Expat Ruminations

Rajeev Poduval is an Indian American journalist currently based in Amsterdam. He most recently reported for The Washington Times, The Christian Science Monitor and Grade the News at Stanford University in the United States. He has also worked with Emirates News, The Gulf Today and Panorama Magazine in the United Arab Emirates. Rajeev is living with his son Advaith and wife Bala, a space scientist presently working on methods of improving space weather predictions using artificial intelligence at Amsterdam Science Park. In this column which will be published in the next editions of The Holland Times he will share parts of his life as an expat in the Netherlands.

Van Gogh: the museum and the mythologies

In the morning hours, most cafes close to Van Gogh Museum at Museumplein in Amsterdam were swarming with people- -students, beer-breathed tourists, hippies, white-collar employees, and workers in cargo pants. Sipping my Cappuccino and nibbling baguette crumbs, I sat in a corner of a nondescript cafe, watching the early morning crowd. One of the waitresses initiated a giggling conversation leaning on an empty chair next to me on her recent visit of Jaipur, India with her boyfriend.

I walked past a few fancy museum objects straight to Van Gogh’s palette and tubes, a rare loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The museum has the world’s largest collection of Van Gogh’s works including some of his dazzlingly famous paintings like Sunflowers, The Potato Eaters, Almond Blossom, The Yellow House, and The Bedroom in addition to a whole section on his self-portraits along with his palette. There are also works that represented Van Gogh’s rather nomadic existence, including sketches, letters, and notes. Sunflowers, exhibited at the museum, is one of the multiple versions of the motif the artist painted after he recovered from his self-mutilated left ear. Often interpreted as a meditation on the vagaries of time, the painting has several fresh bright yellow flowers erupting out of a glossy pot that stand in contrast with the feeble and drooping ones at the bottom. More than any other works exhibited at the museum, visitors tend to spend time looking at Potato Eaters, Van Gogh’s impressionistic and arguably one of the most spiritual works he has done. Potatoe Eaters is a portrayal of peasant life in its most nascent form and is often considered a rebellion against the nineteenthcentury elitist portraiture from the fringes of mainstream Europen art. The oil lamp in the middle illuminated and imparted warmth to the rustic, somewhat earthy and grave faces of the peasants. The painting, which is very pastoral in tone and almost nostalgic of a simpler era was completed in Nuenen, a village about 2 hours drive from Amsterdam (now known as Van Gogh Village) where he lived with his parents.

“Wheatfield with Crows” exhibited on the top floor of the museum is among the most interpreted works of Van Gogh, perhaps owing to the fact that he did it just weeks before his suicide. It is often called the artist’s “suicide note” that represented, in a pantheistic vein, the inner conflicts and despair he experienced during that period. Here, his brush strokes are indeed violent, and the crows give a sense of retreat from a delirious, turbulent and an essentially bleak world. In a way, the popularization of Van Gogh’s personal life to almost mythic proportions often resulted in the tendency to over-emphasize his “angst” and “loneliness” in all interpretations. The images in popular Van Gogh mythologies are often conflicting though– a psychopath with a fetish for self-humiliation who offered his own mutilated ear in a bloody bundle to a woman, a Dostoyevskean modern- day saint, a hippy heartthrob–the list is long! The absence of Van Gogh’s iconic and most celebrated work Stary Nights at the museum would have been a major disappointment had I not known it was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I could overhear visitors talking about it, implying they expected to see it at the Van Gogh Museum. Perhaps what the museum lacks is that it does not allow a leisurely pace. Due to a large number of people visiting especially on weekends, the museum often feels like a busy airport! In spite of the presence of security personnel all around the museum, some visitors were seen taking pictures using cell phones. At Le Tambourine, the cafe inside the museum, a lot of young visitors were seen taking selfies.

Around the world, art museums are struggling to define their roles in the age of immersion technologies like virtual and augmented realities recreating museum visits. According to a spokesperson of Van Gogh Museum, technological innovations like augmented realities have not only increased the importance of museums in our communities but opened up entirely new dimensions to the way we experience them. For instance, five different versions of Sunflowers at different locations across the continents were brought together last year to render an engrossing, 360-degree immersion experience of the painting. “In the summer of 2017, Facebook hosted five consecutive live streams in which international museum directors and conservators presented the version of the painting the Sunflowers in their own institution. Five different Sunflowers paintings were reunited in this way for the first time in history.” As I stepped out of the museum, I was overwhelmed by conflicting thoughts about the familiar image of Van Gogh as an artist living on the edges of society as projected by Hollywood films, pop music and pop culture magazines, and the “real” Van- Gogh as someone who carefully studied the great European and Japanese masters and the art of many of his contemporaries in a more disciplined manner.

Perhaps the image of Van Gogh the museum attempts to project is that of a serious artist who influenced and is influenced by many of his contemporaries. The current exhibition “Gauguin and Laval in Martinique”, here highlights exactly this aspect of Van Gogh, though much of his popular appeal, I thought, was still centered around the Van Gogh mythologies.