Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Starry Night at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum

During the evening an artistic air wafts over Amsterdam’s museum-studded park Museumplein. The magnificent Rijksmuseum, recently restored and renovated, is warehouse of historic masterpieces, and the exterior’s sweeping grandeur, spotlighted from the surrounding gardens, is a work of art in itself. Tourists and locals play and pose amongst the oversized, recognizable, “I amsterdam” letters, which take on ethereal form from nighttime mood lighting. The entire scene shimmers and distorts in an elongated reflecting pool. And at the far corner of the park, past the gardens, café and outdoor art exhibits, the Van Gogh museum inhales the artistic air and transports visitors to the world of a virtuoso.
Vincent Van Gogh had the rare ability to capture viewers with his paintings; leaving them somewhere between genius and madness, flush with vivid colors, distinctive techniques and deep emotion. Fittingly, his museum works from that same palette.

The Van Gogh Museum weaves the artist’s trademark individuality and layered emotions into its exhibition space. And like many of Van Gogh’s paintings, a quick glance does not do the museum justice. Luckily, the museum offers late hours until 10:00pm on Friday nights, complete with cocktails, moody music and interactive activities. The result, much like a Van Gogh painting, is a multidimensional and somewhat hazy experience that reveals the deeper stories behind the artist and his works.

The building itself is not filled to the brim, as you might expect from a museum dedicated to one person, and some famous pieces like The Starry Night are not located here. Regardless, the museum houses the world’s largest collection of Van Gogh works, including well-known masterpieces such as the vibrant Sunflowers and The Bedroom, and the colorful but mournful Wheatfield with Crows, one of his last paintings.

Large portions of the works are grouped chronologically, while other sections focus on comparing pieces and highlighting specific aspects of his work. The collection ranges from early works to his final masterpieces, and also displays sketches and writings. Taken all at once, the collection demonstrates his artistic evolution and personal devolution.

The Potato Eaters from 1885, for example, is a dark, intricately detailed scene where Van Gogh plays with light and shadow. But by 1889, Undergrowth portrays Van Gogh’s trademark heavy brush strokes and use of color; varying shades of green, yellow and blue are pulled from the underbrush up the twisting trees, adding a fluid, wave-like motion to a dense forest landscape.

The contrast of Van Gogh’s own works is, in many instances, stark and shocking – bright colors versus stormy landscapes, detailed sketches versus harsh brush strokes. The range of paintings shows the range of Van Gogh’s skill, as well as his cutting-edge use of novel techniques, and how his own emotions so vividly play out in color on a canvas stage.

The Van Gogh Museum tells the story of the artist’s tormented history through his artwork, and also pays special attention to his influences. As a complement, they include paintings by contemporaries and friends of Van Gogh, and in some cases written correspondences. In many instances, works from friends like Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin are placed in sequence next to Van Gogh’s own interpretations. The same is done with the international cultures that influenced him, from France to Japan. The result on many walls is a seamless transition that explains, without words, a surprising array of inspirations.

Van Gogh’s Almond Blossom, for example, painted in 1890 as a gift for his newborn nephew, displays very clear Japanese influences, with delicate, wispy branches set against a vivid color scheme.

As an artist Van Gogh evolved, and true to form, his museum also has not been content to remain static in its aesthetics. The main building opened in 1973 but renovations updated and modernized the structure with a new exhibition wing in the late 1990s. Mobile apps, classes and special events were developed for a more inclusive experience. A new glass entrance building is slated to open in the summer of 2015.

So while his painting by the same name is brilliant and beautiful, spending an actual starry night in Amsterdam is a much more fitting way to experience Vincent Van Gogh.

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