In line a man, not older than twenty-five, holds a royal blue lantern in his left hand. It’s almost 3 p.m. on a Friday. A girl in sunglasses walks by with a packet of french fries slopped in mayonnaise, the Dutch classic. It’s a surprisingly warm day in Amsterdam, as is illustrated by the old man biking by in nothing more than a metallic silver speedo.
The Van Gogh Museum has a constant, streaming line around the glass walls of its front entrance. People pour in, stumbling over their words as they’re greeted in Dutch and have to quickly explain that they speak English, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, or Italian instead. It’s impossible to go somewhere in Amsterdam without hearing at least five different languages, five different ways of asking for directions to the same place.
“I honestly have no clue where I’m going,” a British woman mutters as she gets off the escalator. She looks like she’s picking herself up more and more each step she takes, flopping her thick thighs ahead and allowing for her second chin to billow out like a plastic bag in the wind.
You can see the people walking around Museumplien from inside, tourists decked out in sunglasses and too many layers of wrinkled clothes. Some do handstands, cartwheels, sweats along the wide grassy field that the museum sits right alongside of. The same two men play poor renditions of songs on steel drums outside the main line each day. It’s easy to distinguish the tourists from the locals. The locals are lounging, spread out on the grass in dark clothes in groups of no more than three. The tourists have bags with them, selfie sticks and go pros glued to the inside of their palms.
Inside, it’s quieter. The cafe to the right reeks of pre-made sandwiches and cups of fruit, the kind of food you’d expect to see somewhere deep inside a department store. There’s French music playing one can only assume is supposed to be atmospheric, but if you don’t speak the language it’s more like a mother is scolding you in gibberish. Security men dip in and out of galleries, wearing earpieces that make them seem far more official than they really are. They pick off people like breadcrumbs, one another “Je kunt geen foto's nemen.” You can’t take pictures. The groups wait for the security to wander off again before slicking themselves back in their original poses, ever so slightly more cautious of their surroundings and the art they’re blocking everyone behind them from seeing.
It’s impossible to stand in a Van Gogh museum and not take a moment for the man himself. From the Netherlands, everyone here is filled with a hometown pride for this man that could compete with the British’s love for those like Winston Churchill. The odd part is the way the museum paints his life. They jump quickly from his formative years, a brief stint living with his parents, a visit back to his studies, and suddenly he’s cutting off his ear, in a mental asylum, and dead by his own hand all within his last two years. It’s not easy to see this man in his work, especially in his period from 1886-1887 where his work is filled with bright pops of color, deep yellows and greens that slick the coating of the canvases. It’s only in a few paintings that this baroque, depressive side of Gogh comes out. In his earliest portrait from 1886 you see the man in a dimly lit room, hard at work on a canvas that only he can see. It’s dark, gloomy, altogether out of place in the rest of the room filled with self portraits of Gogh with cherry red hair and bright colors splotched all around him.
There are few examples of Gogh’s darker side throughout the museum, the other statement piece being “Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette,” which pretty much looks like exactly how it sounds. Only in these dark paintings, these shadowed figures of everything Van Gogh was never known to be, do his harsher sides come out. It’s here where one can believe that he cut his own ear off, here where the stint in the asylum makes sense. The museum has blurbs scattered around the walls, explaining how even when he was in the asylum he was diligent to continue working on his craft. Gogh himself describes the first time he was able to “see [his] canvases after [his] illness,” further inclining him to focus on his brighter works.
Most of the museum is quiet, barring one man who continues to come around every corner whistling a song no one else seems to know. There’s your typical museum crowd: an elderly tour from America nodding their heads along with their guide, pretending they already know everything he is saying to them.
“This was one of his earlier works,” the guide goes on, ignoring the women who try and chirp in with some made up fact of their own that they think will make them look a bit more cultured, more elegant.
To their left stand bunches of young couples, desperately trying to focus on the paintings in front of them instead of the person who hangs on them. A few sneaky kisses are exchanged, a few hands wander and hope none of the strangers notice just how desperately they need to touch. Some may argue it’s the picture of young love, others just lust.
One man whips his head around, grabbing at his shoulder blade. He looks around, ready to yell at whoever is grabbing him. In the end, though, he just felt the string of his own hoodie brushing against his back. He stammers off into the next gallery, hoping no one saw. Moms hold up maps, pointing at their husbands and kids to show where they’re going next even though the museum is only three floors and entirely circular so that it’s almost impossible to get lost. A man in his thirties is asleep on the lap of an older woman on one of the gallery benches, his head cradled between her thighs as his torso awkwardly contorts onto its side. And incase you forgot you were in Amsterdam, every ten minutes or so a slight waft of marijuana makes itself known in the room, tickling at the edges of your nose just enough for you to realize it’s there but not enough to see who it is.
In one of the last gallery rooms two men with canes and salt and pepper hair sit on a bench, musing over a painting of a woman in a blue dress. This section isn’t Van Gogh anymore, just a smaller collection of other artists that the museum curated and allowed in this single room. It sounds like one of them used to be an artist himself, or at least wants the people around him to think he was. He talks about the brushstrokes, comparing the way the orange oozes over to the red to his new putting technique on the green.
While the younger couples seem to bolt for the exit doors as soon as they’ve covered the grounds the older couples take their time, dipping into the bookstore and then the gift shop before stopping at the museum cafe for a cup of tea or a bowl of soup before they call it a day and head back home. They stack their used teabags, barely allowing for the water to turn to color, in an empty juice glass they’ve grabbed off the table next to them that’s yet to be cleaned.
A story that goes around often about Van Gogh is that he drank yellow paint in hopes of allowing some of the happiness to finally break his surface and exist inside of him. While this could be an entirely made up story, it’s a nice image to land on in the final throws of a mentally ill life. I like to think that he did, and that it worked. Maybe, even if just for a second, he was able to feel his heart tighten inside his chest and set the littlest puff of air free, allow for a laugh big just big enough to fill a newborn’s lungs.
Image credit to Tours & Tickets
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<p>My name is Makai Andrews, born and raised in Los Angeles, California. I attended a boarding school, Interlochen Arts Academy, for my final two years of high school in northern Michigan before making another big jump across the country to study as a double major in writing and psychology at Ithaca College. Right now, I am working on coming to the conclusion that in order to write well, you have to live well.</p>