Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Amsterdam: An Afternoon With Van Gogh

I spent 2 days in Amsterdam and a week on a road trip in UK from March 2nd-10th. Travels always widen our understanding of the world and provide a perspective too. I spent an afternoon in Amsterdam visiting the Van Gogh museum.

Coming from a provincial town in South India I've only a nominal familiarity with painting as an art form. The only paintings that an Indian gets to see mostly are fetishistic expression of male fantasies of courtesans and kings. Study of human anatomy to depict human form, portraying common men and women, expressing philosophical points etc are almost non-existent on the Indian tradition. Learning to appreciate Salvador Dali's surrealism or appreciating why a Monet picture could start the impressionist movement or why is Michelangelo's David revered is all a conscious learning process. Here is Monet's famous painting that launched an era.

I visited the Museum of Modern Art in NYC and could not understand a single thing. Even for a layman like me the Van Gogh museum is an easily accessible one, intellectually. Van Gogh is considered to belong to post-impressionism. I'd not be pretending to understand the nuances of those terms. In another sign of technology wiping out jobs now museums offer audio-guides. No need of a person to standby and explain.

Van Gogh, barely 37 when he died in 1890, lives an eventful itinerant life that makes his biography a compelling read, not to mention his eventual suicide. Van Gogh as was common to geniuses of that era travels between France, Holland and England. France, the capital of arts, influences Van Gogh with its art and literature. the museum painstakingly has arranged all his paintings chronologically across 4 vast floors also divided according to where he lived in that particular period. Each painting has an explanatory note and most have a head phone symbol with a number to be used on the audio-guide. Press the number and voila you get a succinct summary of the painting. The summary while succinct is not trivial or flaky.

Van Gogh gained fame with his portrayal of a group of peasants eating potatoes around a table, the painting titled "potato eaters" had a note that, in typical Western fashion, unflinchingly said, this masterpiece had flaws and proceeds to specify what the flaw is. This is a museum to celebrate a great genius and in the picture that supposedly gave him fame the museum curator is brutishly honest to note its shortcomings. This is what happens when you celebrate true genius. You can be comfortable in pointing out the flaws.

Spend a few minutes looking at the picture above (or this link for a full resolution "potato eaters"). Its a common scene, the people are unremarkable, the setting is pedestrian, the act is as routine as you can imagine BUT its the painting of the shadows, the light, the portrayal of anatomy that speaks, the details of the room etc.

When I visited the Louvre in 2009 seeing the many Christian themed paintings I thought that without having some familiarity of the Bible one cannot appreciate much of Western civilization. Van Gogh's "Still life with open Bible" reiterated that thought.

At first sight the picture does not tell much. The audio-guide filled in the details that an untrained eye like mine would not see at first sight. The big open book is the Bible, a faint title indicates that the page is open at "Isaiah", an even fainter scribbling tells it is Isaiah 53 which is called the 'Psalm of the suffering servant'. The smaller book next to it is French author Emile Zola's "La Joie de vivre" (Joy of life). The commentary said this was Van Gogh, one time candidate for priesthood, rebelling against his pious father.

Van Gogh was influenced by Emile Zola and Victor Hugo. To know what influences a genius especially beyond his particular area in a cross-disciplinary manner is interesting. Knowing that his painting took clues from another painter is one thing, knowing how Van Gogh drew upon Zola's characterization to inspire a painting is another. This also helps us understand the nature of a man who makes himself a student of all forms of art and imbibes inspiration from other forms to better construct his primary artistic expression.

An even more stunning influence was that of Japanese art on Van Gogh. Japanese art of woodcut blocks with bright colored paintings found its way to Paris. Japan, until 1854 Kanagawa Treaty used to trade almost exclusively with the Dutch. After the treaty Japan opened trade with Europe and USA. Japonaiserie, wikipedia teaches, or Japanese art influenced the French impressionist and then Van Gogh too who produced very brightly colored pictures. Famous amongst his Japanese art are his portraits of bridges

Like any typical Western genius of art Van Gogh travels hither and thither, schools himself, lets himself be open to influences, creates his own oeuvre, enjoys cross disciplinary influences and leads a very eventful life that includes affliction of Gonorrhea. Van Gogh formed a deep friendship with famous painter Paul Gauguin . Gauguin was Somerset Maugham's inspiration for his protagonist in "The moon and six pence". Van Gogh after a fight with Gauguin famously cut off his ear and gave the severed part to a prostitute telling her to 'keep it carefully'. Van Gogh is supposed to have suffered from hypochondria too. Finally, of course, like any museum in this part of the world they have a nice gift shop.

Every now and then I thought wistfully of the Naicker and Maratha paintings in a 1000 year temple in Tanjore, the many other treasures that wilt away without attention. I read that even today reaching the Ajantha caves,  Khajuraho etc is a chore let alone audio-guides and knowledgeable commentary. To celebrate Maratha influence in a state that has been intellectually castrated with empty jingoism and ideological charades is too much to hope for.

Time and again what impresses me most in the West is the celebration of cross-cultural influences. Voltaire admires the English. The English are suckers for anything French as I'd see from my visit to Blenheim Palace near Oxford, UK 2 days later. Bruges in Northern corner of Europe buys a statue by Michelangelo. Trade and commerce coupled with the university system of Europe creates a veritable whirlpool of intellectual atmosphere.

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