Friday, April 04, 2008


First published in The Jakarta Post, Saturday, April 05, 2008


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

When my colleagues invited me on a tour of the Van Gogh Museum, I immediately accepted the invitation. I have always wanted to see Vincent van Gogh's original masterpieces that symbolized the important junctures of his life -- from his artistic development, sorrowful romance and illness to his suicide.

The museum attracts around one million visitors annually from all over the world. It houses 200 paintings, almost 500 drawings, four sketchbooks and 800 letters.

With headphones, visitors can be guided on an audio tour that passes almost every painting in the museum and other art collections.

On the first floor, I was met with an assortment of Van Gogh's paintings displayed in a chronologic order. The second floor of the museum offers provisional educational presentations, including subjects on restitution research and works on paper. The third and ground floors display a 19th century art collection.

The museum also houses a restaurant and shop that sells memorabilia from books and replicas of paintings to cups featuring Van Gogh's image.

However, it was the journey to episodes of his life and his artistic development that deeply thrilled me.

Van Gogh was born March 30, 1853, in Groot Zundert, the Netherlands. He left school at the age of 15 and never returned.

No one thought he was gifted enough to become an artist at the age of 27. Yet, after ten years he had produced 800 paintings and more than 1,000 drawings, as well as sketches and watercolor pieces.

Unlike Indonesian painter Raden Saleh, who received lessons from several patrons in Europe, or Basuki Abdullah, who received formal training in The Hague, Van Gogh was mostly self-taught. He merely joined a number of lessons at art academies, read textbooks and received guidance from artist colleagues.

During a 19-month stormy relationship with Clasina Maria Hoornik -- a pregnant, unmarried woman with a young daughter -- his talent evolved quickly. His paintings during this time reflected a deep sense of anguish and personal emotion.

In Nuenen, he painted working farmers and weavers with their looms. In 1882 he started using oil paints, which he used mostly in the coming year. During the winter of 1884-1885, he captured farmers and their wives in more than 40 paintings, before producing his first large famous piece The Potato Eaters.

Upon the invitation of his brother and art dealer Theo, Vincent lived in Paris from 1886-1888. Unable to afford models, he used his own face to trial colors and painting techniques. His canvases were covered with small speckles and lines in light, dazzling colors, resulting in 27 self-portraits.

He moved to the southern French town of Arles in February 1888, searching for inspiration from the landscape and light. He rented a house (which he later painted as The Yellow House), aspiring to establish an artists' settlement with Paul Gauguin and other painters.

But in December 1888, a quarrel sparked and Van Gogh angrily cut off a piece of his own ear. It was later discovered that he suffered from epilepsy.

In April 1889, he was treated in a mental clinic in Saint-Remy. He painted everything there -- the rooms, other patients, the corridors and the garden. Sometimes he worked outdoors on landscapes characterized by cypress and olive trees.

He later lived in Auvers-sur-Oise, an artist's village near Paris, after leaving the clinic in May 1890. Van Gogh produced portraits of Paul Gachet, a doctor who was also an art collector, and his daughter as payment for the medical treatment he received.

From then on, Vincent continued to suffer from depression. This culminated with Theo opting to quit his job to establish his own business.

Vincent shot himself in the chest with a revolver on July 27, 1890. He died two days later with his brother by his side. He was refused burial in the cemetery of the Catholic Church of Auvers, but burial was eventually allowed in the nearby township of Méry with a funeral held on July 30.

Theo inherited a large art collection that Vincent had sent him as compensation for financial support. But Theo died six months later, so it was Theo's widow, Jo van Gogh-Bongar, who acquired the collection.

The pieces at the core of this museum make it a fine record of Van Gogh's brilliant works of art and his dramatic life story.

Some of the artist's paintings might also be found in Indonesia, given its colonial history. Nonetheless, so far only one of Van Gogh's pieces has reportedly been found in Indonesia -- The Crocus Flowers, which belongs to Mr. Rudy Mulyono (it was acquired by his art-loving father long ago).

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