Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853-1890) is one of the most well-known post-Impressionist painters, who died mysteriously at the age of 37, after creating over 2,000 artworks within a decade. I chose to write about him as he was born in this month of March and I recently visited the ‘Van Gogh Alive’—a multisensory international exhibition in Maag Halle, Zurich. The experience was overwhelming – says artist Brindarica Bose.
Since childhood, his art work with its bright colours and thick application technique has intrigued me. I kept discovering Van Gogh in my own time over the past three decades. My artworks are also very colourful because that is the way I perceive them; more than perfection, I chase the contrast of colours, the emotions that they evoke… and who could inspire me more than Van Gogh? He once said, “What colour is to a picture, enthusiasm is in life.” That says it all.
Van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853, in Zundert in the southern Netherlands, to a Protestant pastor. After leaving school at the age of 16, he started working at an art dealership in which his uncle was a partner. He was involved in the commercial aspect of the artworld—buying, selling, pricing, organising exhibitions etc. Before becoming an artist, Van Gogh worked as a junior clerk, a teacher, a bookseller, as well as an evangelical missionary, from where too he got dismissed. Finally, at around 27, he found his calling in art, much to the disappointment of his parents. Van Gogh was inspired by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, including Monet, Pissaro, Bernard and Gauguin. He even invited the latter (Gaugin) to his studio, or yellow house at Arles, in France.
2009 Exhibition in Basel
My personal quest to understand Van Gogh and his art started in April 2009. I went to an exhibition ‘Between Earth and Heaven: The Landscapes’ with 70 paintings of Van Gogh on display in Basel, Switzerland. I remember returning home with a pile of books and an enhanced interest about his work. At that time, I was quite surprised to see all the landscape paintings, which he had painted more realistic in style in the beginning of his artistic journey. His unique style had evolved much later. I started reading more about him, his art style, and why colours were so important for him.
2017 Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam
In April 2017, I visited Van Gogh’s museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The museum had almost 200 of his works—including his letters, landscapes, still lifes, portraits and his drawings.
At the museum, I started with his sketches first. As a preacher, when Van Gogh was not yet an artist, he would often visit poor farmers. He witnessed their struggles, something that he had noticed from his childhood, the division between the poor and the middle-class. Instead of preaching religion to these poor farmers, he started observing his ‘subjects’ in a unique way—from the viewpoint of an artist. The ‘Potato Eaters’ was painted around this time (1885, Nuenen, The Netherlands).
When you look at this oil painting, you will see that the farmers are all sitting huddled together around a dining table, with boney hands, darkened fingernails—peeling potatoes in a dimly lit room.
The ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, couldn’t have been more pronounced during this time period of his life. He wanted to show to the world that these peasants had to toil the entire day, to bring food to the table. This message was more important to him than being technically perfect in his painting, unlike other master artists of that time.
Van Gogh was one of those rare artists who didn’t paint a genteel portrait of a rich patron for the sake of money (even though he needed it much). He was an artist who worked from his heart.
Much later in his life, maybe it was this banal commercialism and cut-throat competition (which unfortunately still accompanies the art world)—drove him away from Paris, to a small town in the Provence, France—Arles, in 1888.
Van Gogh produced more than 2,000 works of art, consisting of around 930 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches. But during his lifetime, only one painting ‘The Red Vineyard’ was bought. The buyer was Anna Boch, a collector of Impressionist paintings during the Brussels Art Expo in 1890. She paid 400 Francs (approx. 2000 CHF today). It is ironic that after over a century, Van Gogh’s art sells for millions of dollars at auctions and private sales around the world today.
2018 Loving Vincent – Animated Movie
In 2018, I heard about the animation film about Van Gogh, with hand-painted scenes. I was curious and with a team of art lovers went to watch it in Kino Rex in Wohlen. The movie was excellent on all grounds, not just the background motives and the paintings, but also the intriguing storytelling—trying to unravel the mystery behind his death, and the important role the postmaster, and the doctor played in his life.
‘Loving Vincent’, was the first fully painted animated feature film, written and directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, a Polish-UK production. Each of the film’s 65,000 frames was an oil painting on canvas, using the same technique as Van Gogh, created by a team of over 100 painters. Not only because it won several awards worldwide, I would certainly recommend this movie to you, if you love thrillers and want to know more about the mystery surrounding his untimely death.
2020 Van Gogh Alive, Zurich
On 29 February, 2020, I took the final leap and visited the ongoing ‘Van Gogh Alive’ exhibition in Maag Halle, Zurich. It was a multisensory experience. I felt as if I was walking into Van Gogh’s colourful canvases. It felt surreal. I felt the urgency of his message through his bold colours and rough strokes with thick oil paints, his non-caring for rules and techniques. As a self-taught artist, I could feel his insecurity as well as his confidence in those paintings. As if he knew life would be short, and he had many many paintings within him to finish. Surrounded by music, his landscapes, his Sunflowers, bedroom, I felt as if I was a butterfly flapping my wings, entering his world of colours and various subjects.
Over 6 million visitors worldwide have seen this unique exhibition, which shall stay in Zurich till 9 April, 2020.
Van Gogh Alive, Zurich; Vincent’s bedroom in Arles. This he had painted from memory, while he was hospitalised in Saint-Remy
Japanese Art influence
Japanese art has influenced international art over centuries. During Van Gogh’s lifetime (when he was in Paris), he came across the fine drawings of Japanese art with vibrant colours, no shading, plain colour application, human figures drawing style, and painting day to day motifs. He was profoundly influenced by this style. Vincent and Theo had a collection of over 400 Japanese wooden block prints. Some of his paintings show close resemblance to the Japanese painting, which he may have used for reference.
The Blossoming Almond Tree; Van Gogh painted this when he received the news of the birth of his nephew as a gift for the family (Theo’s son, who was also named Vincent). This painting is an example, which shows how Japanese art had influenced him.
Vincent believed that an artist had to truly know and understand nature, and the best way to do that would be to live and paint amidst nature. He was, after all, influenced by the Impressionists. Nowadays ‘urban sketching’ is a trendy term—first coined by Gabriel Campanario, the Seattle-based artist and journalist. Van Gogh was an ardent urban sketcher and loved Arles and its landscapes, just like the Impressionists. After the episode of mutilating his ear, Paul Gaugin left Arles and since then Van Gogh got hospitalised a couple of times, till he allegedly killed himself on July 29, 1890, in France. It is said that he was shot in the stomach, either by himself or by others, and died two days later. Some sources* claim, that his last words were “La tristesse duera toujours” (the sadness will last forever).
*Theo van Gogh to his sister Elisabeth van Gogh:
5th August 1890 To say we must be grateful that he rests – I still hesitate to do so. Maybe I should call it one of the great cruelties of life on this earth and maybe we should count him among the martyrs who died with a smile on their face.
He did not wish to stay alive and his mind was so calm because he had always fought for his convictions, convictions that he had measured against the best and noblest of his predecessors. His love for his father, for the gospel, for the poor and the unhappy, for the great men of literature and painting, is enough proof for that. In the last letter which he wrote me and which dates from some four days before his death, it says, “I try to do as well as certain painters whom I have greatly loved and admired.” People should realize that he was a great artist, something which often coincides with being a great human being. In the course of time this will surely be acknowledged, and many will regret his early death. He himself wanted to die, when I sat at his bedside and said that we would try to get him better and that we hoped that he would then be spared this kind of despair, he said, “La tristesse durera toujours” [The sadness will last forever]. I understood what he wanted to say with those words.
A few moments later he felt suffocated and within one minute he closed his eyes. A great rest came over him from which he did not come to life again.
Translated by Robert Harrison, edited by Robert Harrison, number.
Van Gogh Alive, 29th February, 2020, Zurich
Challenges my way
As I end this article, it brings back to mind Arles. On July 14, 2016, I was travelling with my family to Arles, via the coastal town Nice. While we were on the road, we heard about the terrorist attack on Bastille Day in Nice. We were just kilometres away from entering Nice at that time when this incident occurred. We immediately pulled over in a highway restaurant, cancelled our reservation in Arles and booked additional days in Italy, our next destination.
I truly wish that one day, I get the chance to visit the magical town of Arles, which I missed earlier. The city, which was Van Gogh’s muse in so many paintings (street, landscapes, bedroom, and his ‘Sunflowers’). It was here in Arles, that he had his ‘yellow house’/art studio where he had invited Paul Gaugin to stay and paint alongside him. It is also here, where Van Gogh mutilated his ear, after a quarrel with Gaugin, when he threatened the latter with a razor, and out of shame went and mutilated his own ear. Yes, Arles has had its own share of happy and terrible memories with Van Gogh.
The next incident happened during my visit to the Van Gogh Alive exhibition in Zurich. In Arles, it was a terrorist attack driving a lorry into a mob, this one was a deadly Corona Virus attack!
I still went ahead. The room wasn’t empty, that I can assure you. If the virus was also watching the show, I shall know only after two weeks. Whatever it is, I shall also take refuge in my specially secured bottle of Absinthe!
Despite all fears, I saw the 40-minute display of Van Gogh’s art works following the sequence of his life events. The show was accompanied by music, multimedia effects like falling leaves, or swirling paints which made the whole experience worthwhile. I sat through the show twice and also recorded a few snippets which you shall find in this video: https://youtu.be/MpBfB0hllx0.
Photo credits – Brindarica Bose
Official images of the Van Gogh alive exhibit by André Juchli
About the author
Brindarica Bose is an artist, art teacher, writer and dons several hats with ease. For more information about her work, visit www.brindarica.com
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed belong solely to the content provider. Namaste Switzerland does not undertake any financial/reputational/legal/misrepresentational impact or other obligations/ liabilities that may arise from the content.