Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Starry Night at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum

By Michael Hartigan
Article ran in Wicked Local papers in March, 2015

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
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.