Van Gogh Museum Downplays His “Tortured Genius” Reputation

There's more to the man than the severed ear.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait (1887)Photo via: Wikipedia
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait (1887). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The curators at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum are taking a new, drama-free approach to Vincent van Gogh, focusing more on his art and less on his reputation as a tortured genius, reports the New York Times.

Over the last few months, the museum has completed a new permanent display that presents a more balanced picture of the artist, reorganizing its collection, which includes 200 paintings, 500 drawings and 900 letters by van Gogh, for the first time in 25 years. Now, van Gogh’s most famous paintings, such as Sunflowers (1889), are presented alongside missives written by the artist, with works by his peers providing a larger context for his oeuvre and challenging the idea that he painted in isolation.

Often, the dramatic events of the artist’s personal life have overshadowed his work in the mind of the public. Iconic pop culture representations of his career, such as the 1956 Kirk Douglas-starring film Lust for Life, and the infamous ear-severing incident, are hard to move past—although there is now evidence that van Gogh may have been murdered, and some believe that Gauguin might have cut off his friend’s ear in a fight (see “Was van Gogh Killed? New Research Says He Was Shot” and “German Museum Has a Living Copy of Van Gogh’s Famous Ear“).

Wheatfield With Crows

In the movie, van Gogh kills himself after completing Wheatfield With Crows, a memorable scene that leads many to believe it was his final work—despite scholarly consensus that the honor belongs to another 1890 canvas titled Tree Roots. “A lot of people still expect the museum to have that painting exhibited as his last painting,” said Leo Jansen, the museum’s curator of paintings from 2005 to 2014, in an interview with the Times.

“In our old presentation, we were very good at keeping up the myths about van Gogh, focusing too much on details and not on the broader view of his art, taking into account his intentions and ambitions,” current curator of painting Maite van Dijk told the Times. The museum formerly “gave the idea that his personal issues had a direct influence on his art production,” she admitted, insisting that “it’s not as intertwined as we suggested in the past.”

There is another upside to the museum’s new look: the institution will be less crowded. Whereas before, the van Gogh paintings took up the popular first floor, with the less visited upper floors featuring the work of other artists, all four floors are now dedicated to the museum’s namesake, with the rest of the collection integrated throughout. Crowds will be more evenly dispersed, improving the visitor experience.

The rehanging was designed by exhibition designer Marcel Schmalgemeijer, who has painted the walls in bright colors designed to reflect the different phases of van Gogh’s career. “it was important to me that the entire museum should be pervaded with a sense of aesthetics.” he explained in a statement. “It was my aim to make visitors feel that they enter the world of Van Gogh from the very first moment.”


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