Corona & Culture
Under any circumstances, a new exhibition of Van Gogh is a big event in any country. The format of Van Gogh exhibitions has been varied during recent years, balancing between under- and over-performing, from such under-expectation concept as the whole show built around just five works of Van Gogh in New York, to the creation of that overblown cosmos based on Van Gogh’ images but having very little in common with the artist himself, as those kitsch Van Gogh Disneylands popular in many countries.
Corona pandemic has changed it all, making those who love real art in its real dimension to become more nostalgic and nervous than ever. Ah, that great Degas real exhibition at the National Gallery Washington DC, just so very recently, just half of a year ago. It feels like six years, not six months now. Ah, those countless visits to Van Gogh museums, that one in Amsterdam, and another one in Otterlo, nearby the Dutch capital. How many times could one visit it? Countless times. How many times was it done? So many times. When it could be done again? Who knows. This uncertainty unnerves, in a serious way.
Of course, corona is not about our real culture’s deficiency only. It is about everything in our lives. But when culture is deficient, that deficiency not only suffocates those who love it. It poses a fundamental threat to those who did not get to love it as yet. Culture is a vitamin of civility, and this vitamin is of a life-depending category. Civility itself is too.
So, when we heard that there will be a full-size real exhibition of Van Gogh in Helsinki, during corona restrictions world-wide and despite of it, we, the Van Gogh devoted admirers, were exalted. Knowing the organisers, we were not surprised. If somebody could do it, they could. Didrichsen family is known as people who conduct their family museum and its art collection to the best, being focused, devoted and able. They also are known for being staunch supporters of Israel who have participated or initiated many charitable initiatives in such support.
These people demonstrate judgement and will, and it is exactly what was needed to succeed in bringing the unprecedented exhibition in their home-country, in spite of so many obstacles posed by corona-time.
Van Gogh recent exhibitions
As it is known, Van Gogh additionally to becoming a super-commodity, in those endless subjects with printed images of his, from stickers to sandals, has also become a top artist for all kinds of exhibitions world-wide, from those built on just a few of his works, to those serious undertakes as the last international big Van Gogh show in Frankfurt in 2019-early 2020 featuring more than fifty of his works. The pace of Van Gogh shows was breathtaking and over-galloping, providing us with up to 10 Van Gogh exhibitions annually during the several last years. One cannot devalue Van Gogh by the number of his exhibitions, except those kitsch Disneylands in his name, but the theme of Van Gogh has certainly become over-exploited due to such race with his exhibitions.
And then corona stroke. Several important exhibitions were planned for this year in the USA, two in Japan, several in Europe, most of them had been rescheduled for next year now, with no clear understanding on when it will happen. In another mighty set-back, 60 previous paintings from the National Art Gallery in London, including Van Gogh works, had been stuck in Japan after the major exhibition there, due to the world-wide travel restrictions caused by the covid pandemic. When the priceless works would reach home is unclear. The only clear thing is that the public won’t be able to see them for a long time from now.
With regard to Van Gogh works which we used to have in public domain in numerous exhibitions all over the world in progressing abundance during recent years, now, due to the pandemic, we have Van Gogh’s abrupt disappearance, in a shocking contrast.
This is against these unbelievable-but-true realities of the current art exhibition world that the Didrichsen Museum in Helsinki brought to public 40 large drawings, or rather works on paper of Van Gogh and two special oil works in their so very timely Becoming Van Gogh exhibition ( 5.09. 2020 – 31.01.2021). It is the one of just three Van Gogh exhibitions this year world-wide which is a sobering contrast and change in comparison with the international culture realities before corona. It is also the first ever monographic Van Gogh exhibition in Finland.
The Didrichsen Van Gogh show
What I call ‘timely’ for almost breathless at the moment domain of international exhibitions is also specifically relevant for this museum which is a private art institution in Finland. This interesting family art museum celebrates its 55th anniversary this year, and the Van Gogh exhibition was planned as an exquisite celebration of the date, both for the museum and Didrichsen family and for a wide public. The preparation for this exhibition took as long as eight years which is not that unusual for the monographic exhibition showing over forty Van Goghs. The choice of this special exhibition was made by Didrichsens many years back. Van Gogh is favourite artist of the Museum’s long-term previous director Peter Didrichsen who along with his wife, the Museum’s current director, Maria worked incredibly hard in order to make it happen. And they did, very much in the family motto: to formulate the objective and to get it done. In this, both Peter and Maria Didrichsen are continuing the line of Peter’s parents, legendary patrons of arts, Marie-Louise and Gunnar Didrichsen who have established this notable art institution based on their interesting and worthy art collection of modern art.
The museum and its anniversary
It is not without reason that elegant, worthy and interesting Didrichsen Museum is known in Finland and beyond it as ‘a cultural oasis in Helsinki’. The family was very friendly with Henry Moore and has amassed the second largest private collection of his works outside the UK. They were also friendly with Sonya Delauney who did sign one of her works to Gunnar and Marie-Lousie Didrichsen warmly. In their collection, one can find exquisite artworks by Picasso, Dali, Giacometti, Miro and many others, plus they brought to Finland and Scandinavia impressive heritage of the culture of Maya.
The Museum itself is known to the public for their pioneering exhibitions of Munch, Moore, Kandinsky, Dali, three unique exhibitions of Maya culture, among almost 90 major exhibitions organised by them from 1965 onward.
The current Van Gogh exhibition is an undoubted crown in the Didrichsen museum’s activities. The exhibition has become possible due to the Didrichsens sharply-thought concept of the exhibition and their unmistaken choice of the partners.
Partners: Kröller-Muller Museum and Ateneum
Maria Didrichsen, the Museum’s director who dedicated to her family culture establishment all her life, told me that after deciding back in 2012 that the exhibition celebrating the Museum’s 55th anniversary would be of the works by Van Gogh, the next step for them was to figure out the correct partner. “ Of course, majority of the monographic exhibitions are completed on the principle of loaning the works from different museums and collections, but there is also the other way of doing it, namely, to find out the partner who would become your main co-author of the exhibition, thus exploring more coherent approach, especially when we are talking on not a giant museums” – explains Maria.
The Dutch Kröller-Muller is a unique museum indeed. It was established in 1935 and opened in 1938 by the Dutch state after the couple of Helene Muller, the daughter of a prosperous German industrialist, and Anton Kroller, large-scale Dutch entrepreneur, bequeathed their incredible art collection which was created by Helene, to the people of the Netherlands. The museum is situated at the island which is an hour drive from Amsterdam. With 100 Van Gogh’s paintings and 180 of his drawings which are actually large works in mixed technique on paper, this special museum has the second largest Van Gogh collection in the world, after the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The Amsterdam museum which was opened in 1973 after the Van Gogh family bequeathed their family collection to the state back in 1962, with their 200 Van Gogh’s paintings, started to function 35 years later than Kroller-Muller, which was the museum with the largest Van Gogh collection in the world for 35 years.
Such an impressive collection of Van Gogh was passionately collected by Helene Kroller-Muller who was one of the most enthusiastic Van Gogh devotees world-wide. Her attitude towards Van Gogh’s works was personal, deep, and fine in her encompassing love for the artist.
What is amazing in the exhibition organised by the Didrichsen Museum in Helsinki now is the similarity of the two institutions, two private art museums, the one in Finland and the other one in the Netherlands. Both are privately run, both are based on family collections, both have quite similar understanding and feeling of how a private top art museum should function. And to full amazement of those who are keen to detail, even the architecture of two buildings, one constructed in the 1930s in the Dutch Otterlo, and another built thirty years later in Finland, are very similar, as well. It tells you why the several years of cooperation between these two European art establishments went on so well, not only on a professional, but also on a personal level. This mutual understanding has become a very important factor of this successful endeavour.
The other partner in the Didrichsen live Van Gogh exhibition in Helsinki is Ateneum, the Finnish National Art Gallery. They graciously loaned for the exhibition their own gem, the only work of Van Gogh in Finland, the one of the two oil works in this exhibition. The Ateneum work has an extraordinary story of itself, as many works by Van Gogh.
Concept: Van Gogh’s places and his efforts
The concept of this exhibition is logical and clear one: it shows the way of self-improvement of Van Gogh the artist via 40 of his large drawings highlighted by two oil paintings as ‘a resume’ of the viewing tour.
“What we call drawings in this display, are not necessarily or only drawings, actually, – Maria Didrichsen commented to me. – Most of these works are executed by Van Gogh in what we now call mixed technique, with several mediums used together, as pencil, coal, gouache, ink, pastel, watercolour and wash in various colours. These works are much more than mere ‘drawings’, they are complex stages of artistic self-improvement of Van Gogh during the last decade of his life” – said Maria.
Yes, this last decade of that life of that man and that artist. How on earth during nine years an artist can produce this amount of works of that quality, those 1300 drawings and those 850 paintings that Van Gogh did? This is the one of the biggest mysteries in the whole history of art, which adds the magnetism to the most magnetic artist humanity produced.
In her Opening Remarks sent to the ceremony in Helsinki in September 2020, Dr Lisette Pelser , director of Kroller-Muller Museum, has emphasised: “ This exhibition ( at the Didrichsen Museum) offers a unique insight into Van Gogh’s decisive, formative years. Even with us, in the Kröller-Müller Museum, this cannot be seen and experienced as extensively in our Van Gogh gallery!” ( Speech by Dr Pelsers, 5th September 2020, Helsinki, Didrichsen Museum).
Top level presentation
The execution of this rare exhibition is quite compelling. It has been produced to meet the world-class standards, in all details and aspects, from the exhibition composition till the classy catalogue. The exhibition scrupulously met all highest and toughest standards of security and art work preservation. At the time of corona, it also met all necessary requirements for the covid regulations which are doable in such a responsible public and highly organised country as Finland is, but still is a tough challenge.
I was very glad to see growing queue to see Van Gogh’s works live, and to learn that this long queue is a permanent feature of the exhibition which is visited by 600 people daily which is a record among the very well attend top exhibitions at the Didrichsen museum, not to speak about culture event in the time of corona in Finland and elsewhere.
The visitors are awarded for their queuing. This exhibition is the very rare one where one can see Van Gogh’s works from quite close distance, to be able to recognise his signatures in unparalleled live life experience, even to see the prints of his fingers in a blue paint that he clumsily left on one of his drawings while signing it. The way in which Didrichsens presented their exhibition is like to be privileged to get into the Van Gogh studio, whatever small chamber it was during different periods of those last nine years of his life, and to see the details of his work as if emerging in front of your eyes, right now and here. Amazing effect of possibility to see the works from a fairly close distance.
The Didrichsen team has produced not only a very good large Introduction panel which is a must at serious exhibition, but also they were intrigued by Van Gogh’s Europe-trotting in his unusually for that period so intense travel and changing the places of living and being. As a telling element of the exposition, a large map has been artistically and tastefully produced which has become a fresh and attractive point of reference for everyone who visits the exhibition.
Walking through the exposition – and being lucky to have very thorough and well-prepared guides commenting on every single work exhibited – the exhibition’s visitors are able to follow the way of Van Gogh’s self-work as an artist, from one of his first drawings onward.
That drawing is truly touching one, and very personal too. It is known that when Helene Kroller-Muller saw it, she was smitten. She said that she ‘started to feel physically the emotions that Van Gogh had” while drawing this simple but very warm and reflective work.
Collection Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands. (C) Authorised media collection, Didrichsen Museum.
In so many works exhibited in Helsinki, the hands of people portrayed by Van Gogh are the focus of his works. In this, one can see the unmistaken echo of Rembrandt who was in Van Gogh’s thoughts permanently, even when he was not drawing or painting. Rembrandt was a central planet of Van Gogh’s cosmic system, so to say. In so many of his letters, the stream of his thought, not necessarily directly or immediately connected to his own art work, starts from Rembrandt who was a formatting part of Van Gogh’s both consciousness and subconsciousness , which is not surprising given the fact that the unique artist, Rembrandt who did revolutionised visual art, was a principle authority for many star-artists before and after Van Gogh. What is interesting in this exhibition is the fact that this major influence of Rembrandt is so visible in the collection of Van Gogh’s works selected for the exposition.
In these works it is also obvious that Van Gogh who started to be professionally familiar with art from the age of 15 when he began to work as an art-dealer helping his uncle, and who was largely self-taught, had no difficulties neither with light which is an essential stumbling point for any beginning artist. His ability to paint cloth yet in his early experimenting works are surprisingly convincing, too.
At the same time, from an impressive and comprehensive selection of works on the wall in Helsinki, one can easily detect Van Gogh’s struggling with anatomy in his works and invalid proportions of the human body all over it. Interestingly enough, the exhibition’s organisers have selected the works which shows both Van Gogh’s problems with his art works, and his progress as he was working frantically. This is a rare and interesting line in curatorial thinking.
Vincent’s chair: his logo
Rare Van Gogh’s exhibition avoids his famous chair, if only because of the fact that he was drawing and painting it almost everywhere in his works. Only the exhibitions covering his Sunflowers and landscapes are chair-less ones. The exhibition at the Didrichsen museum is full of that chair, completed, not completed, but so often present. I have always thought that this chair of his was Van Gogh’s logo.
There is a theory by the ever-inventive prolific art critic Waldemar Januszczak that connects that famous Vincent’s chair to the artist’s fascination with Charles Dickens and that regard Van Gogh’s obsession with the one and the same chair as his homage to Dickens, the one of the writers who did impress him a lot. Januszczak builds his case on the popular at the time lithograph of Dickens’ study, with a chair in the centre, that Van Gogh had decorated his London lodging with. With all due respect to superb Waldermar Januszczak, this theory seems like an over-stretched one to me. Van Gogh did like Dickens indeed, and writers did influence him greatly, but there were several if not many writers in the literary Panteon that Van Gogh has selected and built up, metaphorically, for himself. And Van Gogh indeed, paid a huge attention to visual images of all kinds surrounding himself with it during all his life, as a dutiful student which he actually was at any stage of his life. That lithograph on his wall in London, in my view, was more like a happy bell singing in unison with his own world, his own chair, the sign of his inner inter-connection with one of his favourite writers via supposedly mundane detail of a chair. Because for Vincent, his chair always was anything but mundane. He was painting sitting on it, you see, metaphorically too, that’s why it has become his ‘logo’. It was his symbol of his belonging to artists, being an artist. That’s why the chair, the one and the same, the symbol and the logo, is everywhere.
The exhibition in Helsinki shows just one work portraying Van Gogh’s famous trees, there are many more people and some landscapes at this exhibition. But the early work in which Van Gogh paints his poetic, as if speaking trees, is selected very precisely. In his soulful perception of the outside world, Van Gogh always firmly believed that trees in particular are soulful creatures. He would go as far as to compare trees with people’s characters, pointing out that every tree’s shape tells about its inner character: he saw shy, nervous, unsure, contemplating, sure, boasting, and all kinds of trees, projecting the features of human characters onto them. To me, it sounds perfectly correct, but we know that among his artistic colleagues, including French Impressionists who loved and understood nature, Van Gogh was in solitude in his perception of trees. I wonder on had he ever heard about Jewish Mystics’ understanding of the soulfulness of trees and every other living creature? I won’t be surprised if he did. He read the Bible feverishly during some periods of his life, knew the Old Testament and Psalms extremely well, was the son and grandson of the Protestant priests with their reverend attitude towards the Old Testament, and wanted to be a priest himself at a certain stage of his life. In any case, his trees are a certified wonder of the world, and the early work shown at the Didrichsen Museum exhibition proves it graciously.
Lessons of Human Typology
In predominantly portraits-contained Becoming Van Gogh show in Helsinki one can see quite clearly Van Gogh’s efforts of infusing his depiction of people with psychological rendition of it. Not only did he struggle with anatomic proportions, correct depiction of features of human faces ( not to speak about their figures), but admirably, since early stages of his express time-wise, mostly self-taught craft-course, he was clearly occupied with conveying psychological references in his portraits. There is no question that his unusual immersion of the world of literature which was everything for Vincent at any stage of his life, had to do with his sublime interest in the inner depth of the human soul. At this exhibition, we can see it in Man with An Eye-Bandage portrait and even in his colour Scene in the Church which many experts interpret as ‘a caricature’. I disagree with such interpretation.
And certainly in two stunning portraits of his Sien, the only woman in his life with whom he lived together in an effort to build a family and home, even if shortly, for a bit over a year. Sien, who was a hard working prostitute with children, was not a beauty. Tellingly, Vincent’s perception of beauty with regard to nature was drastically different with his regard to women, especially to the women in his romantic life who all did look similar, actually ( his cousin, Sien, and couple of more of those whom he had relationships with) : dark completion, older than himself, with powerful features of face and body. Vincent who was a very wholesome person, evidently built up his own ideal of a woman that he felt attraction to; or it was the chemistry that worked its way between him and his type of woman.
When his relationships, always difficult ones with all of them, were on a sunny side, he produced such outstanding works as we have a luxury to observe at the exhibition in Helsinki. On both of those portraits, Sien is depicted being much prettier than she actually was. Not surprisingly. Vincent was incurable romantic, as we know. Thank Heaven, he was, with such mighty, incomprehensible, unique talent. Not only these and alike works of Van Gogh show us what love in heart can do with talent in hand, but these works are among the most expressive, charming and convincing evidences of how love can transform its subject.
Among the works in Helsinki, there are many genre scenes and portraits of people while working which were not only the cases of perpetual self-master-class of Vincent to Van Gogh, but also an intentional demonstration of his solidarity with the working class and people working at all possible situations. He did draw them in such a prevailing number on purpose. It was his way of expressing his solidarity and compassion with them. Van Gogh was a very good man, importantly.
In all those works, a giant influence of Millet is super-evident in the selection shown at the Didrichsen Museum, and according to Maria Didrichsen, “it was done on purpose, in order to emphasise that special treat in the very process of Van Gogh becoming a superb master”. People visiting the exhibition are really gleaned to the works where Millet’s presence is strongly evident, but where Van Gogh is very much mastering his own way. These are truly gems of the exhibition, both historically and intimately as they are as inviting us into the inner world of Van Gogh and explaining us his way to artistic Olympus. One more work selected for the exhibition has a historic reference, A Boy With Sickle (1881) is notably the first Van Gogh’s watercolour.
Clear line of unhappiness
The exhibition in Helsinki impacts its visitors in a powerful way not only because it succeeded in bringing so many original works of Van Gogh in the genius’ first monographic exhibition in Finland, and not only because it has been produced and presented impeccably, but because it has its own line of thought, its own narrative, its own essence of presentation. To me, this essence is a clear line of Van Gogh’s palpable unhappiness, although I know that when developing the concept of the exhibition, the Didrichsen Museum team was thinking on showing the stages of the artist’s development in connection with the places of his sojourning during the last decade of his life.
In this conceptual blue-print, there are five parts of the exhibition which are transferring each into the other consequently, with showing 12 Van Gogh’s works from his almost a year in Etten (1881), the very beginning of his concentrated artist effort, followed by 20 works from his two years in Haag (from the end of 1881 until the Autumn 1883) when he tried to build a home and family, unsuccessfully so; that is followed by 8 works from his almost a year of a very unhappy sojourn with his parents in Neunen; a couple of drawings and extraordinary self-portrait from Van Gogh’s famous, infamous and so dramatically important two year in Paris (from March 1986 to February 1888), and a very special oil painting from the very end of his life and career from Auvers-sur-Oise.
Somehow, through this geography and time, there is one constant in all those 42 works exhibited at the Didrichsen Museum: acute unhappiness of the artist. And this makes visitors think. The genius who left us all those magnificent sunflowers, those blossoming trees, those incredible skies, was such a deeply unhappy person during all years of the last decade of his short 37 years old life, so wounded, so melancholic often, so vulnerable.
From this prospect, Van Gogh’s exuberant colours that he started to produce just four years before his death, his authentic understanding of Japan and its fine philosophy and symbolism, his poetic and flowering world created for us, all this richness and unparalleled beauty which is his unique heritage, all this is seen even in bigger contrast, from yet another perspective: how such deeply unhappy man could create that incredible feast for eyes for us? The efforts of Van Gogh the artist to overcome the depressing drama of Vincent the man are seen yet more tangibly when we can see his permanent unhappiness during that last decade of his life when he was becoming Van Gogh.
Drama in oil
After observing those 40 large works on paper, visitors came to two last works of the Helsinki exhibition ending that classy show. Those are just two oil works, a small self-portrait of Van Gogh and the one of his very last paintings from the south of France.
One can think that after seeing various images of many of Van Gogh’s self-portraits million times in all possible ways, there can be nothing new in yet another one. The thing, however, is that Van Gogh belongs to the category of artists who are incomparably better in life than in reproductions. Any of Van Gogh’s works, especially oil paintings, is a revelation when seeing live, in comparison with its reproduction. The same goes for this small portrait on display in Helsinki. Maria Didrichsen has told me that it was the idea of their colleagues from Kroller-Muller museum to include that self-portrait into the show. A highly professional idea it was, indeed.
That portrait created by Van Gogh in the period when he was self-portraying himself frantically is one of 36 known self-portraits of the artist. It is small. But it is magnetic. It just speaks pain in its special technique of hundreds if not thousands of very small brush strokes that Van Gogh constructs his image with. These eyes are completely magnetic. They are getting you closer and closer and you do not know how to express your own compassion towards the man in the portrait. It is beyond one’s understanding how pain can be created on canvas so palpably. And any reproduction would never relate the real sensation of seeing this small Vincent’s self-portrait in green. That’s why nothing in the world cannot replace live art exhibitions. Ever.
Next to the small green self-portrait at the exhibition at the Didrichsen Museum, there is another oil painting of this exhibition. It is the only Van Gogh painting in Finland and it has been on loan to Didrichsen Museum from Ateneum, the Finnish National Art Gallery, for which is a cordial thanks to this important institution and its director Marja Sakari who is a known expert on French culture.
That large enough oil painting is important because it is the one of the very last ones that Van Gogh did. It is also special because it happened to be the first Van Gogh ever acquired by a museum in the world. Contrary to the established understanding that it had happened in 1908 for Städel Museum, actually it did happen in Finland five years earlier, under quite uneasy circumstances. At the time, Van Gogh was regarded as largely unknown and certainly obscure Dutch artist, was clearly under-appreciated and completely misunderstood by many people on the top of the art museums world who were deciding on the acquisitions. After serious efforts and with involvement of several major figures who were backing the acquisition, not as much for its artistic merits but in order to help the seller, the work was finally acquired for the Finnish National Art Gallery for 2,500 marks , the sum which corresponds to 11.300 Euro today. Director of Ateneum does not want ‘even to speculate’ on possible evaluation of the work today, because as she said in a recent interview on the matter, the work will never leave the country. Quite justly so.
Another peculiarity of the work is that during a long period of time, it was debated among the experts on whether the work was completed by Van Gogh, or its skies are not finished. Given the circumstances of Van Gogh’s last few months in Auvers-sur-Oise, either interpretation is plausible. In any case, it is just very telling skies. These skies as if speaking with you. Especially when you are seeing the work live.
Love as a Special Feature
As the intellectually charged and fully emotional experience of this unique exhibition ends, and one is analysing one’s impressions, it all deduces one special feature, love. The exhibition Becoming Van Gogh at the Didrichsen Museum in Helsinki demonstrates love and attention in full measure. Love to unparalleled artist whom Maria and Peter Didrichsen regard as the most important artist in the world, and attention in the way of the exhibition’s producing, the way of telling the story they choose to tall, in effort to highlighting Vincent’s movements, both physical and geographical ones, the stages of his artistic development during that last and only artistic decade in his short life.
This exhibition succeeded in abolishing the distance between us today and that genius man who was creating so incredibly 240 years ago. It is a very warm story told in respectfully intimate way, if intimate means attention and understanding despite the distance of time.
Actually, for myself, after seeing the exhibition in Helsinki, I started to call it Loving Vincent. A good deed by the good museum and its able team, so much needed by all of us at this depressing time of restrictions spreading into anything and everything.
The exhibition is on display until 31.01. 2021.