Before we went to Amsterdam, I did my homework and came across a statement from a taxi driver who said that every tourist gets off the plane and asks for a ride to the red-light district and then wants to buy drugs.
Well, I’ve been in a monogamous relationship since 1973 and I don’t have any real vices except beer, chocolate and being a liberal.
We went to Amsterdam for flowers and art, more specifically tulips and Van Gogh.
The first full day, we headed for the Van Gogh Museum.
One of the reasons I like Van Gogh is because even though I don’t know much about art, I can tell he’s a great painter. When you walk into a room full of paintings, by any number of artists, his work is the one to where your eye is drawn. They’re almost magnetic.
But what you see on the wall isn’t just paint. You’re seeing his heart as well. Vincent was the son of a pastor and his whole life was a stumbling, erratic, profound effort to do something that mattered.
He started out as a preacher himself. That didn’t work out so well, because he gave away all his belongings and lived as poorly as the peasants he was trying to help. You might think that wouldn’t be outlandish behavior for a man of God, but his whole life he never understood moderation, and that made a lot of people uneasy.
For many people, Van Gogh is famous as the guy who cut off his ear, which is perhaps the least interesting thing about him. He’s also famous for committing suicide, becoming the poster child for the “tortured artist.” Here’s the thing, though. He wasn’t a great artist because of his mental illness, but even more impressively, despite it.
He struggled with mental illness most of his life. Today, a popular sport among mental health professionals is to diagnose what ailed him, but that’s kind of pointless. Even now, 150 years later, our treatment of mental illness is not a perfect art. Back then it amounted to “suck it up or we’ll lock you up.”
When I’m feeling depressed, I can barely get through my daily routine. Vincent worked, and studied and grew as an artist, painting some of his best works while in an asylum. His working life as a painter was only about ten years, yet he managed to turn out over 2,000 pieces of art, including 860 oil paintings, and most of those in the last two years of his life.
Personally, I couldn’t draw a picture of a boot, so I’m in no position to judge a painter. I have a little more credibility as a writer, and as a writer something that always makes me cranky is very successful writers who find something that works and keep writing the same book over and over, just changing the names and locations. By and large, they’re rewarded for it, because people like the familiar.
That plan wasn’t for Vincent. If you look at his work from start to finish, it’s hard to believe it was done by the same guy. It’s not just that he became more skilled – through study and inspiration, he changed the way he saw the world. He didn’t just become a better painter; he became a different one.
He lived for two days after he shot himself, long enough for his brother to come to his side. His last words were, “The sadness will last forever.”
Maybe. The thing is, he put his whole heart into everything he did, every day of his life, for his entire life. And it was a big heart. When something that big finally breaks, I think Vincent was right. The sadness is there forever.
But it’s a profound mistake to treat that as his whole story. There's much, much more.
Copyright 2022 Brent Olson
I'll never forget seeing my first Van Gogh at Musée d'Orsay in Paris, realizing that I had only seen magazine prints and even the small prints in the "art appreciation" booklets in my one room school house back in the 1950s, and how alive those paintings were in person. Thankfully the museum had padded benches, for I planted myself and simply starred at the Van Gogh corner with painting so richly painted that the depth of the paint on some were seemingly an inch in depth, with vibrant color and passion shouting from the canvases. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam should not be missed. Thanks for a lovely column, not only for the beautiful writing but also the amazing memories it sparked.