Van Gogh Museum gets multicoloured make-over

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Redisplay puts more emphasis on what draws visitors to the Amsterdam institution—the artist’s tortured life

The introductory display on the ground floor begins with a stunning array of a dozen self-portraits, immediately bringing visitors face-to-face with the artist

Vincent Willem van Gogh, the great-grandson of the artist’s brother Theo, unveiled this week the first major redisplay of the Van Gogh Museum’s collection since its opening in 1973. The new presentation responds to the main reason which attracts so many visitors to the Amsterdam museum: a wish to know more about the artist’s tortured life. In the new display, Van Gogh’s masterpieces are given greater space, and the result is impressive.

Until now the Amsterdam museum has usually presented its Van Goghs in a simple chronological sequence, set against white walls. This display originally seemed appropriate for the building’s architecture, a series of stark white galleries designed by Gerrit Rietveld, the leading Modernist architect of the De Stijl movement. The white-cube spaces have now been transformed by coloured walls, varying according to the artist’s different periods—dark grey for his early Dutch paintings and a deep blue for his dazzling works from Provence.

The ground floor introduction begins with an array of a dozen self-portraits, immediately bringing visitors face-to-face with the artist. The main displays, over all three upper floors, are basically chronological, but instead of being focused on the places where Van Gogh worked there is an emphasis on a series of themes. Each section begins with a masterpiece on its own wall – such as The Potato Eaters, 1885, and the museum’s version of the Sunflowers, 1889.

Along with paintings, for the first time there will be a changing selection of around ten drawings (from the museum’s collection of 500). Until recently Van Gogh’s letters were rarely displayed but after publication of a new edition of the correspondence, there is intense interest in them—and two originals will always be on show. Appropriate objects are also on display, including a ceramic vase and plaster horse which appear in paintings and the cabinet in which Vincent’s brother Theo kept the family correspondence.

For the first time the “myths” surrounding Van Gogh—the ear incident, illness and suicide—are discussed by the museum in wall panels. Works by Van Gogh’s contemporaries, such as Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec, are integrated into the main display, instead of being shown separately on the upper floor. At the very end of the tour is a gallery with works by Van Gogh’s followers, culminating with Francis Bacon’s Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh VI,1957, on loan from Arts Council England until May 2016.

The Van Gogh Museum attracts many foreign visitors (only 15% are Dutch), which means that overcrowding is a real problem during the summer tourist season. However, the museum needs these visitors, since uniquely among Dutch museums it earns half its revenue from ticket sales (with a quarter from the government and a quarter from sponsorship and earnings). It has had around 1.5 million annual visitors in recent years, making it the second most popular Dutch museum after the Rijksmuseum, and the aim is to increase this to 1.7 million.

The redisplay will help tackle the problem of growing visitor numbers, by spreading out visitors (until now they swarmed to the main display of Van Gogh’s works on the first floor). Crowding will also be eased with the creation of a new entrance, which is under construction in Museumplein. This is due to open in July 2015, and in September the temporary exhibition wing will reopen with a major show on Van Gogh and Munch.

In opening the redisplay Vincent Willem van Gogh (who shares the same name as the artist) admitted that his favourite painting is Almond Blossom, which was painted in 1890 to celebrated the birth of his grandfather. It hung above the bed of Theo’s son and was eventually given to the Amsterdam museum with the rest of the family collection.

Also on display is Van Gogh’s only surviving palette, on long-term loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris

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