Van Gogh is legendary. In Amsterdam, romantic poets and canal-side art vendors dramatize his tumultuous legacy almost to myth. The Van Gogh Museum, competing in the overwhelming art-Mecca of Museumplein, seeks to end exaggerations by letting his artworks paint their own story. One piece in the permanent collection, Seascape Near Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1888), displays a tension between the authenticity of the artist and the ability of the museum to effectively convey it. The painting, a scene of the Mediterranean Sea with crashing waves in the foreground—cresting from the bottom left corner, three sailboats on the horizon, and a lightly clouded sky above, is a sea of strong blues and flecks of cadmium orange. Van Gogh’s characteristic style charges the painting, transforming into more than just a pleasant seaside landscape.
Rather than fill the majority of the composition with sky, Van Gogh occupies over two-thirds of Seascape in the churning turbulence of thick sea. His ocean palette ranges from soft whites, pale blues, and seafoam greens to passionate cobalts and deeper, darker abysmal navies. The artist successfully renders the essence of the sea, creating an experience that is not only seen, but also felt. We feel the foreground splashing us with its choppy, active vertical strokes—the rage of waves crashing in upon themselves. The strokes regress backward toward the horizon into smoother horizontal mixed pigments that the distant sailboats glide through smoothly. The paint thickens along the boundaries of crests and the foam of whitecaps, creating tangible depth. Thickness proudly establishes the painting as present in the world, as something with dimension that can be felt physically. It is a dimension that is also saturated in emotional thickness, a layering of meaning and feeling—even if we can’t name what those feelings are. We are surrounded by the essence of this particular place at this particular moment in time, flooded by its viscera.
Van Gogh personalizes and authenticates time. He makes tangible the time in which he made the painting, using swift strokes and dashes of color to indicate a rapid, “spontaneous” output according to Leo Jansen, curator at the Van Gogh Museum. Van Gogh set out, as he wrote to his brother Theo, to capture how the light plays off the water at a particular time of day. The flecks of muted orange allude to this light; the sense of movement in the strokes captures the constantly changing effervescence in real time. He painted a moment as it was happening before him, outside at the sea: wind, salt, and spray permeating his two skins—body and canvas. Being crafted on site helps the painting defy the limitations of being only a representation of the beach. Engrained in its swirling strokes are pieces of the real thing: small, glassy specs of sand. It is not any seascape from any beach, but the home of those specific grains drawn by a specific hand. Van Gogh marks his hand with only his first name, scrawled crudely in uneven red paint across the bottom left corner—utterly personal and humble. It is a personal brand that sears with recognition of the moment now passed, a moment that the entire piece is perpetually replaying and crashing against our shores.
It is the passage of time that labels Van Gogh as a post-impressionist, a classification that Seascapes challenges. Though the main body of his work, including this painting, was completed a decade after the height of impressionism, Van Gogh remains true to many elements of pure impressionism. He uses impressionist signatures like thick impasto, application of unmixed colors side-by-side, and obsessive attention to natural light. Unlike his other seaside Sainte-Marie painting, Fishing Boats at Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer (1888), he painted this scene en plein air to render a complete and powerful essence. Impressionists shared this desire to render the aesthetic qualities of an experience: what is felt by what is seen. Seascape successfully leaves the viewer windswept and pulled into the violent crash, brilliantly present in the experience of the artist.
One hundred and thirty years later, it is the job of the Van Gogh Museum to preserve this presence. While the gold frame highlights the flecks of yellow and orange, the painting is blanched against the white wall and silenced altogether by the din of hundreds of tourists. Visitors crowd around the works like penned animals, the whining of their audio-tours dribbling into the gallery in an incessant hiss. When we try to use the sweeping textures of the painting to escape this cacophony, we are barred by a sheet of protective glass between the painting and the frame. The glass reflects the inset ceiling lights, imprisoning us outside of Van Gogh’s world and reminding us of our modern, indoor surroundings. We cannot feel the thickness of his paint, cannot feel the grains of sand scraping against our own warm skins. We are kept out, cold and unfeeling.
The act of experiencing the painting is dissected and sprawled out across multiple floors. The painting hangs on the first floor main gallery, but up three stories is a medicinally illuminated station where visitors can view sections of paintings through a microscope. There, we see the sand grains motionlessly drowning in a detail of Seascape. Our second experience with the piece, utterly scientific in form and design, is out of tune with its free, wild, and passionate artistic nature. Our experience is sterilized for mass consumption—methodical and disjointed.
Ultimately, Seascape trades on honesty. Van Gogh is honest to place, to emotion, and to personal impression. The museum in his name dismantles this honesty as it functions under the restraints of today’s extremely high-traffic, tourist-hoarding art institutions. In a world of increasing sterilization, digitalization, and dissection of art, do we really have to sacrifice honesty for access, or can our curators find ways to satisfy both–to leave everyone fully and invigoratingly windswept?