Mystery and intrigue: The Van Gogh File
A chance meeting with Vincent van Gogh's nephew some 30 years ago led Amsterdam journalist Ken Wilkie on an unexpected road of discovery. We recently caught up with him to speak about his third and latest novel on the master artist.
Intrigue and mystery have always surrounded the life and work of Vincent van Gogh and Amsterdam-based journalist Ken Wilkie has added to the enigma of the Dutch master artist with several fresh "discoveries".
His latest book claims to unveil the existence of a hitherto unknown portrait by the painter and allegedly discovers the existence of two illegitimate grandsons of Van Gogh in Rotterdam.
Ken Wilkie has been obsessed with Van Gogh since an assignment 30 years ago to coincide with the opening of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Vincent van Gogh's nephew, Dr Vincent Willem van Gogh
"I was downing my fourth cup of coffee and looking at a self-portrait of Van Gogh when the door creaked open. I looked up (at the visitor) and did a double take… he looked remarkably like the face on the page in front of me."
The visitor was Vincent van Gogh's 83-year-old nephew, Dr Vincent Willem van Gogh.
"As I shook hands with him, an emotional spark went through me — I was shaking hands with someone Vincent van Gogh had held in his arms as a baby just a few months before his death," Wilkie says.
It was an incident that transformed a routine assignment into an insatiable quest to learn more about the artist.
"I embarked on a journey that led me, often unintentionally, into some of the secret sources of Vincent van Gogh's misery, a journey that was to extend far beyond the boundaries of the original magazine article," he says.
Wilkie's third book on the painter, "The Van Gogh File, the myth and the man", was published on 17 June.Although rock solid in terms of research and verification, the book reads like a detective novel and reflects the author's wacky style of approaching his subject which is based on tracing and talking to the people who are linked to the artist.
But it is also a very journalistic approach and this makes the book a lot more accessible than similar publications by art historians, although Wilkie's escapades do verge on the absurd at times: doing a BBC interview in the nude, getting bashed on the head with a French loaf and trying to convince staff that he was a journalist and not an inmate of the psychiatric institution he had broken into…
The book's most controversial claim takes the speculation that Vincent van Gogh had an illegitimate son one step further by tracing the life of this man, Willem van Wijk — Vincent's middle name was Willem — and discovering the existence of Van Wijk's two grandsons, who are now aged in their 50s and live in Rotterdam.
Wilkie is now trying to arrange for DNA testing to prove whether these two elderly brothers are indeed who they believe themselves to be — descendents of one of the world's greatest artists.
The Van Gogh File also claims to have uncovered the existence of a "missing" portrait which, if it is ever found, could fetch up to GBP 50 million (EUR 76 million). A similar painting was sold for GBP 45 million in 1990.
Wilkie explains that his interest was aroused when he saw the name and address of a doctor, Amadeus Cavenaile, plus the dates of consultations scribbled on the back of one of Vincent van Gogh's Antwerp notebooks.
Author Ken Wilkie
"It's not the first time I'd used a telephone book to find someone, there are a lot of dead ends, but it's surprising how often you succeed," Wilkie recalls.
Tracking the medic down though, Dr Cavenaile Jnr told Wilkie: "My grandfather did tell me that before he treated Van Gogh, the painter warned him that he was unable to pay cash. The only way of paying was by painting his portrait. My grandfather agreed".
While Dr Cavenaile Jnr said he had seen the small oil painting as a child, he had no idea of its whereabouts now. So Wilkie set about unravelling another mystery and eventually claims to have pinpointed the most likely location of the missing portrait — under a cement floor at a carpet showroom not far from where it was painted in Antwerp.
BBC has reported that Wilkie travelled to the shop and said he "astounded" the owners when he told them about the painting. Despite doing some digging, the owners decided against breaking up the concrete to investigate further.
But Wilkie also says there is the possibility that the painting could be in someone's attic in London or hanging unrecognised on a wall in Scotland.
Wilkie himself was born in Scotland and moved to Amsterdam in 1969 to join the then fledgling KLM in-flight magazine Holland Herald. Eight years later, he became the magazine's editor, a job he held until his retirement earlier this year.
Married with two children (his son is called Vincent — what else?), Wilkie is an award-winning travel writer and has a long-standing and close working relationship with the legendary Dutch photographer, Eddy Posthuma de Boer.
But Wilkie's fascination with art is not limited to Van Gogh — he has written about a wide range of artists, photographers and designers, both contemporary and classical. And as far as many of his colleagues are concerned, Wilkie is a creative talent in his own right.
29 July 2004
The Van Gogh File, the myth and the man
Publisher: Souvenir Press
Author: Ken Wilkie
Price: EUR 27.40
Nilsson & Lamm
1012 XE Amsterdam
Tel: 020 638 3821
Fax: 020 638 4379
[Copyright Expatica and Abi Daruvalla 2004]
Subject: Vincent van Gogh + author Ken Wilkie