Selling Van Gogh
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.
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