A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma

In this, the 125th year since Van Gogh’s untimely death, Peter Morrell continues his quest to find out about the artist, his life and his loves.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Like Winston Churchill’s famous quote about Russia, it seems that the more I learn about Vincent Van Gogh, the less I understand him. My latest trip to Holland allowed me to find out more about another series of episodes in the artist’s life.

The Noordbrabants Museum

After a short flight from London’s City airport to Schiphol I headed south east by train to the province of Brabant, where Van Gogh was born and spent a number of years later in his life. I starting in the city of  ‘s-Hertogenbosch, an attractive and historic town which boasts Hieronymus Bosch as one of it’s most famous sons. My destination in the city, the Noordbrabants Museum, will next year commemorate the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death with a major exhibition, Visions of a Genius.

This year however, 2015, the focus is firmly on Van Gogh. They already have a small collection of the artist’s work and this is being augmented by four exhibitions. The first, Design from the Country of the Potato Eaters, is all about themes related to the countryside and farming community of the province. Eighty five objects from architectural tools to a light installation emulating a flight of birds follow the same underlying theme of Van Gogh’s work, simplicity.

The museum is housed in a beautiful period building which has had a modern wing added to create more gallery space. This new space features a parallel exhibition, Hockney, Picasso, Tinguely and Other Highlights from the Kunstsammlung Würth. This collection of paintings vividly shows the huge amount of influence that Van Gogh has exerted on the style of later artists.

One gallery of the exhibition is devoted to four huge paintings of the same trees across the seasons painted by Hockney in his native Yorkshire. Bold and bright colours, the simplicity and the connection with the earth all scream Van Gogh.

Later in the year is an exhibition called Where is Van Gogh, it will explore how his work has permeated modern culture, from motifs on clothes to posters. There will also be Around the Vicarage showing works which were produced when he lived with his father, a Dutch Reform Church minister, in the village of Nuenen, my next destination.

Nuenen – The Van Gogh Village

I travelled forty kilometres to the south, on the outskirts of Eindhoven is the small village of Nuenen. In 1883 Van Gogh went to live with his parents in the Vicarage, his family were Protestant and Vincent faced hostility from the mainly Catholic population. In the village there are 21 locations associated with the artist, 14 of which he either painted or sketched.

My first stop on arrival was the Vincentre, located in the characterful old Town Hall building it is part museum, information centre and coffee shop. Here you can wander through the galleries reading the time line of events in Van Gogh’s life and watch a very informative film.

While living in Nuenen Van Gogh painted one of his most famous works, The Potato Eaters. He made a number of sketches in advance of painting the final work which hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It was this painting that convinced Van Gogh to pursue his dream of being a professional artist.

Van Gogh was an inveterate letter writer and just before completing The Potato Eaters wrote to his brother Theo on 30 April 1886, “If a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam — fine”. He had got the idea for the composition by glancing through the window of a peasant’s cottage. He paid people in the village to be models and enlisted the help of the De Groot family.

What we get is a gritty realistic representation of peasant life in 19th century southern Holland. Powerful, sturdy bodies honed by manual work with strong featured faces. The daughter of the family, Gordina, appeared in around 20 of his other paintings.

An excellent guide from the Vincentre walked me around the village to point out buildings of interest and weave them into the story of the dramatic events that happened during Van Gogh’s time in Nuenen. He takes me to the Vicarage which has a small extension at the back, this was the artist’s studio. We stand by the back garden on the very spot that he painted one of his works. The foreground pond is still there as is the distant Catholic church.

We walk round to the church where his father was the minister. This building was immortalised in the painting Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen. If was stolen from the Van Gogh museum in 2002 and has never been recovered.

Across the road is the post office where Vincent would send letters to his brother Theo. Next door to the Vicarage was Nune Ville, the home of the rather well to do Begemann family. Early in 1884 Van Gogh’s mother injured her leg and Margot, one of the Begemann daughters helped to nurse her. Friendship between Vincent and Margot grew into love, in fact she is known as the only woman to have loved him.

Marriage was discussed but both families were vehemently opposed, the relationship was doomed. Margot took it very badly, one day walking to a heath near the village and drinking poison. She was found by Van Gogh who managed to save her. This was a pivotal point in Vincent’s life, who knows what may have happened if they had settled into marital bliss and produced children.

During the summer of 2015 Nune Ville, the Begemann’s house, is being turned into a temporary exhibition called The Vincent Affair. Contemporary artists and designers have been invited to theme different rooms in the house by following Van Gogh’s style of simplicity and colour. The front garden will be full of the dark maroon/black flowers of the Van Gogh tulip.

Watermolen van Oppwetten

It was dusk when I finished my tour and it had been a fascinating but long day. I headed for the nearby Watermolen van Oppwetten restaurant, the Watermill. This was painted by Van Gogh in 1884, he was a friend of the owner, Gerardus van Hoorn, who collected bird’s nests for Vincent to paint.

The inside of the restaurant is very atmospheric with old beams and the workings of the mill still intact. There is a special Van Gogh menu that offers traditional dishes of the local area like mustard soup with smoked eel and beef stew cooked in Trappist beer.

At the end of the meal I went to walk the new one kilometre cycle path created to honour Van Gogh. Artist Daan Roosegaarde has designed a meandering track studded with thousands of solar powered stones. The swirling pattern emulates the night sky in the painting The Starry Night. It is an incredible creation.

Inntel Art Hotel, Eindhoven

Home for the night was the stunning Inntel Art Hotel in Eindhoven, originally a Philips factory built in 1909. Many of the architectural features have been maintained including the iconic Light Tower. The rooms are very large, comfortable and have chic decor.

Kröller-Müller Museum

After a good breakfast the rest of the day would be devoted to one thing, seeing the world’s second largest collection of Van Goghs at the the Kröller-Müller Museum. The museum is situated in the Hoge Veluwe National Park about 100 kilometres north of Eindhoven. It was founded by Helena Kröller-Müller who donated her entire collection of Van Goghs to the Dutch government in 1935.

The museum to house the collection was designed by Henry van de Velde and opened to the public in 1938. A sculpture garden was added in 1961.

Helena Kröller-Müller was an avid art collector and one of the first to recognise the genius of Van Gogh. I was taken on a tour by a very knowledgeable curator and was amazed by the quality of the collection. Space doesn’t permit me to list every work so I will just mention the highlights. Helena’s first purchase of a Van Gogh was ‘Edge of a Wood’ painted in 1883. It’s a dark moody piece but with a background sky full of hope. One of the last sketches of The Potato Eaters is in the collection and almost as powerful as the final version

I saw the start of Van Gogh’s love affair with his iconic flower, Four Sunflowers gone to Seed. He moved to Arles in southern France during 1888 and painted some wonderful works, one of his most famous is Terrace of a Cafe at Night and another The Sower with a huge radiant sun are both in the Kröller-Müller.

The move south coincided with the the artist’s struggle with mental illness. He committed himself to an asylum at Saint Remy and paradoxically in the asylum he continued to create great art as I saw in Enclosed Wheat Field with Rising Sun. Although not in the museum it was during this phase he painted the unsurpassed The Starry Night.

This collection is a visual feast for Van Gogh fans but there is more. Before leaving I also had time to take in works by Mondrian, Seurat, Braque, Gauguin, Picasso and many others. Outside, the Sculpture Garden is a treat for lovers of three dimensional form.

This had been a superb trip filling in some blanks but opening up many more questions about Van Gogh’s life. There is so much more to find out, how his ear was severed, with conjecture that it may not have been self-inflicted. There was his time in London and of course the events that led to his untimely death on 29 July 1890 aged 37, when he committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest while staying at Auvers-sur-Oise in France.

He is recognised by Holland as one of the most famous of all Dutchmen and in this year, the 125th anniversary of his death, he is being given due reverence as one of the world’s greatest artists.

More information about visiting Holland can be found at www.holland.com