Portrait of a troubled man

25th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The art world has laid on an orgy of events, exhibitions, concerts, guided walks and bike tours, new books and studies across the Netherlands, Belgium and France to mark the 150th anniversary of Vincent van Gogh's birth. Mindy Ran reports on the openings of the first two major exhibitions: "Vincent's Choice" and "Vincent and Helene".


Perhaps Van Gogh's most impressive legacy is the enduring fascination with his life and work given that his period as a artist spanned little more than a single decade. The last of his life. There seems to be an almost insatiable hunger to discern and deconstruct the connections between his infamous mental illness and the artist who gave emotions colour and shape.

Van Gogh was born in Groot Zundert in the Netherlands on the 30 March 1853 and died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on the 29 July 1890. He was 37 years old. His last words were "the sadness will last forever". He died at "peace" in his brother's arms.

We know this because there has never before been such an intensively documented life as Vincent's — mostly evidenced through his letters to his brother Theo.

The Van Gogh Museum's exhibition, "Vincent's Choice", is the culmination of years of research known simply as "The Letters Project". The research team read and studied over 900 letters from Van Gogh and made use of some of the 1100 references to specific works of art to create the exhibition.


 Van Gogh worked as an art dealer, as well as a lay preacher, before he became an artist. He knew the language of art and what inspired him from the beginning of his career as an artist.

The exhibition "Vincent's Choice" is intended almost as a gift to him — the museum he would have wanted to see. It is an incredibly juxtaposed collection of such wide-ranging artists as Rembrandt, Delacroix and Suerat, Millet, Bernard and Gauguin with Van Gogh's paintings strategically placed to allow the viewer to see his direct influences.

Van Gogh referred to works of art for different reasons; some artists were great heroes of his (Rembrandt and Delacroix), so they influenced him. Other connections are more tenuous and some works he disliked as paintings but was fascinated by the content.

The result is a serious study that attempts to intellectually unravel the process and path of inspiration of one artist. While no one can doubt its importance as a contribution to art history, the exhibition is hard work for the casual visitor. To access the references, and in some cases quotes from the letters, you will need either the audio tour or the small exhibition booklet.

For me, the exhibition was too coldly logical and informational for an artist I associate with depth of passion, emotion and expression. The sense of the man does not come across easily for the simple observer. Ironic when it is so easy to discern in his own paintings.

Dr Chris Stolwijk, Head of Research at the Van Gogh Museum was amazed by the way the letters changed as Van Gogh grew from a young art dealer to a mature artist.

"A lot of the letters were very boring," he admits, "and many were extremely religious. I was touched by the beautiful, serene and wise man writing from the asylum and at bit shocked by the demanding and aggressive tone to Theo in some of them."

The fascination for the details of his life is equal to the fascination for his art. His life was short, and filled with failure, suffering, deep depressions, extreme joys and revelations.


 He was apparently a deeply religious man who was boring as a preacher. An artist who sold one painting in his lifetime yet his works commanded huge sums within 20 years of his death.

Van Gogh was a disaster when it came to romantic relationships. He poured all of his life energy into a dream and was driven to the madness of self-mutilation when it collapsed.

He sought to express all these elements through his paintings. To gain that sense of him we need nothing more than to be surrounded by his work. The exhibition "Vincent and Helene" at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterloo is the opportunity to do just that.

Helene Kröller-Müller was an incredibly wealthy woman who bought seven Van Gogh paintings in one morning in April 1909. She had a mad passion for him and went on to found a museum to house the (then) 95 Van Gogh major paintings she had and hundreds of his drawings. Seven of the paintings which turned out to be forgeries are included in the exhibition as well as one of only four nudes ever painted by Van Gogh.

The museum at Otterloo is also known for one of the finest sculpture gardens in Europe and is set in the Hoge Veluwe National Park. The collection is enormous and comprises some of the most famous of his canvases.

It is easier to discern the language of Van Gogh at the Kröller-Müller. The works created up to and around the time of the Studio in the South (where he painted with Gauguin) had a playful, dancing and joyous richness to them.

The later paintings in the asylum became more and more extreme, like a hammer, dark and brooding.

For anyone who loved Van Gogh's work as passionately as Helene Kröller-Müller, it is a rare treat to envelop yourself in the environment she once exhibited in her drawing room.

February 2003

Note - There is a shuttle bus between the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterloo (the Hoger Veluwe National Park between Apeldoorn and Ede).

For more information, see www.vangogh150.nl

Subject: What's on

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