A Visit to Vincent van Gogh Museum, Guest Starring Monet, Daubigny and Pissarro
(Amsterdam.) ”Maybe I should go and live in Amsterdam / In a side street near a big canal / Spend my evenings in the van Gogh Museum / What a dream, van Gogh Museum” - the late Lou Reed, Modern Dance. To others this seems more like a nightmare. We don’t know about you, but it’s not exactly a pleasure to contemplate Vincent an Gogh’s oeuvre. His works are impressive, unique, brilliant, (very) valuable, but also disquieting, terrifying, and every line a violent assault on the mind. You would not want one hanging beside your bed, those coloured fields, trees, building and skies screaming at you, channelling the painter’s inner tensions in every manic brush stroke. Van Gogh demands respect, not love. Who could comfortably endure the nervous attack for more than a few minutes at a time?
Amsterdam’s van Gogh Museum is one of a kind. There are countless one-man museums all over the world, even for famous painters, but none of them has the financial might, and consequently as many works - as many important masterpieces -, as this one. Not even the Marmottan with its wonderful Monet collection can come close, it’s smaller, much smaller. Van Gogh Museum appears on every tourist’s must-see schedule for Amsterdam: "Dam’s Square-RLD-van Gogh Museum (/Rijksmuseum maybe)". There’s hardly anything else to do; other than get wasted. With this we are at the downsides to a visit to van Gogh Museum. Remember, how we complained about, or merely mentioned, the lack of visitors at Amsterdam Art Weekend? They were all at van Gogh Museum. It’s crowded. The biggest Vincent fan could lose interest after the first few rooms, and seeing nothing but arms, heads and backs of other Vincent fans pushing him forth and back. It almost feels like an opening at Gemäldegalerie Berlin. There are three storeys packed with artworks of Vincent van Gogh, and only Vincent van Gogh.
It’s advised to arrive early in the morning, the museum opens at ten, and be the first in line. We did that. But then went to see the temporary exhibitions in the side wing first. Over there, they actually do include other painters. Currently in a show on Frenchman Charles-François Daubigny, or Daubigny, Monet, Pissarro and van Gogh to be precise.
Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878) was a painter halfway between classic style(s) – he was a regular at the annual “Salon”, the market opener for establishment acknowledged artists – and the young punks of Impressionism.
Any time, any place, artists know each other, Daubigny and the Impressionists met in and around Paris, or on travels to the Netherlands and elsewhere. The mutual influence is no coincidence. Impressionists esteemed Daubigny, but also made it clear, he was not a member of their club. When Daubigny in 1868 became a judge at the Salon, he furthered their canonization.
The show starts with Charles-François Daubigny’s first and last work respectively, both on the same wall. The Landscape in Roman Campagna (1836) looks classic alright, and the sky in Moonrise at Anvers (1877) almost seems to quote van Gogh (ignore the traditional foreground). But it would not be correct to assume a continuous development, an evolution from classic past to Impressionist now and beyond.
VvGM offers a great overview on Daubigny’s work, with paintings, drawings, sketches, engravings, fifteen etchings in a book. A quote by Théophile Gautier, 1852, sounds even more Impressionist than he truly was: “Daubigny contents himself with an impression, and so neglects the details. His paintings only ever offer juxtapositions of colour patches.”
Impressionism means no details, in favour of ambiance. Not a mirror of reality, but a daydream that captures the essence, the feel of a view. The experts add “painted live in an open air studio”, etc. In Daubigny’s work, plastic, unrealistic, colour fields alternate with a most unimpressionist care for details - details understood as a wealth of meticulously represented facets of reality. The mere presence of contemporary, everyday phenomena - a small steamboat, fashionable passers-by, chimneys or black smoke as Daubigny included them e.g. in the Seine at Mantes, 1856 – on the other hand was typical impressionist. By the 1860s, he again removed all traces of industrialization from his work, and preferred nostalgic, pastoral, views of the past. All through his career, he effortlessly shifted between styles. There are most classic works, with a golden frame bigger than the image according to fashion, and others, genuine modern. Crossroads of the Eagle’s Nest, Fontainebleau Forest, 1843-44, would be an example for the first, Sunset on the Oise, 1865, one for the latter. It would be too easy to say, progressive at heart, Daubigny never quit catering to his clients at the Salon.
Occasionally, he sought to appear more modern than he was. According to the painter’s autobiography, Cliffs near Villerville (1864-72) was created outside. Van Gogh Museum is quick to tell us, it was – mostly – done in the studio (maybe he opened a window while painting).
The countless juxtapositions, the immediate comparisons, in this exhibition are mostly convincing. Daubigny’s The Mill (1857) thus stands against Sisley’s Village Street in Marlotte (1866). Sisley shows less detail, Daubigny’s work is “clearer”, but the difference is gradual. More striking, Monet’s View of Amsterdam, 1874, seems typical for (his) Impressionism, and on a whole other level than Daubigny’s classic scene Mills at Dordrecht, 1872. But what is “typical Impressionism”, Monet’s Windmills Near Zaandam, 1872, could be described with the same words, yet it is something else also.
A Daubigny’s St Paul’s from the Surrey Side, 1871-73 (from a series of London views, with also Boats on the Thames, 1866/7, and Bank of the River Thames, 1968) differs much from Monet’s famous Charing Cross Bridge (that unfortunately is not shown here), but still is somehow impressionist. Then again, the most abstract Daubigny ever got: Landscape in Moonlight, 1875, not by coincidence reminds of the Holy Grail of Impressionism: Impression. Soleil levant (1872).
Daubigny did, of course, paint outside from time to time. He even got a boat, and furnished it as a studio in 1857. Sixteen years later, Monet did the same, and promptly painted his new possession. A great idea, a little gimmick, an actual barge in the museum shows a video projection of paintings painting themselves on an easel, and on a second screen the “real” landscape with colours turned to painting mode and not much contrast/brightness.
There are also a lot of Pissarros mixed in. And that’s whom Daubigny compares to most. It seems almost unfair, Pissarro is so much better known today. Camille Pissarro’s Marne at Chennevières, first presented at the 1865 Salon, hangs next to Daubigny’s Ferry Boat near Bonnières-sur-Seine, and just like with another Banks of the Marne (for the Salon 1864; there seems to be a pattern, also Monet in his works for that occasion appears better behaved than usual), it's hard to tell which one is cleaner, clearer, more or less impressionist.
The movements back then were defined by the artists themselves, and not later attributed by history, the demarcation lines were not always strict. The local hero, Vincent, only joins upstairs for the second part. One of his last paintings, done earless but still full of life and anxiety, shows the Garden of Daubigny (1890), and he had painted it several times before. Monet, Daubigny, van Gogh all painted orchards, and once again, it’s less easy to tell them apart than you'd think. These, and more - Lhermitte, Millet, Theodore Rousseau - return in another, smaller, show around the corner with landscape drawings, sea- and moonscapes. It's more than enough for a lengthy visit to van Gogh Museum. But then, there’s the museum itself. It has van Gogh, and masses of visitors; that’s all you need to know.
To settle it once and for all: “Gogh” is not pronounced “gock”, and even less “goh”, but with a Gaelic/German “ch” both in the beginning and the end: “Fincent fahn Choch” (think “Loch Ness”).
Daubigny, Monet, van Gogh, 21 October 2016-29 January 2017, van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism