Amsterdam: The Van Gogh Museum
The train from Paris to Amsterdam took just four hours. The farmland in between was surprisingly green, and there was no snow. It was late afternoon when I arrived, so I hustled over to the Van Gogh Museum. Van Gogh was born in the Netherlands, but Amsterdam was not a central city in his life. Nevertheless, he is treated with as much reverence in his native land as Rembrandt. The Van Gogh Museum is a case in point. A large, airy space next to the Rijksmuseum (the nation's largest museum, featuring a wide collection of Dutch masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, and more than a million objects of painting and sculpture), its gray, geometric shape is somewhat ironic considering van Gogh's penchant for blurring perspective and creating motion through wavy lines. There were no right angles to van Gogh.The museum was crowded, even on a midweek February afternoon, which tells me that it must be quite the tourist draw in the summer. But there are certain attractions one must visit in the world's major cities - say, the Empire State Building when traveling to New York. In Amsterdam, the Van Gogh Museum is such a place. (I would suggest that the nearby Heineken Brewery is not far behind.) There are more van Goghs inside that space than anywhere else in the world. Elaborate signs in English and Dutch explain where each work was painted and its significance in van Gogh's life. The works are arranged chronologically, making it possible to see his transition from fledgling artist to creative visionary. The paintings between 1888 and 1890 show a freedom and experimentation but also a sense of melancholy. Van Gogh was slowly slipping into depression, and it seems as if he was in a hurry to paint as many canvases as possible before losing his faculties.
Indeed, during that time he was often painting a new work each day.
What struck me was how van Gogh used other artists as a constantsource of inspiration. He often practiced by painting reproductionsof famous works by Delacroix and Rembrandt. But to look at those paintings created between 1888 and 1890 made me wonder at the costof his devotion to the creative process. Those paintings werealmost all done when he was confined to an insane asylum (thanks to a misdiagnosed case of epilepsy), and this was when he so famouslychopped off part of his ear.
The Van Gogh Museum is inspirational, and there is a calming aesthetic to wandering through the large galleries in an unhurried fashion. But it is also impossible to take in its four floors without feeling slightly unsettled. I found myself wondering about that curious place a man inhabits in the artistic realm - one foot in the world's reality and the other in that place of artistic creation that dares to let the mind run wild.
I walked around Amsterdam for a couple hours after that, over cobbled streets and canal bridges. The city was clean and the mood bohemian. The next stop on my short tour was London and the National Gallery, but after the full immersion of the Van Gogh Museum, it felt like my journey into the life and works of Vincent van Gogh had already come to an end.
London: National Gallery
The wonderful thing about travel is that each day offers a fresh start. I was up at 4:30 a.m., eager to catch the train from Amsterdam's Central Station to the Hook of Holland, there to fulfill a desire to cross the English Channel in the manner used by van Gogh when he traveled to London: by ship.