There’s some buzz in New York this summer because all seventeen of the Met’s van Gogh paintings are on view together for the first time in over ten years. That’s nice, though an abundance of van Gogh paintings isn’t something that preoccupies us too much here in Amsterdam. In fact, right now we’ve got too many—including quite a few of the ones currently installed at the Met.
Packed wall-to-wall in the basement of the Beurs van Berlage these days are some two hundred digitally “re-created” paintings amassed under the modest title: Van Gogh: The Ultimate Collection. The traveling exhibition, a reincarnation of Van Gogh: My Dream Exhibition (2012-2013), is organized by Local World, a Dutch communications bureau, and it’s the type of thing you’d find right at home in, say, Las Vegas, Disney, or another place where mimicry cheerfully supersedes authenticity. But we’re not in Vegas. We’re in Amsterdam. And The Ultimate Collection is open for business a mile and a half from the actual largest collection of van Gogh artworks in the world—the Van Gogh Museum—and about sixty miles from the second largest collection, the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo. What can one learn from facsimile when reality beckons around the corner?
On a beautiful July morning my colleague Manus Groenen and I met in Amsterdam for a day of feasting our eyes on van Gogh. We’d see it all: the “ultimate” and the real. We’d discover what could be gleaned from the virtual that might be overlooked in the flesh. Remember: we did this so you don’t have to. Our reactions follow.
Andrea Alessi, August 2014
Andrea Alessi: I don’t know about you, but I really wanted to give Van Gogh: The Ultimate Collection the benefit of the doubt. Even so, I think we were feeling a bit snarky going into this experiment, weren’t we?
Manus Groenen: Yes, I wasn´t sure what to expect. I tried to approach the whole thing as the average tourist and just be open minded, but my art historical side was critical from the start. If you are brave enough to call your exhibition The Ultimate Collection without having any actual van Gogh paintings—that alone made my skin crawl.
AA: One of the things I think we were both wondering was: who is going to this exhibition, and why are they choosing it over visiting the Van Gogh Museum? Do you think we found any answers?
MG: If you are an average tourist who just wants to see Amsterdam highlights, I can imagine visiting The Ultimate Collection sounds interesting. The show doesn´t hide the fact that it only shows re-created works. This allows the exhibition to include prints of works that you can’t see in the Van Gogh Museum because they belong to other museums or private collections from all over the world. They even have a section where you can see works that don’t exist anymore because they are missing or destroyed!
AA: That was probably the coolest part, I should add. It was installed in an ornate vault, accompanied by tales of theft, fire, and Nazis…
MG: Besides that, the exhibition claims to show van Gogh’s works as he intended them. “The colour and detail that has been lost in the passing of time are restored, thanks to cutting-edge digital imaging technology.” The promise of seeing the ultimate show, all of his best works, the way van Gogh intended them does sound appealing. The fact that they included seven of his works in 3D animation even got me a bit excited. I don’t really mind innovative ways of making historic art more appealing to the audience. I expected an immersive experience in the lines of this one—definitely not the real thing, but a fun way to experience van Gogh’s work.
AA: Yes! That sort of over-the-top, outsized experience is exactly what I was hoping for. As you said, and to their credit, the staff at The Ultimate Collection were clear that this is something very different from the Van Gogh Museum. In hindsight, I see it as an exhibition about a historical figure—who could have been an artist, a musician, a politician, a doctor—that just happens to be illustrated by “paintings,” whereas the Van Gogh Museum privileges the art. There’s almost an inverse focus, despite some of the same tools, themes, and strategies being used: both had a roughly chronological layout and both addressed the chemical changes in paint color over time, one in an obviously more sophisticated way.
MG: Yes, I agree with your point on storytelling. The fact that colors change over time is an interesting issue. Seeing the actual paintings after seeing their (screamingly bright) recreations did make me wonder about van Gogh’s intentions more. The Van Gogh Museum devotes two rooms to exactly these problems concerning fading colors, the artist’s intention, and conservation.
AA: I hadn’t realized van Gogh knew how volatile some of his colors were—particularly red. His awareness further complicates notions of intention. The Van Gogh Museum quotes the artist as saying: “All the colors that Impressionism has made fashionable are unstable, all the more reason to boldly use them too raw, time will only soften them too much.”
Van Gogh: The Ultimate Collection, Installation view with overzealous spot lighting
MG: That was amazing to see after seeing the other show first. The attempts at recreating van Gogh’s intended colors in the Beurs van Berlage were interesting, although they appeared a bit cheap and didn’t go into the research behind it that much. It was quite psychedelic at times. There were some remarks in the guestbook that said things like “yes, we were stoned watching this!” with drawings of marijuana leaves and bongs. This more colorful and trippy 3D van Gogh might be a good exhibition to visit stoned. When sober, the real thing would be your best choice.
AA: From what I hear, the Van Gogh Museum is pretty great to visit high. Maybe the 3D animations were meant to imitate the classic tourist activity of getting baked before visiting the Van Gogh Museum. Not only did The Ultimate Collection replicate the paintings, but it also replicated the van Gogh tourist experience! Meta.
MG: What offended me most is the pretense that this exhibition shows van Gogh’s work “as he himself envisioned it”! That is quite a powerful claim to make, especially for a show with only prints. If you make this promise you should deliver an amazing show, backing it up with loads of research and evidence of which almost none is shown. I think it would be hard to find van Gogh complain in one of his letters about the fact that his paintings weren’t 3D animations or cheap prints. So please don’t make these kinds of statements.
AA: Ha! How do you really feel? I agree that the execution was a disappointment. The works were unframed, printed on firm board. A couple were pretty low-res. The wall colors were distracting and text from the previous exhibition was still visible through the paint. The spot lighting was awful. Some of the images were crooked—I straightened one out!
I’d rather leave it there though and instead think about what we learned in comparison, because, let’s face it, by the time we went to the Van Gogh Museum we’d never been so excited to see some van Gogh paintings in our lives. And I think we were particularly tuned in to things like color, brushstroke, and technique. Do you have any observations about seeing the very same works we’d seen in reproduction in person?
MG: I’ve gotten used to seeing reproductions of artworks as images, be it online or in books. I think I even have a van Gogh tie hidden somewhere. (A gift people seem to think an art historian appreciates because I’ve got a Dali one as well.) But these reproductions tend to reduce a painting to an image and mere decoration, but a real painting is more than an image—it is an object too—and especially things like visible brushstrokes, the mass of pasty clods of paint and the way light and shadows work on these make the originals much more vibrant than any reproduction.
Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, Nuenen, April 1885, Oil on canvas, 82 × 114 cm (32.3 × 44.9 in); Collection Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Courtesy Vincent van Gogh Stichting
AA: Exactly. It was unbelievable how much we missed that in the imitations. The texture of the paint and brushstrokes was so critical by comparison. In some instances the colors were muddier—particularly in paintings from van Gogh’s early Dutch period. The Potato Eaters and some early still lifes are so dark you can hardly see what’s happening. In The Ultimate Collection’s “restored” version there appeared to be a mysterious light source other than the lamp hanging from the ceiling. There were also a couple early paintings—such as Avenue of Poplars in Autumn, with its yellows and oranges—that were so vibrantly retouched I hardly recognized them in the Van Gogh Museum.
I want to go back to the 3D animations. We both kind of liked them—you wanted the 3D Almond Blossom as your screensaver!—and it would have been great if everything was hyper-real like that. In the Van Gogh Museum gift shop there were 3D printed copies of a few paintings (on sale for a mere 25,000 euro). These were fascinating. If The Ultimate Collection had used a technique like that, it would have been a very different story. It would have opened onto what’s real, what’s important in looking at an artwork: does aura matter? But The Ultimate Collection images were so clearly reproductions—and not very good ones—that it kind of cut that discussion off.
(left) Manus looking at 3D animation of Almond Blossoms in The Ultimate Collection; (right) Manus looking at 3D printed reproduction of Almond Blossoms in the Van Gogh Museum gift shop. (Did we just blow your mind?)
MG: Yes, I did like the 3D animations! There was one featuring a painting van Gogh made in the Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy—they used it to create a strange, being lost paranoia effect, which I liked. I wouldn’t mind seeing one of those in the Van Gogh Museum as a fun gimmick to enhance the drama of the story for those with less imaginative capacities. I expected it to be more over the top, cut off ears coming right at you and stuff.
I agree with you that this discussion about the real thing versus reproductions isn’t complicated by The Ultimate Collection. But it did make me excited about the real thing. To leave Benjamin’s notion of the Aura alone, perhaps it’s more appropriate to call the real artworks celebrities. Doesn’t matter how many movies Brad Pitt is in, in reality he still is swarmed by fans and paparazzi that want to make even more images of him. The unique real thing is what people still want to see. Even if it’s just for the duration of the time the audio tour stops you in front of a painting, people love spending time with the real thing. Perhaps just for the feeling of having been there, but still that counts for something.
(Image on top: Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, Easel and Japanese Print, January 1889, Oil on canvas, 60 × 49 cm; Collection of the Courtauld Institute Galleries, London / Two reproductions of the same van Gogh painting, as found online)