Wednesday, May 30, 2007

van Gogh: Arles and Amsterdam

For me, van Gogh is one of the artists whose work I first remember really liking (along with Monet and the guy who designed that Endless Summer movie poster that hung in my room so long ago). So a trip that combined, almost by happenstance, Arles and the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was really wonderful. The first van Gogh I remember seeing was Starry Night at the Museum of Modern Art in New York--I was in junior high, I think. I was so drawn in by the intensity of the painting that I remember reaching out and actually touching it. For me, one of those experiences that reinforces, in retrospect, the power of museums--nothing beats the real thing.

To be in Arles and Provence, in that landscape, was pretty amazing. Arles is a nice walking town and in several places we stumbled across "easels" outdoor signs that reproduce a van Gogh painting in front of the actual setting.

So the garden in the hospital where he stayed and his painting of the garden play back and forth in your imagination. However, not an original painting of his is in Arles--but a fascinating substitute is the Foundation van Gogh. It's a place that might have been incredibly hokey, but was lively and thought-provoking. Contemporary artists of all types were asked to create a work inspired by van Gogh. Some artists were inspired by his life; others by his work--his sense of color and line, his commitment to experimentation. So to see work by David Hockney, Christo, Jasper Johns and others--all in homage to VanGogh, was great.

Two days later the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam filled in other parts of his life--with the largest collection of his work anywhere. It was really crowded--a reminder that one of the initial attractions of museum work was the chance to be with the stuff by yourself--not a chance here. To understand his life--the failed jobs and then this unwavering belief that he had something to say as an artist--as you see the growing power of his work--all that was evident even as you shuffled, shoulder to shoulder, through the museum. My mental images of Provence--olive groves, street scenes in Arles--combined with his work and it'll be impossible to think of Provence without thinking of his work.

And an exhibit design note--both here and in the Phillips wing at the Rijksmuseum, main exhibit labels were installed very high up and very large. It meant that everyone in the room could read that and then explore--a great technique for crowded museums.

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