Van Gogh In Passing

After paying $100 for four people to see the Van Gogh Up Close exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, which I think would have been near the price of a painting by Vincent Van Gogh when the artist was alive, we were handed tickets for a precise entrance time to the exhibition and were told to keep in mind once we left the exhibition we would not be allowed back in, certainly the first time I’ve had this experience at an art event.

Although cautious when faced with a new procedure, I allowed myself to be fooled by the promise of a reputable, important establishment like the National Gallery having without a doubt my best interest at heart. Alas this was not the case my fellow art lovers.

Around a hundred of us queued like sheep at an abattoir for a chance to be awed by the Gallery’s take on the Dutch master, and disappointment ensued short after. The entrance was adorned by random quotes from Van Gogh followed by some drivel about nature and French Provence which did not tell you anything about the paintings or reason behind the exhibition.

Indeed I do not think there was ever any legitimate reason behind bringing together those 40 odd painting, Japanese Woodblock Prints, 19th century photographs and mishmash of drawings, other than to maximize profit from the fame of the artist.

So in we went, and it soon became apparent that to view any of the work up-close you would either have to elbow or shove your way through the ear-phoned masses, who I can only presume were being instructed by the voice in their heads to roll up their programs to view each painting one-eyed. Who knows, maybe this way they would actually really look at the work instead of letting their minds wander off to trivial things like where they’d parked or who won the soccer match.

The walls were so packed with work that they soon stopped being separate individual pieces and became a reel of images just like a film, losing their visual beauty and adapting arbitrary concepts. Oh look there is a haystack; there is a house; there is a back of a man; there lies some flowers; there is yet another house and so on.

No time to observe each piece I’m afraid, the next herd of sheep were on their way. So we moved on callously to the next painting, accompanied by yet another yawning security guard who looked mystified at the prospect of this many people paying so much for a quick glance that his mind was telling him this was all a dream; and why shouldn’t he be bored, this was National Gallery’s response to fast food.

As we tried to make sense as to why Van Gogh would make so many tiresome similar paintings with the same theme whilst being carried away with the wave of people to the next room for another Mc-experience, I recalled a quote from Van Gogh:  “What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.”

It is only with the final painting in the exhibition Almond Blossoms 1890, which has been assigned its own wall that we find the Vincent in the quote, because the painting is allowed to breathe and shine. The sheer energy of Vincent Van Gogh painting cannot be and should not be diluted in numbers.

The viewer must have the time to contemplate each piece and find the connection the artist intended, and yes the viewer must have the opportunity to come back to each work and see it with fresh eyes. So the whole malarkey of entrance times and no returning once you left is just absurd and National Gallery has made a tremendous mistake in adapting this model.

However as the powers that be had decided we inevitably found ourselves at the gift shop by the exit, bombarded by mugs, mouse-pads, ties, T-shirts, books, DVDs, postcards, prints, magnets, key-chains and the cherry on top: pillow cases with Vincent’s portrait. I really don’t think the reproductions in the gift shop were ever in the exhibition, but I’m afraid I had passed the point of no return and will never find out.

Van Gogh Up Close is at the National Gallery Canada in Ottawa until 3rd of September 2012 

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