Sell­ing Van Gogh

The London Magazine - - WILL STONE -

In Am­s­ter­dam they are sell­ing artists. They are for­tu­nate, for they have three world-fa­mous artists to sell; Van Gogh, Rem­brandt and Ver­meer. Each has a mass fol­low­ing and a lim­it­less po­ten­tial for new ad­mir­ers, so each must be pro­moted to the hilt. It is no longer enough to know an artist is lo­cated in the fa­mous Ri­jksmu­seum, or the even more fa­mous Van Gogh Mu­seum just down the road, whose con­tents one might have thought self-ev­i­dent. No, from now on, there must be a gi­ant 100 feet square re­pro­duc­tion of an iconic im­age em­bla­zoned on the side of the mu­seum, bil­low­ing in the breeze like a sail, a gi­ant ad­ver­tise­ment hoard­ing for the wares inside. In this way, be­fore you have even en­coun­tered the ac­tual can­vas of the artist inside the build­ing, a paint­ing which you may have waited years to see, the per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of this en­counter is ir­re­vo­ca­bly cor­rupted. At the Ri­jksmu­seum, the im­age is a de­tail from Ver­meer’s fa­mous peas­ant woman in the dis­tinc­tive blue and yel­low dress, pour­ing milk from a rus­tic jug. This colos­sal im­age, so at odds with the diminu­tive size of the real paint­ing, draws you in with con­fi­dent ef­fi­ciency. From the mo­ment you ar­rive they have you in their grip, these slick or­gan­is­ers, steer­ing you through the slid­ing doors of these un­ceas­ingly upgraded mu­se­ums, ‘re­stored for the ex­pec­ta­tions of a modern au­di­ence’ - as they fan­fare in their lit­er­a­ture. This in­vis­i­ble body of peo­ple you will never meet is per­pet­u­ally mon­i­tor­ing and guid­ing you, per­mit­ting you en­try to their do­main, not yours or that of the artist you have come to en­counter, in the way they deem fit. Their need is to im­pose them­selves be­tween you and the artist as never be­fore. Noth­ing can be left to chance. To sim­ply ob­serve a paint­ing and re­flect on it is not suf­fi­cient. What was once the core ex­pe­ri­ence of a per­son’s visit is now merely a barely lit vestibule lead­ing to the great light-flooded hall of ma­te­rial ac­qui­si­tion, the re­strained space of in­ti­mate per­sonal re­flec­tion over­shad­owed by the over­bear­ing pres­ence of the ever-ex­pand­ing mu­seum shop.

In the sum­mer months, they are work­ing at full ca­pac­ity to en­sure the pro­duc­tion line of vis­i­tors never fal­ters. All ob­jec­tive is profit and the means to achiev­ing it. The whole process is care­fully en­gi­neered, honed and pol­ished by trial and er­ror, by the strin­gent ap­pli­ca­tion of im­prove­ments to the sys­tem of visi­tor man­age­ment. The man­date is to main­tain the cease­less flow of bod­ies through the ticket desks, fun­nelling them into the pic­ture gallery where ‘the menu’ is pre­sented, and on into the main course, the sprawl­ing sales area where ever more fan­tas­tic con­cen­tra­tions of ‘sou­venirs’, themed by paint­ing, are laid out or piled high in spa­cious em­po­ri­ums. It is here they would like you to linger long­est.

The mo­ment you descend from the tram at Mu­se­umplein you no­tice with some dis­quiet the un­healthy press­ing of bod­ies in the ar­eas around the mu­se­ums, with gag­gles of op­por­tunists feed­ing on the greater tourist body as it passes. Di­shev­elled loi­ter­ers edge around the seething crowds, look­ing for their chance to sell some­thing, which as if il­licit they keep veiled to the last mo­ment. A plethora of sou­venir shops and eater­ies cling in­sis­tently to the edges of the mu­se­ums as if for sus­te­nance, like those tiny fish which cleave to larger in­ver­te­brates and are nour­ished by the greater donor. They sell ex­actly what is inside the mu­seum, but they soon re­alised that more sales could be gained by plac­ing a dop­pel­ganger or two out­side to pick off passers-by who might not wish to ac­tu­ally en­ter the mu­seum and see the gen­uine paint­ings, or any­one who has left and then sud­denly re­mem­bered they need an ex­tra tea towel show­ing Ver­meer’s Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring, or a Rem­brandt self-por­trait em­bossed toi­let roll holder. What per­vades such ar­eas is the unswerv­ing dom­i­nance of shop­ping, this fren­zied gath­er­ing of sec­ondary ob­jects, over art or re­flec­tion, a grow­ing sense that the art is merely there as a trig­ger for the con­sump­tion, a spring­board to pur­chas­ing, that thrill at the till when the nar­cotic takes ef­fect, that brief mo­ment of de­cep­tive ful­fil­ment when the buyer re­laxes, hav­ing de­cided, hav­ing crossed the line to ac­qui­si­tion. Gain­ing some­thing in a bag rather than in the heart, the un­remit­ting en­tice­ment of phys­i­cal ac­qui­si­tion proves stronger.

In the not too dis­tant past, art stood apart from all this: but dur­ing

the Sev­en­ties end­less re­pro­duc­tions of Monet’s Poppy Fields spread like ground el­der on sub­ur­ban walls and the die was cast, con­sol­i­dated in the Eight­ies boom in poster art, with Klimt’s The Kiss and Schiele’s trade­mark an­gu­lar bruised mod­els plas­tered on every stu­dent’s bed­sit wall. To­day com­mer­cial­ism holds forth with such in­sis­tence that the art it has bur­gled shrinks back in­stinc­tively, des­per­ately shield­ing its dig­nity from the un­remit­ting ra­tio­nal­is­tic hu­man at­ten­tion, the in­fra-red cam­eras and art de­tec­tives who probe its most se­cret and once in­scrutable el­e­ments. Only its mirac­u­lous con­tin­ued ex­is­tence, its ac­tual sur­vival, con­sti­tutes an au­then­tic­ity that re­pels the fi­nal de­struc­tive in­tru­sion of re­pro­duc­tion.

The art gal­leries of Am­s­ter­dam are now, be­cause of the fa­mous con­tents within them, hope­lessly pin­ioned by the great op­por­tunist: mam­mon. The Ri­jksmu­seum an­chor­age, a repos­i­tory for ge­nius, was deemed a dusty chaotic un­pro­duc­tive her­ring­bone wood-floored anachro­nism. The agen­cies who spe­cialise in change soon re­alised the po­ten­tial to de­velop it in such a way that it might al­low real money to be made from what was once a grand and no­ble ed­i­fice for ex­hibit­ing great paint­ings, noth­ing more. Now, to get your­self and your soon to be fil­leted wal­let inside, you must first pass through a strin­gent se­cu­rity ring, wor­thy of an air­port. This is no cur­sory bag search, but a long in-depth ex­am­i­na­tion of one’s prop­erty and per­haps soon, who knows, one’s most in­ti­mate ar­eas. It would not be sur­pris­ing to have your purse checked at the en­trance to en­sure you have enough money to spend in the shop and cafe. At the Van Gogh mu­seum down the road this se­cu­rity check is even more rigorous and in­tru­sive, so by the time one has forced one’s way through the press­ing frac­tious crowds, past the foulsmelling overused toi­lets and been searched for ex­plo­sives, there is lit­tle ap­petite left to catch a scant glimpse of Wheat­field with Crows, through six ranks of con­stantly in­ter­chang­ing peo­ple. In­stead you are left with lit­tle more than a bit­ter sense of what might have been, an empty wal­let, a lung­ful of fetid air and an in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the vari­a­tions in crowns of peo­ple’s heads from all over the world.

All this af­ter pay­ing an ex­or­bi­tant en­trance fee which has mys­te­ri­ously dou­bled in three years and of­fers no dis­counts what­so­ever for any­one,

not the old, not the dis­abled, nor the out of work. Then, as in the in­fer­nal Lou­vre pyra­mid, you face wall to wall crowds milling in a per­pet­ual state of al­ter­nat­ing fre­netic an­i­ma­tion and dis­ori­en­ta­tion on three floors of the atrium-like build­ing. A sense of con­fu­sion and anx­i­ety is preva­lent, only off­set by that low crowd mur­mur that is the ver­balised re­lief of gain­ing en­try at last into the sa­cred space. You feel you have stum­bled on a mass pop­ulist event such as a foot­ball match or rock con­cert. Peo­ple charge in all direc­tions as if to se­cure the best seats, yank­ing their off­spring as if on leads, but there are no seats, only a few in­ad­e­quate min­i­mal­ist benches on which an in­or­di­nate num­ber of fa­tigued back­sides perch hope­fully. In the gal­leries of the Van Gogh Mu­seum, peo­ple do their best not to walk into one an­other, or block each other’s view, but the hope­lessly in­suf­fi­cient space for the teem­ing num­bers makes this im­pos­si­ble. Most peo­ple are un­able to take in a pic­ture be­cause their vi­sion is con­stantly in­ter­rupted, or they are bumped into or have their feet trod­den on. Van Gogh’s blaz­ing yel­lows and golds, his ser­pent greens, grotto blues and scald­ing reds grow­ing out of the can­vas like some ex­tra-ter­res­trial fauna can only be glimpsed like sun­light ap­pear­ing oc­ca­sion­ally through a rent in a heavy pall of cloud.

For in to­day’s art gallery, in a tourist-swamped city like Am­s­ter­dam, a place where bod­ies are shov­elled into the boiler of con­sump­tion like so many lumps of coal, it is the shop which is the true en­gine house of the mu­seum, not the artist and not his work. The works of art may now be pro­tected and cher­ished as price­less heir­looms left from the work of an artis­tic vi­sion­ary, but ul­ti­mately it is the sell­ing of that myth that mat­ters. In Van Gogh’s case, the tale of the ‘tragic mis­un­der­stood ge­nius’ never loses its ap­peal to the global masses, who wield their iPhone and selfie sticks be­neath a shroud of er­satz ro­man­ti­cism. Through a sense of idle cu­rios­ity and the in­stinct to graze on plau­si­ble rhetoric, the leg­end of this mad­man painter with his over pas­sion­ate na­ture and his pen­chant for tor­tured self-mu­ti­la­tion, sets the pulse rac­ing in even the most list­less souls. An artist like Van Gogh can be sold to any na­tion, any peo­ple, de­vel­op­ing or de­clin­ing, small or large, un­e­d­u­cated or ed­u­cated. All are in­fected by the one-size-fits-all leg­end and by the de­cep­tively ac­ces­si­ble com­posed wild­ness of the jux­ta­posed colours, the sheer delir­ium of the brush­work. They can all sense he is a true modern

flushed with a once pres­ti­gious anx­i­ety now shared out to all, one who stands dras­ti­cally apart from the po­lite­ness and re­straint, the des­ic­ca­tion and academia of what went be­fore. This makes him ex­tremely saleable, for he en­cap­su­lates in one fig­ure both tragedy and hu­man ex­pres­sive­ness via na­ture, its elu­sive beauty and in­sur­mount­able pain. It is the sell­ing of this ex­pertly pack­aged Van Gogh, and the kitsch cultish para­pher­na­lia it spawns which is paramount, rather than any sen­si­tive ex­plo­ration of the real Van Gogh. And that is why the peo­ple do­ing the sell­ing are at pains to in­form the pub­lic it is all about ‘cel­e­brat­ing’ Van Gogh, or the more cosily fa­mil­iar, ‘Vin­cent’. To do this they never cease to in­form over and again of cer­tain sto­ries and le­gends in re­la­tion to the painter and his ‘beloved’ brother Theo. This se­duc­tive story with its sound-bite of ‘broth­erly love’, ap­peals to the ca­sual sen­ti­men­tal­ity of the new­comer. Tragedy and the fam­ily story al­ways sells, al­ways the bi­og­ra­phy out­strips the work in the pop­u­lar mind.

In a tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tion in the base­ment, a se­lec­tion of Van Gogh’s work from pri­vate gal­leries has been as­sem­bled. But again, there is a no­table over-in­form­ing go­ing on, a pal­pa­ble in­tru­sion by the or­gan­is­ers, who can­not re­sist med­dling, who can­not just dis­play a se­ries of paint­ings with min­i­mal but ef­fec­tive back­ground text or in­tro­duc­tion, but must dis­play above and be­low the paint­ings other loosely con­nected works, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally advertising their mostly spu­ri­ous re­la­tion to the Van Gogh in ques­tion. These con­tem­po­rary in­trud­ers hem in the work we are try­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate, get in the way, forc­ing us to look away con­stantly from the Van Gogh and to them.

As if this was not enough pe­riph­eral su­per­fluity, we have to en­dure the gi­ant in­struc­tions and prompts above the paint­ings, as if de­signed for the un­likely ar­rival of the vil­lage idiot. ‘Look closely, what can you see in this paint­ing?’ they coax ‘Is that a par­tridge or a lark?’ ‘Is this self-por­trait re­ally Vin­cent, or is it his brother Theo? Join in the con­tro­versy, you de­cide...fill out this form.’ You might think these prompts were de­signed for school chil­dren, but sadly when I en­quired that was not the case. This overt ‘in­clu­siv­ity’ per­pet­u­ated by those who now con­trol the ma­jor art gal­leries and mu­se­ums in Europe, is a symp­tom of our in­tel­lec­tu­ally de­based time,

where the idea has be­come ac­cepted that ev­ery­one can be an artist, a writer or a poet, you just have to ‘get in­volved’, have a go... This ill-starred men­tal­ity ap­pears to stem from the well-in­ten­tioned em­pow­er­ing so­cial­ism that pranced out of the late Six­ties, only to fall onto the wait­ing sharp­ened spikes of the profit men, mor­ph­ing into a flabby lib­er­al­ism which they ra­pa­ciously ex­ploited. Now one can­not move for the num­bers of wouldbe writ­ers and artists, all labour­ing past with their trol­leys of sub-stan­dard fare be­fore an over­whelmed pub­lic un­able to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween what is su­per­flu­ous and what is the real thing. There ap­pears to be an An­glo Saxon un­will­ing­ness to state any­thing in in­tel­lec­tual terms, to rub­bish ex­perts and clunk about ar­ro­gantly clad in irony only. There is to­day then an al­most patho­log­i­cal striv­ing to not ap­pear highbrow and this resur­gent pop­ulism has nat­u­rally in­fected the way art is viewed and as­sim­i­lated by ever larger num­bers of peo­ple at the same time.

II

The shop in the Van Gogh Mu­seum is, even by the stan­dards of to­day’s ma­nia for re­pro­duc­tion, stag­ger­ing in its scope and in­dus­trial ca­pac­ity. The shop takes up al­most one side of the ground floor of the mu­seum, then there is a sec­ondary shop on the base­ment level sell­ing iden­ti­cal ob­jects but on a smaller scale. To pass into the main sell­ing space is to be as­saulted on all sides by the same few se­lected paint­ings of Van Gogh re­pro­duced on a be­wil­der­ing va­ri­ety of or­di­nary ob­jects. Al­though we have been fa­mil­iar for many years now with the ubiq­ui­tous Monet um­brella or the Kafka mug, the sheer ar­ray of ob­jects here car­ry­ing the pop­u­lar im­age of choice is over­whelm­ing. Not only Van Gogh’s iconic Sun­flow­ers gets the treat­ment but other paint­ings which one had per­haps a fond­ness for in the past, but whose lush growth in the in­di­vid­ual con­scious­ness have been stymied by a kind of com­mer­cial de­fo­li­a­tion.

One thinks of the strik­ingly beau­ti­ful Van Gogh paint­ing of white al­mond blos­som against a rich blue back­ground, which here has been re­pro­duced on pads and jour­nals, pens and T shirts, glasses cases, hand­bags, travel bags, scarves, pocket mir­rors, in fact any­thing you can think of. There are

even flow­er­pots in brightly painted boxes advertising Vin­cent’s Gar­den. Why? What gar­den? No-one ap­pears to know or care. A dizzy­ing ar­ray of ob­jects stand in their ser­ried ranks, all alike, all bear­ing the al­mond blos­som paint­ing or the sun­flow­ers, all mak­ing off with it as if with a given right.

The orig­i­nal paint­ing is still there on the floor above, but what use is it to go up and look at it now, for every fi­bre of its be­ing has been stretched to break­ing point and be­yond. But what peo­ple are look­ing at here to­day is not the same al­mond blos­som paint­ing which stood here be­fore. The mass re­pro­duc­tion of this paint­ing has dragged it through the mire of crowd ap­pro­pri­a­tion, in the same way Munch’s The Scream as an eas­ily iden­ti­fi­able iconic im­age has been cor­ralled into a glob­ally recog­nised sym­bol for the ‘age of anx­i­ety’, fit for in­flat­able toys and T shirts. These al­mond blos­soms that stood out in that sun­light en­livened white against the im­pos­si­bly blue sky, all those paints that Van Gogh ap­plied in his strug­gle to cap­ture that sin­gle mo­ment in its en­tirety and it is said, even con­sumed on oc­ca­sion in deliri­ous frus­tra­tion, are now cov­er­ing these life­less ev­ery­day ob­jects like shrouds on so many corpses. But a woman passes and grabs a hand­bag, a pen, some notepa­per, she has per­haps five or six al­mond blos­som items, she must love this paint­ing, but she will not be sat­is­fied with just see­ing it, she must ac­quire it and if there is more than one object dis­play­ing it so much the bet­ter. Two Ja­panese peo­ple try on hats with the al­mond blos­som on and an Ital­ian girl rather fan­cies her­self in the head scarf. Her boyfriend steps back to ad­mire; ‘Yes it suits you... but at forty euros that’s a bit pricey.’ This Amer­i­can man has bought a set of drinks mats and this one a set of tow­els. He’ll go home, bathe and wrap his naked body in the al­mond blos­som paint­ing. On a vast shelf stands a general book about Van Gogh with the al­mond blos­som as a cover. I count at least twenty lan­guages, twenty dif­fer­ent edi­tions of the same book, all in a line, like a Mex­i­can wave of al­mond blos­soms, a domino ef­fect poised to hap­pen. At ei­ther end of the store the poster sellers are hard at work, toil­ing away with their card­board rolls and tape. Busi­ness is brisk, for who would not want to own a Van Gogh?

Throngs of peo­ple surge in and out, they fill the aisles and hold each other

up at key ar­eas of in­ter­est. Some push in to see what the oth­ers are gaw­ping at. No one wants to miss out. The tills ring cease­lessly, the queues form and di­min­ish and form again. More mer­chan­dise is brought up from vast un­seen ware­houses filled with al­mond blos­som, self-por­traits and sun­flow­ers, huge crates and piles cov­ered in plas­tic wrap­ping are fork-lifted in daily to keep up with de­mand. The shelves of the main shop are al­ways fully stocked. Noth­ing ap­pears to have run out and ex­tra re­serves can be called upon with a sim­ple phone call or a quick email to the sup­pli­ers. How long peo­ple spend in the shop is up to them, but many stay longer than they did in the ac­tual gallery, for in the shop they feel re­laxed and com­fort­able, as if they are home at last, in the place they best un­der­stand and can ne­go­ti­ate with barely con­cealed sat­is­fac­tion. Here those dif­fi­cult paint­ings they strug­gled with up­stairs are sud­denly sub­servient, re­duced to man­age­able ev­ery­day items. Here they be­come eas­ily adapt­able and eas­ily di­gestible, they be­come a sin­gle layer, sur­face only. The orig­i­nal is pumped for more and more fuel. No one thinks of the con­se­quences. The only thing that mat­ters is in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion and profit. No one con­sults the artist. Con­ve­niently he is dead, as are all his re­la­tions. And surely they claim, it’s what he would have wanted any­way, as he was trag­i­cally ig­nored in his life­time, and now look he is ev­ery­where in the ev­ery­day world ... on a child’s lunch­box, or a fridge mag­net. He is a global icon, he has been res­cued from ob­scu­rity, the man who gave his all, hacked off his ear, ended up in the asy­lum and then shot him­self.

The shop mur­murs con­spir­a­to­ri­ally. Peo­ple drift along the shelves fin­ger­ing this, stroking that. What choices... The im­ages stay on their over­bur­dened reti­nas for a few sec­onds, only to be cleared away for the next one, they try in vain to take it all in, to have a taste of ev­ery­thing. Have they even re­mem­bered where they were half an hour ago, fac­ing the ac­tual paint­ings, the one orig­i­nal which only ex­ists be­cause a sin­gle man lay on a nar­row iron bed in an aus­tere cell of a room slowly dy­ing from the stom­ach wound caused by a des­per­ate con­vul­sion of hor­ror at life’s un­re­lent­ing cru­elty and in­jus­tice? The tak­ings to­day, like every day, have been im­pres­sive. There are plans afoot to ex­pand the shop, be­cause clearly fur­ther prof­its only de­pend on an ex­ten­sion of the space and an in­crease in the num­ber of

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