Van Gogh Museum at 50: Why the artist's work continues to resonate today

Institution director reveals all about past, present and future of building Dutch painter's legacy

The artist's nephew and namesake, Vincent Willem van Gogh, at the Van Gogh Museum in 1973. Photo: Jan Versnel / MAI
Powered by automated translation

Vincent van Gogh remains one of art’s pioneers; his work and life continue to draw public interest more than a century after his death. Not only do his paintings command record prices at auction – his landscape Orchard Surrounded by Cypresses went for $117 million in November – but in some ways, Van Gogh’s work now seems to resonate more strongly.

The artist's enduring popularity is in no small part due to the Van Gogh Museum's stewardship of his enormous legacy. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, the Amsterdam institution houses the largest collection of works by the artist, including more than 200 paintings, 500 drawings, 30 prints and 800 letters.

Since his death, the Dutchman’s unmistakable visual vocabulary has become a design default; his famous sunflowers printed onto bed linen and his Starry Night a common filter on photo editing apps. At the same time, research into his work offers insights into the human psyche, aided by interpretative workshops and virtual reality exhibitions.

“Van Gogh was a painter, but he was also a writer,” Rob Groot, managing director of the Van Gogh Museum, tells The National. Groot believes that contemporary audiences still relate to the artist because of how much the artist shared about himself and his work. Van Gogh wrote more than 2,000 letters, some 800 of which survive.

“He writes what he thinks, what he feels, what he’s working on and why, what his struggles are, what his uncertainties are. This makes him human with his uncertainties, his doubts, his longing for success," Groot adds.

Most other artists haven’t recorded their life so extensively, so we know less about their process.

“But we know exactly everything about Vincent van Gogh. We know, almost on a week-by-week basis, what he was working on,” he says.

As a result, curators can present the artist’s work in the context of his troubled life. “We can tell a real story with an exhibition on how he was as an artist," Groot adds. "And a lot of people still recognise themselves and their real-life struggles in his work.”

The artist only sold one painting during his lifetime, though he gave away or bartered others for food and art supplies.

The majority remained largely with his art-dealer brother Theo, who served as his financial and emotional backbone. After the brothers’ deaths, Theo’s wife Johanna van Gogh-Bonger nurtured the artist’s legacy. She showed his works in Amsterdam, Berlin and New York; sold select pieces to important buyers; and published the brothers’ correspondence.

In 1962, her son, the engineer Vincent Willem van Gogh, established a foundation to keep what remained of the collection intact.

Living museum

The Van Gogh Museum opened a decade later in 1973 in a building designed by the architect Gerrit Rietveld on Amsterdam’s Museumplein. The core of its collection comes from the foundation’s corpus.

Vincent Willem envisioned it as a living museum, a facility that would keep the art accessible to everyone, rather than becoming a warehouse just for students and experts.

A pioneer of the single-artist approach, the museum has certainly fulfilled that mission – attracting tens of millions of visitors.

Last year, 1.3 million walked through its galleries, down from about 2.1 million in 2019, pre-Covid. Roughly 1.5 per cent of last year's total came from the Middle East.

“What we see is that the interest, the footfall, is still there – across all ages. The next generation is also picking up on the work and ideas of Van Gogh,” Groot says.

Through its diverse collection, innovative exhibitions and educational initiatives, the museum plays a pivotal role in expanding the artistic discourse.

This autumn, the Van Gogh Along the Seine exhibition, Paris, will present five Post and Neo-Impressionists who worked in Asnieres outside the French capital during a period of rapid industrialisation. In Asnieres, Van Gogh and others such as Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Emile Bernard and Charles Angrand discovered new motifs and developed their use of colour and technique.

The museum similarly explores how artistic ideas interconnect across different cultures and periods.

Last year, the exhibition Golden Boy Gustav Klimt displayed works by the Austrian symbolist alongside Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Auguste Rodin and John Singer Sargent, including pieces looted by the Nazis and others from private collections.

“I can imagine that people ask why Klimt is in the Van Gogh Museum,” director Emilie Gordenker said at the time. “We are of course the world authority on Van Gogh, but we do more than that. We collect and exhibit his contemporaries and people who were inspired by him.”

Similarly, Colour as Language presented the works of Etel Adnan, the Lebanese-American poet, essayist and visual artist. Adnan only broke through as an artist in her late eighties but is recognised as an important figure in Arab-American culture.

Hung beside Van Gogh, however, her use of colour blazed through. “The two are incomparable in their use of colour and way of painting, and yet they both search for the same expressiveness of colour throughout their lives,” the art critic Lucette ter Borg wrote in the NRC Dutch newspaper.

Expert authentication

Arguably the biggest role Gordenker, Groot and their colleagues play is behind the scenes.

As the pre-eminent authority on Van Gogh, the museum's experts adjudicate the authenticity of new finds, such as the 1888 landscape Sunset at Montmajour, discovered in 2013 after decades in an attic. Following a two-year investigation using the latest technology, the unsigned work became the first full-size Van Gogh painting to be validated since 1928.

In 2020, the museum certified a gloomy 1889 self-portrait from Norway’s national collection. After six years of studying the work, researchers concluded its style, technique, provenance and iconography proved it is an unmistakable Van Gogh – believed to be a piece the artist painted when he was ill.

It is the only known work the Dutch master painted while he had psychosis, according to University of Amsterdam researchers.

Last year, the museum joined the public conversation on mental health with Open Up with Vincent. The programme of mindfulness, education and creativity was offered as a way to use art to help prevent or alleviate psychological issues.

Digital future

Looking ahead to the next 50 years, Groot prioritises innovative approaches to engage new audiences.

He says he’s open to international collaborations, such as loaning works to museums abroad – including in the Gulf. However, the relatively small collection prevents the establishment of international branches – like Louvre Abu Dhabi. Instead, the museum is widening its reach through new and emerging technologies.

During the pandemic, AI enabled Chinese audiences to experience famed works virtually over the WeChat social network.

Meanwhile, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the ongoing immersive reality exhibition Meet Vincent lets visitors discover Van Gogh’s life and work in an interactive way.

And last week, the museum published the first in a new series of digital catalogues on its website. Featuring Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Contemporaries of Van Gogh 1: Works Collected by Theo and Vincent looks at how the brothers acquired their 250-strong art collection, and how it informed Van Gogh’s own style.

Still to come is generative AI. A new project will use technologies such as ChatGPT to bring Van Gogh to life in different ways.

For now, Groot won’t go into detail, only saying the project will involve a digital presentation using Van Gogh’s letters.

“We’re looking at how we can use ChatGPT. What can we offer younger people with this modern technology?” he says.

Updated: June 13, 2023, 2:02 PM