Friday, September 7, 2012

Van Gogh: Exit Through the Gift Shop


The Van Gogh Museum experience is a grand yet overwhelming one.  Visiting starts with a long half-hour wait in a single-file line that inches forward at an abominably slow pace, of which the results are only a series of security checkpoints and roadblocks.  Further on, museum-goers are corralled into the open atrium which instantly diverts them toward two paths: the quiet serenity of the Impressionist paintings, or the bustling clamor of tourists at the gift shop.
If not evident by now, the reviewer finds himself at odds with the exhibition’s general layout and experience, as if the results of Van Gogh’s work have resulted in a voyeuristic prying of a private life.  And while I enjoyed that the museum pays tribute to number of worthy things including his influences, peers and also his family and legacy, the presentation of them in the museum was such that I found myself unable to privately indulge in the expression of one painter’s life.  Instead, a barrage of images are presented to the viewer in a quick succession, which for this reviewer detracted from the individual thought and emotion that went into each piece.
With all reviews of Van Gogh’s incredible painting skill aside, the first thing one notices about the exhibition’s layout is both the immediate abundance and dearth of open space.  By this statement I mean to reference that while each viewing room was vast and more than well accommodated the incredible amount of work Van Gogh produced, I found the division of wall space allotted to each painting to be rather distasteful.   Only about half a meter of white surface area separates each oil in its gilt frame, which resulted in an effect that one could liken to a Powerpoint presentation. This not only gives the paintings a false sense of continuation linking paintings from drastically different time periods and general themes, but also forces other museum attendees to assemble in a crowded line along each wall, preventing personal time and reflection with each piece.  I was particularly miffed when I attempted to make quick ink sketches of various pieces and found myself the subject of an intrusive group of other tourists who began to critique my artwork instead of Van Gogh’s.
Relieved as I was to escape the admirers as well as critics of my own drawings, I found the museum’s gift shop to be just as problematic.  While the concept of selling reproductions of famous paintings is already simply curious to me, the discovery of reproductions that were bigger than the original paintings themselves was a completely astounding one.  Here was a museum attempting in its best way to portray and preserve the finest insights into Van Gogh’s techniques, motivations, styles, and symbolism, and here they were plastering cropped and exploded caricatures of his life’s work on umbrellas, scarves, and mugs.  This all left a bitter taste in my mouth—that an organization so committed to the attentive presentation of a master of our time could so easily turn around and commercial his career for monetary gain.

Van Gogh’s legacy is one shrouded by mystery, psychological problems, and a dark history, but his work was definitely one of great genius and deliberation.  Had the museum’s exhibition coordinators and designers been so dutiful to his work and presentation as he was, the museum experience would have altogether been a more enjoyable and interactive one.  While I can do no more than hope for a renovation to its layout, I only suggest a visitor to attempt to find their own solitude with each painting and appreciate Van Gogh’s genius in a completely objective and private setting.

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