culture Editor Leah Renz visits the permanent collection at the Van Gogh Museum, the world’s largest collection of this famous Dutch artist
With less than two weeks until the end of my exchange year in Amsterdam, I finally visited the permanent collection of Van Gogh’s work at the Van Gogh Museum. This museum houses the largest collection of the artist’s work, and is the most-visited museum in the Netherlands! The collection spans four floors and covers Van Gogh’s decade of painting from 1880-1890.
One begins with Van Gogh’s self-portraits, displayed in a large alcove alongside a glass case containing his actual easel and paints. Some of his self-portraits, like much of the work for which he is now famous, contain unexpected flicks of colour. In one, coral pink dashes of paint lend his face a sunset glow, whilst in another, strokes of pale blue highlight the bags under his eyes, rendering fatigue aesthetic. Long strokes of paint in the backdrop and on his overalls give the impression of movement as if his body itself melts into the whirling backdrop. Some portraits however are in darker earth tones, more usually associated with Rembrandt than Van Gogh, although much of his earlier work used this earthier colour palette.
Moving up onto the next floor, I encounter one of Van Gogh’s first oil paintings: a landscape capturing a “nasty little storm”, as well as a strange horizontal portrait of a flying fox. Seeing Van Gogh’s earlier work allows the viewer to better see the change he underwent as an artist, particularly during and after his move to Paris. During his time in Montmartre, the artist’s district in the north of Paris, Van Gogh befriended and was inspired by many of his contemporaries such as Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin and Camille Pissarro.
I loved seeing some of these artists’ work beside Van Gogh’s masterpieces; it was fascinating to see the impact of these encounters, such as Monet and Émile Bernard’s use of colour or Pissarro’s pointillism. I, like Van Gogh all those years ago, was also impressed by Edgar Degas. One artwork on display was a nude of a woman bathing, done entirely with pastel on paper. The thatching technique enabled multiple colourful yet subtle undertones, and I loved the use of smudging to create shadows for the contours of the woman’s body.
I am not usually a fan of still life, but Van Gogh’s ‘Cafe Table with Absinthe’ is an exception. The brush strokes feel lively and manage to lend a whirling movement to the static bottle and tabletop. Colour, again, is used to magnificent effect; I particularly like the complimentary purple highlights on the glass of pale green absinthe, as well as the colours light reflections on the white table.
I also enjoyed his ‘Red Cabbages and Onions’; it is a study in colour contrasts with the purple cabbages offset deliciously against the yellow onions. This same colour combination appears in Van Gogh’s famous painting of irises. Over time the work has become discoloured such that the original purple Irises are now blue, but they still create a vibrant contrast against the yellow-gold background somewhat reminiscent of the gold leaf backdrops of medieval artworks.
Another interesting physical exhibit was a red lacquered box of wool. This initially baffled me, but then a sign explained that Van Gogh used the cheap coloured wool to experiment with colour combinations without wasting money on paint. I love seeing objects like this because they convey some of the character of Van Gogh, and his creative practices.
Finally, a smaller section of the gallery is dedicated to a group called the ‘Reframers’. Members of the Reframers, all from different cultural backgrounds, come together to write little vignettes for some of the paintings in the collection. It was a beautiful and personal way to experience the artwork ‘beside’ someone else, as if they were chatting to you during the gallery visit.
So, whether you visit alone or with a friend, I would highly recommend Van Gogh’s Museum. Vincent Van Gogh, with his colourful landscapes and expressive self-portraits, is an accessible artist whom art enthusiasts and un-enthusiasts alike will enjoy exploring!
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