Ellen Desmond reviews Amsterdam’s innovative and powerful ‘Munch | Van Gogh’ exhibition.
Masquerading as an art snob on a student budget is no easy task, but where there’s a will there’s always a way. Ryanair’s €14.99 flights to Amsterdam couldn’t have landed at a better time.
The famous Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands’ capital city hosts the largest permanent collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s work in the world. Beginning with his self-portraits before branching out to other pieces, the museum has three floors dedicated to an almost chronological telling of the artist’s life.
It ends with his final artworks, the story of his death and a collection of some very interesting personal items and writings. Having never paid much attention to his written work, it was unexpected that Van Gogh’s letters and notes were as well-crafted and as intriguing as his paintings. The collection is followed by a small room of artworks by later artists, who were heavily influenced by the Dutch painter’s style.
The highlight piece of the Main Building, however, is easily Van Gogh’s iconic Almond Blossoms (1980); almost impossible to see with the fascinated crowd lingering around it for as long as possible.
Almond Blossoms is a definitive Van Gogh, as it showcases his post-impressionistic style, Japanese influences and potent use of bold colours. That said, it is arguably Van Gogh’s passion for authoritatively framing the simple and delicate beauty of nature that seems to have captivated onlookers for so many decades.
With such an extensive collection on display in the Main Building, it is impressive indeed that the museum managed to host a parallel exhibition on almost as grand a scale in the Exhibition Wing. This exhibition is dedicated to examining the artistic affinities between Van Gogh and his Norwegian contemporary, Edvard Munch.
Though the comparability of Munch and Van Gogh has been highlighted extensively, and works by the two men have often been placed beside each other in galleries, never before has there been an entire exhibition committed to investigating the harmony in their style and subject matter.
Working with Oslo’s Munch Museum, the organisation of Munch | Van Gogh allegedly began as far back as 2009. The directors of both museums (Axel Rüger and Stein Olav Henrichsen) write a note in the exhibition’s booklet explaining how they soon discovered the reasons and difficulties this seemingly obvious idea for an exhibition has never been achieved before. They bring attention to the extensive loans needed from private owners, as well as financial support from organisations, as the reasons for making the exhibition possible in 2015 and the early part of 2016.
“Two parallel lines meet at infinity,” the exhibition says, and the layout of Munch | Van Gogh travels upward for three floors from there. With more than 100 works on display, the depths of similarities (and contrasts) between the two oeuvres are more resolutely clear than ever. A very broad example being the ways in which both artists built on naturalism and impressionism, to eventually influence the expressionist movement that followed.
It also has on display several works by artists who had an impact on them both, predominantly Paul Gauguin.
An impressive insight from the curators is that sole focus isn’t placed on similarities. For example, though the connection is made between Munch and Van Gogh’s mutual fascination with self-portraits (Van Gogh is cited as saying that seeing himself on canvas was the only time he truly felt alive), they are also confident enough to invite visitors to consider the conflicts between the ways the men decided to capture themselves.
A Sky Full of Stars
The elephant in the room of the entire thing was the pretty resoundingly obvious absence of Van Gogh’s magnum opus The Starry Night (1889), which has been in New York’s MoMA since 1941. Presumably, artistic politics are the reason the epicentre of Van Gogh hasn’t ever got its hands on The Starry Night.
It’s difficult to criticise The Van Gogh Museum for this and, yet, the absence was tangibly felt because one of the strongest ties between Munch and Van Gogh is their mutual expressions and ways of coping with inner turmoil through art. In fact, most of the exhibition revolves around the “emotionally charged” and turbulent elements present in both of their work.
An ideal placement would have been to have The Starry Night beside Munch’s iconic depiction of anxiety in The Scream (1893), which is successfully on display in the exhibition.
On the conception of The Scream, Munch writes: “I felt as though the whole of nature was screaming – it seemed as though I could hear a scream. I painted that picture, painting the clouds like real blood. The colours screamed.”
The Scream succinctly captures a feeling almost no words can entirely express and places them as alive in nature in an all-encompassing, suffocating way. The Starry Night arguably brings internal experiences to life in nature too, but it also shows Van Gogh’s continuous appreciation of beauty and search for hope in his external surroundings, as it is a depiction of the view from his asylum room at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
I would have loved to see their two most famous perspectives placed side by side.
In an attempt to rectify the absence of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Munch’s Starry Night (1922-24) and Van Gogh’s Starry Night on the Rhone (1998), which is usually at the Musée d’Orsay, are put on display.
This is a very considerable success, though there is a shift in focus to the visual treatment of similar scenes, rather than displaying the famously intense experiences or feelings.
Munch | Van Gogh ends in an eerily silent small black room with eight of the artists’ most renowned works. Here we are treated to seeing Sunflowers (1888) and Madonna (1894-95). The purpose of this finale seems to be to showcase both artists’ best work, rather than making any particular point or building any particular perspective.
When I Give, I Give Myself
The Van Gogh Museum curators were evidently aware that the Munch | Van Gogh exhibition would attract a high level of attention. Back in the Main Gallery, it was obvious they had stepped up their game to keep the permanent collection interesting to a larger-than-usual influx of guests. This was clear with the addition of the When I Give, I Give Myself project.
This modern art project takes a line from a letter penned by Van Gogh as its catalyst. There are 23 contemporary artworks from 2014 and 2015 in When I Give, I Give Myself’s collection, dotted between the chronology of Van Gogh’s life and work.
Each takes a different line from Van Gogh’s writings and interprets them in their own way, such as Monochrome (Grey) by Anish Kapoor. Kapoor responds to a passage from Van Gogh’s letter about colour: “Colour expresses something in itself. One can’t do without it; one must make use of it. What looks beautiful, really beautiful – is also right” (1885) by presenting a resoundingly mute sphere with a flat black surface on a pure white wall.
This additional project was my personal favourite, but it seems to be a feature of the main Van Gogh collection only for the time Munch | Van Gogh is on display, confirming my suspicions that it is intended to impress the many who will travel through the Main Building on their way to the unique collection in the Exhibition Wing beside it.
A Fire that Burns
Unfortunately, the Munch | Van Gogh exhibition closes this month to make way for Easy Virtue (prostitution in French 19th-century art) which opens at the end of February.
However, the impact and new perceptions gained from the Munch | Van Gogh project will have a ripple effect on both artists’ reputations, and certainly on further interpretations and studies of their work.
“During his short life, Van Gogh did not allow his flame to go out. Fire and embers were his brushes during the few years of his life, whilst he burned out for his art,” writes Munch of Van Gogh in 1933, after the Dutch artist had passed away and his work has come to the attention of the Norwegian.
Though the pair probably never even met in real life, Munch | Van Gogh has permanently cast them as allies and the influence of this exhibition will surely be resounding.