Amsterdam – Color and Gray

Amsterdam – Color and Gray

Some cities have inevitable destinations. Inescapable landmarks within city grids, pins on maps you shouldn’t sidestep.

London, the clock. Rome, the Colosseum. Berlin, the wall. Paris, the Catacombs.

Places that are supposed to illustrate the color and culture of its host. Places that more often reflect ourselves whether we like it or not. Just because you know where you’re going doesn’t mean you know how you’ll react when you get there.

Amsterdam, van Gogh.

Self-Portrait as a Painter, Vincent van Gogh, 1888.
Credits: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

One of the greatest galleries in the world, each weighty step through the Van Gogh Museum draws closer to the end of a prolific collection and the story of art’s most popular painter.

Vincent van Gogh began painting when he was 27 years old and died just 10 years later. Considered a failure by his contemporaries and an artistic troubadour only in hindsight, the notoriously unstable van Gogh mutilated his ear hoping to gain the affection of a prostitute, committed himself to a mental institution, and died days after a botched suicide attempt in 1890 – supposedly having sold just one painting.

His younger brother and art dealer, Theo van Gogh, worked tirelessly to exhibit his unrecognized brother’s work. Theo died within months of his brother after his own bout with mental illness. Theo’s widow, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, and their son, Vincent, perpetuated van Gogh’s story and art that a grateful worldwide audience carries today.

“I can do nothing about it if my paintings don’t sell. The day will come, though, when people will see that they’re worth more than the cost of the paint and my subsistence, very meagre in fact, that we put into them.” – Excerpt of a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo in 1888.

Art That’s Not Off Limits

Sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh, 1889.
Credits: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Emotionally muddled visitors near the museum exit will find a reproduction of van Gogh’s familiar painting Sunflowers. “Feeling Van Gogh” is an interactive permanent exhibit for visually impaired visitors. The expressively thick brushstrokes of van Gogh’s painting are slightly raised so guests can touch the replica, smell a bouquet, and hear audio clips composed for the artwork.

An art expert might be drawn to the original piece for its balance of vivacious yellow and pale, dusty gold. But the reproduction lures me because of its contrast with an unusually damp Amsterdam morning. The kind of gray I’d imagine reserved for solemn crowds at the fully booked Anne Frank House.

The rain seems to dull everything in the city. But this piece of art is accessible, determined by your reaction to a moment instead of a reservation. The single canvas on a lone wall feels like the city’s last remaining color compared to the soggy view outside nearby widows. For a second, I hesitate to touch the painting. Museums are like people – the most sacred things are almost always kept out of reach.

Shuffle a little closer. Decide for just one touch.

You first notice the paint extending from the canvas, stretching to its limits without breaking just to be inconsequentially closer to its viewer.

Weight shifting, arm up, hand out.

Fingers trace along budding green stems and decaying petals. Rigid paint near the tips of wilting edges pricks each fingertip, the last little reminders of the artist’s pain and desire to reach something visceral.

Arm down. Hand glides past the lasting signature. Weight shifting. A step back toward a day with seemingly a little less rain than before.

This exhibit’s purpose of accessibility is admirable, a worthy tribute to its complicated artist and wholly consistent with our experience in the city of tulips. From rich pannekoek lunches to friendly pickup sports throughout nearby parks, Amsterdam is among the most inviting places we’ve been fortunate to visit. A city meant to lift someone from gray days.

Go further.

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