Vincent van Gogh: A fascinating story

It was a rather sunny afternoon in Amsterdam yet a fresh breeze was blowing through the streets making it quite chilly at times. Today I finally made it to the van Gogh museum. The museum itself, right on Museumsplein, looks pretty modern and is an inviting gate into one of the best museums I have ever visited. Read on to join me for a tour through Vincent’s life story. Certainly not much more than my personal impressions, but truely fascinating. 

Brief timeline of events

1853: Vincent was born in Zundert (between Rotterdam & Antwerp) on the 30th March | 1869/76: Den Haag, London & Paris working for art dealer Goupil |1878/80: Borinage (Belgium) VcG works as lay preacher (e.g. not formally a cleric, his father was pastor) amongst miners. After hard time he decides to become full-time artist | 1881:  Etten (NL) where he mainly draws | 1881 Den Haag taking lessons from Anton Mauve (Dutch realist painter, leading member of The Hague school) | 1883/85: Nuenen (NL) moving temporarily back with parents. Peasant & countryside focus| 1885 Antwerp studying briefly at the art academy to improve his style (continued later in studio of F. Cormon, Paris) |1886/88 Paris living with brother Theo (successful art dealer). Acquaintance with (neo) Impressionists Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec (sample), Emile Bernard (sample), Paul Gaugin (sample); they worked together displaying art at Montmartre cafes | 1888 Arles where he briefly lives with Gaugin and cuts his ear | 1889 Self-admittal to mental asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence|1889 Auvers-sur-Oise (FR) producing one painting per day until his suicide 29 July.

I was nothing short of impressed about the museum and van Gogh’s story. I think the museum & gallery experience was so good because its more than a bunch of pictures. It’s a journey through a tragic yet fascinating life underpinned by hundreds of personal letters providing deep insights into him and the his relationships, dreams, feelings and desires (I listened to this while walking about). The output he created art-wise comes on top. I guess I also like his focus on and appreciation for simple people (peasants) as well as nature – both traits I share & cherish.

“And I think it by no means unlikely that I’ll stay here for the rest of my life, too. After all, I desire nothing other than to live deep in the country and to paint peasant life. I feel that I can create a place for myself here, and so I’ll quietly keep my hand to my plough and cut my furrow. I believe that you thought differently about it, and that you would perhaps rather see me take another course as regards where I live. But I sometimes think that you have more idea of what people can do in the city, yet on the other hand I feel more at home in the country.
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The Potato Eaters

The Japanese influence

Japanese art was an enormously important influence for van Gogh and in fact the entire Paris artist scene. Thankfully, at the time of my visit to the museum there was a temporary exhibition on focussing on just that. Both Paris and van Gogh fell for japanese art when trade started – around the time of Japan in general opening up to the world. That was around 1853, when US vessels (dominant in technology) basically forced Japan to open ports to trade. The Japanese, however, also had a self-interest in ‘complying & adjusting’ fearing to end up dominated like China – see Golden Triangle: How opium shaped world history). 

Van Gogh bought 600 Japanese prints and carried them around as inspiration and, in the case of three of them, used them directly as a basis for his paintings. So what was so inspiring? Well, he loved the vivid colours and simple approach to perspective (division of picture plane into line & colour areas). Have a look at prints like from the likes of Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai for a sample.

“After some time your vision changes, you see more with a japanese eye, you feel colour differently.” – Theo van Gogh (1888)

The Paris influence

More or less ordered by his brother to join him in Paris and a little tired of country life, Vincent moved to Paris in 1886. It is important to understand the close bond Vincent and his brother Theo had. He also funded Vincent’s lifestyle – in exchange for a monthly allowance over 10y, Theo (the Paris art dealer) became the owner of the paintings and drawings that Vincent sent him. His brother’s wife made them eventually famous.

Apart from the general excitement about Japanese art, it was here that he got immersed in the impressionist style of the Paris art scene. The style was pretty revolutionary at the time depicting scenes of everyday life, trying to capture the emotions of the motive with every stroke of the brush. The everyday theme suited van Gogh’s own style just perfect I would say. 

Further to the impressionist style, van Gogh learned a great deal about colour schemes in Paris as laid out by Charles Blanc. Complimentary colours (shown on opposite sides in the scheme below) optically intensify each other – something van Gogh took a great inspiration from.

colour scheme

A few numbers about van Gogh’s work

  • PAINTED 900c paintings (c200 in vG museum)
  • DREW 1,100+ drawings (about half of which in vG museum on rotating display)
  • WROTE 820 (known) letters (most of which are held by the van Gogh museum)
  • SOLD just one painting in his lifetime (Red Vineyard at Arles, Pushkin Museum Moscow)
  • VALUE of all his paintings is a tough one. Given double-digit USD values for even less well-known paintings and give there are 900 of them I would estimate the total value of his work north of USD20bn (USD22m each)

Arles: Severed ear & wheat fields

Vincent gained his early influences in Nuenen where he found his ‘true calling’ only at 27 (he died at 37). There he spent a lot of time in the countryside amidst, as he phrased it, the honest and humble life of basically peasants. It was here where he painted one of his most famous paintings – “The potato eaters” (1885) – putting all of the above on canvas. 

“If a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam — fine — that’s not unhealthy — if a stable smells of manure — very well, that’s what a stable’s for — if the field has an odour of ripe wheat or potatoes or — of guano and manure — that’s really healthy — particularly for city folk

Letter to brother Theo, Nuenen, Thursday 30 April 1885

He ended moving to southern France in 1888 (with two years of his life to spare) to get some sun, recover and in search of colours being exhausted after 2y in Paris. It was one of his most productive periods. His intention was further to establish an artist community akin to the Paris one in Arles. This was yet again inspired by the Japanese, who in his view worked in harmony like monks. Sadly, the idea didn’t work out even though Gaugin made it to Arles for a brief visit at the end of which Gaugin headed back to Paris and Vincent had cut off his ear – a mysterious story to date.

As the story goes, he cut the ear (documented by detailed doctor records) with a razor and headed it to what was long presumed to be a prostitute (a metier well-known to Vincent). Most recent research actually suggests she was just a cleaning lady and they might have met in Paris prior to his journey to Arles (or some day … she was ultimately the reason for his relocation).

What he certainly did discover in Arles were the wide plains of the provincial countryside and his beloved wheat fields. I copy here from wikipedia: “The close association of peasants and the cycles of nature particularly interested Van Gogh, such as the sowing of seeds, harvest and sheaves of wheat in the fields. Van Gogh saw plowing, sowing and harvesting symbolic to man’s efforts to overwhelm the cycles of nature: “the sower and the wheat sheaf stood for eternity, and the reaper and his scythe for irrevocable death.”  […]  In 1889 Van Gogh wrote of the way in which wheat was symbolic to him: “What can a person do when he thinks of all the things he cannot understand, but look at the fields of wheat… We, who live by bread, are we not ourselves very much like wheat… to be reaped when we are ripe.”

“I’m wholly absorbed in the vast experience of wheat fields, large as a sea”

– Vincent van Gogh

Insanity & maximum output

Plagued by depression, van Gogh ended up admitting himself to a mental asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence. He painted a lot through the window but was also let outside. After a year or so he moved on to Auvers-sur-Oise – just north of Paris. He now stayed with a doctor who was also a keen art fan. Vincent went into overdrive and painted (literally) one painting per day (so roughly 60 in total). 

Sadly, he felt he couldn’t carry his burden any longer and committed suicide in July 1889 – through a shot into his chest in a nearby wheat field. Research shows that his (very supporting) brother’s marriage might have catalysed his decision (as he felt that his attention would now have to shift to family matters making him feel like ballast).

His funeral was themed yellow colours on his coffin and several of his paintings in presence. Some of his artist friends such as Emile Bernard attended, as did his brother who spent his last moments on his side (the shot didn’t kill him instantly). Official church service was denied due to the suicidal nature of his death. 

“A great and desperate genius”

– Albert Aurier 

As tragedy has it, his (younger) brother died six month later. Theo had a son by then. His name is Vincent WillemHe was the driving force behind the van Gogh foundation and this museum where the collection found a permanent home in 1973.

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Waterland Canoe Tour: Wonderfully Dutch

Another nice day today in Amsterdam and what could be better than exploring the wetlands North of Amsterdam called Waterland by canoe. The broader area was similar to my bike trip to Monnikendam last week (see here), but gives yet another perspective from the canals. It was fun, super beautiful and entertaining … and a good test for my Elbe canoe trip in summer.

Our tour took me, the lovely guide Majel (http://www.wetlandssafari.nland a couple from Stuttgart around the village of Watergang. In total 6,4km at a leisurely c4-5km/h excluding our picnic lunch half way. Given their was zero current (also not much wind), this means I can expect to do 7-10km/h on the Elbe this summer. Great news.

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Waterland is just North of Amsterdam

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6,4km canoe tour

We encountered loads of wobbly ground (see video) that goes a long way to explain why houses in the village are constructed lightweight & in Amsterdam are built on trees (first clay level is 30m down), meat-eating plants, loads of birds (especially the Godwit bird who calls this place home for parts of the year), saw plants whose white core was used for oil lamps in the olden days, polder windmills that help manage the drainage of the fields and loads more insights provided by Majel. Really interesting amidst really Dutch countryside away from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam.

But now, enjoy the pictures. It was really a trip worthwhile.

By bike to Monnickendam: On tour with Martin

Monnickendam bike trip: With Martin on tour

Not long ago I received an email from Martin. He is Dutch and originally from Rotterdam, but has lived in Amsterdam since 2002 (the same year I moved to London). Ever since Lhoste, he follows my blog and used the opportunity, now that I am in Amsterdam, to get in touch. We spent a fun day cycling (fietstocht in dutch) in the pretty landscape and villages north of Amsterdam all the way to Monnickendam. Thanks for a great day!

Our route – 49km through the countryside north of Amsterdam: Martin picked a route that he knows well leading us from the NSDM ship yard to Monnickendam and back on the dike along the Markermeer and back to Amsterdam. I had never been on the northern side of Amsterdam. The city operates free ferries over the Ij river from where you get a different angle on the city. There are also quite some off the beaten track sights as the former shipyard was transformed into a vibrant space.

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  • Faralda Crane Hotel: Ever felt like you need to sleep in an old crane some 20-30m above ground? Well, there you go. If you feel like, you can even do a bungee jump.
  • De Ceuvel: De Ceuvel is a sustainably planned workplace for creative and social enterprises attracting entrepreneurs and artists alike (many having been involved in the project). It opened in 2014 after the former shipyard ceased operations in 2000. Built on heavily polluted land, it is now not only a cool place to get together, but is also host for phyto-remediating plants that clean the soil.

When cycling on this side of the city, you also see loads of the traditional wooden houses (nowadays in high demand with EUR1m a piece price tags) and you will see far less tourists than in the center … even though the area has now made into guidebooks.

From there we continued to a large lock and then straight into the nature where you leave the municipality of Amsterdam into the Waterland municipality (how fitting!). When you ride past the fields, you will notice that they are all individually drained to manage water levels, usually with a small canal around the field. Dropping ground levels resulting from overbuilding are a challenge though. We passed many cute villages before our lunch break in Monnickendam, but my personal highlight was our stop at a dairy farm that operates a fresh milk machine (90c / liter).

Monnickendam is a small town with 10k inhabitants that used to be an important port city with a weigh house for trading purposes. Nowadays it has a very laid back atmosphere and is also home to artists. Martin told me a bit more about his life over the sandwiches he had prepared for us and I could share a little more about mine.

Well rested we began our journey back following the dike and facing a decent amount of headwind. Makes you work as if you cycle uphill even though the route is completely flat (we had less than 100m total ascent over the entire 49km). Back in the city, we first stopped for another meal at a bistro for friet zuurvlees. It’s basically fries with beef stew. Now I can quote this and bitterballen as my insights into the Dutch cuisine! Tasty as well. Lunch was a moment to also speak some Dutch with Martin (we mostly conversed in German during our trip).

To flush it all down, Martin took me to one of his favorite cafe’s (Distilleerderij ‘t Nieuwe Diep) on this fine day and really turned out to be an oasis. Located on the shores of a lake in the middle of a park. Their specialty is all sorts of Jenevers & gins in a charming atmosphere and with a good amount of humor from the owner. Stand prepared to take the first sip of your gin right at the counter – he fills them to the absolute maximum.

We said good-bye near Amsterdam centraal and headed to the center to meet Johan – a former sellside competitor now at UBS under my old Morgan Stanley research management … and of course we ended up having a few more drinks while Roma played Liverpool. Great day. Dankjewel Martin (especially for all the insights … could only feature a fraction of your extensive knowledge here).

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looks a bit gay … but is purely accidental ;o)

Anne Frank house: Sad reminder of WW2

Anne Frank is the one sight you should pre-book for an Amsterdam visit, as during refurbishment they sell tickets only online (EUR10, not eligible for Museum card) and allocate 15min entry time slots to visitors. The place is booked up a month in advance (3rd most visited museum after Rijksmuseum & Van Gogh museum in Holland in a comparably small house), but it is worth the wait? 

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

– Anne Frank

Being jewish, Anne Frank, her mum / dad / sister and four friends used the house (her fathers offices) on Prinsengracht to hide 25 month from persecution by the Nazi’s. Throughout the period, Amsterdamers supported the effort providing food etc. Sadly, the Frank’s were betrayed and discovered shortly before the end of the war. All were subsequently put on some of the last trains to concentration camps, where Anne Frank died. Only one of them, Otto Frank, survived. 

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A’dams jewish population shown in dots

Specifically they hid in a secret annex, whose existence was concealed on all four sides and that was entered through a hidden door behind bookshelves. The hiding place measured 46sqm and had relevant facilities though things like water use was restricted when other people where in the building and tiptoeing around as well as whispering became a life saving necessity. 

Anne Frank grew famous because of these circumstances and the diary she wrote while in hiding that was’t taken by the Nazi’s. This diary was published in 1947 in Dutch (“Het Achterhuis’ = the annex) and later translated into English under the title “The diary of a young girl”. 

diary

I guess the combination of circumstances, the emotional diary (and fame of its publication) and the jewish/Nazi theme make the place attractive to many visitors that want to see the location first hand. I think its a bit overrated and rather recommend reading the diary itself. 

Let’s go to the museum: Banksy & Lichtenstein

Let’s go to the museum: Banksy & Lichtenstein

The weather was pretty poor again today. Rain is just a permanent feature here in Amsterdam. So both myself and my lunch meeting Alexandra were well showered when we met before my museum tour. But heh, why not hit a museum in this weather? Since i failed again to just walk into the Rijks & Van Gogh museum due to so many others thinking likewise, I opted for the private museum MOCO (well, more an art gallery) displaying Banksy as well as a special Lichtenstein display. The ticket isn’t included in the museums pass, but you get a discount (from EUR12,50/adult to EUR10). So let’s look at some of the works …

Banksy: My kind of artist

The street artist Banksy is well-known by now, mainly for his outdoor work. He did, however, also do indoor art that is mainly on display here in Amsterdam. Originally from Bristol (UK) in the 90’s, he is by now a well (un)known street artist famous for his graffiti’s and to an extent political activism. His true identity remains somehwat mysterious though there are some clues (link). Most of his famous works rely on the stencilling technique, which Banksy claims to have invented while hiding from police. It appears logic though that a technique as fast as this makes sense for a ‘hunted’ street artist. A full run-down of his biography and art work you find here. I love his art, his message and have a few specimen decorasting my kitchen wall. All copies of course ;o)

Link to Banksy street art locations in  London

“Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss.” 

–  Banksy, Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall

“A lot of people never use their initiative because no-one told them to.” 
― Banksy, Wall and Piece

 

Lichtenstein: Well, if you like pop art …

Lichtenstein was a modern artist from the New York (1923-1997) most well known for his comic book style and heavily featured in advertising to date. Full biography here. I am personally not a huge fan though I appreciate the clarity of his work to overly abstract modern art. In any case, nice to some of the art having last seen it I believe in Tate Modern, London, where I spent a lot of my ealry month in London (summer 2002), as I lived in an appartment just on the other side of the Thames across Millenium bridge.

Pop Art looks out into the world. It doesn’t look like a painting of something, it looks like the thing itself.
– Roy Lichtenstein

 

Moco museum

Moco stands for modern contemporary museum. Located in Villa Alsberg on Mueseumsplein, it was designed in 1904 by Pierre Cuypers. He also designed the centraal station and the Rijksmuseum. The private museum is currently backed by Lionel and Kim Logchies using their international network to bring art to people.