SELLING VAN GOGH
The State of the Commercial Art Gallery in 21st century Europe
A Personal View by Will Stone
In Amsterdam they are selling artists. They are fortunate, for they have three world famous artists to sell; Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Each has a mass following and a limitless potential for new admirers, so each must be promoted to the hilt. It is no longer enough to know an artist is located in such and such a gallery, like the famous Rijksmuseum, or even the Van Gogh Museum just down the road, whose contents would, one might have thought, be self evident. No, from now on, there must be a giant 100 feet square reproduction of one of the most famous iconic images of that artist emblazoned on the side of the museum, flapping in the breeze like a sail, an advertisement hoarding for the wares inside. In this way, before you have even encountered the actual canvas of the artist inside the building, a painting which you may have waited years to see, the personal experience of this encounter is irrevocably squandered by the sight of a giant blow-up billowing there on the walls.
Over the decades, the Rijksmuseum has managed, like many great galleries across the world, to be content with showing merely its venerable walls. Why now, why in our time, does some faceless numbers-hungry promotion team see fit to interfere, to over-inform the visitor, by pushing the masterpiece in their face before they have even stepped off the tram. In this particular case at the Rijksmuseum, the image is a detail from Vermeer’s famous peasant woman in the distinctive blue and yellow dress, pouring milk from a rustic jug. This colossal image, so at odds with the diminutive size of the real painting, draws your attention whether you like it or not. From the moment you arrive they have you in their grip, these slick organizers, steering you from the moment you make your approach and enter the sliding doors of these smugly ‘upgraded’ museums, ‘restored for the expectations of a modern audience’ – as they fanfare in their literature. This invisible body of people you will never meet, is perpetually monitoring and guiding you, permitting you entry to their domain, not yours or the artist you have come to encounter, in the way they deem fit. Their need is to impose themselves between you and the artist as never before. Nothing can be left to chance. To simply observe a painting and reflect on it is not enough for them. What was once the core experience of a person’s visit is now merely a barely lit vestibule leading to the great light flooded hall of material acquisition, the restrained space of intimate personal reflection overshadowed by the gaudy baroque of the market place.
In the summer months, they are working at full capacity to ensure the production line of visitors never falters. All objective is profit and the means to achieving it, like all processes masquerading as progress but concealing nihilistic ambition, is honed and polished by trial and error, by the stringent application of improvements to the system of visitor management. Their ‘vaguely creative’ mandate (always the most destructive), is to maintain the flow of bodies through the ticket desks, through the picture gallery where ‘the menu’ is presented, and into the heart of the operation, where the feeding frenzy is encouraged, the giant shop area.Paramountis the augmentation of income, both in terms of inflated entry prices and the ever more fantastic concentrations of ‘souvenirs’ themed by painting, spread out in capacious and multiform emporiums.
Having then descended the tram, you notice with some disquiet the unhealthy pressing of bodies in the areas leading to and around the museums, pockets of plankton feeding on the tourist body as it passes. Dishevelled loiterers who have as yet done nothing wrong, edge around the seething crowds, looking for some opportunity which they keep veiled to the last moment. A plethora of shops cling insistently to the edges of the museums as if for sustenance, suckling away contentedly at the belly of the great donor. They sell exactly what is inside the principal store in the museum, but they soon realised that more sales could be gained by placing a doppelganger or two outside to pick off passers-by who might not wish to actually enter the museum and see the genuine paintings, or anyone who has left and then remembered they need an extra tea towel with Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring on, or a Rembrandt embossed toilet roll holder. What pervades such areas is the dominance of shopping over art or reflection, a growing sense that the art is merely there as a trigger for the shopping, a springboard to yet more consumption, or rather the true drug of consumption, the moment just previous to purchasing, ‘the thrill at the till’ when the drug takes effect. That brief moment of deceptive fulfilment when the buyer relaxes having decided, having crossed the line to acquisition. The hit however is over quickly, so the victim must repeat the performance ad nauseum, to try and regain that initial feeling of power and security. The illusion is horribly seductive and because the after effects appear benign, even more destructive.
Gaining something in a bag rather than in the heart, the unremitting enticement of physical acquisition is what matters in our nakedly capitalist society, which blunders on desperately holding its ever more withered fig leaf of democracy. The individual, slowly drained of all will to resist by the relentless bludgeoning of product-promotion, is further compromised by swallowing the notion that he or she has consumer ‘power’, and some entitlement to all this junk. You only have to go and park yourself like a boulder in the stream of mass consumption in any shopping mall to experience the dark mills of this industry at work. As the unremitting flow passes over and around you, you will gain a better sense of their overtly hopeless situation, yoked to an infernal labouring towards object acquisition, the physical appropriation of goods they don’t need, to fill the ever-emptying barn of their souls. As soon as one load of goods are brought in, they are removed through another door, as soon as the clothes are placed in the wardrobe and the gadget is unwrapped, the emptiness returns. Once in the not too distant past, art stood apart from all this: during the seventies for example, when endless reproductions of Monet’s ‘Poppy Fields’ was at the time considered vulgar, this kind of kitsch mongering of popular art possessed a certain charm and innocence compared to the highly sophisticated industrial combine that operates today. Even the eighties boom in poster art, Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ for example plastered on every student’s bedsit wall, was only the first tentative steps of a commercialism that now holds forth with such insistence that the art it has burgled, shrinks back instinctively, desperately shielding its dignity from the infra-red cameras and art detectives who probe its most secret and once inscrutable elements. Only its continued existence, its actual survival constitutes an authenticity that repels the final destructive intrusion of reproduction.
The art galleries of Amsterdam are now, because of the famous contents within them, hopelessly pinioned by the great opportunist: profit. The Rijksmuseum is anchored there, a repository for a handful of geniuses and their ardent followers, a hallowed herringbone wood-floored anachronism. The profit-mongers soon realised the potential to develop it in such a way that it might allow real money to be made from what was once a grand edifice for exhibiting great paintings, nothing more. Now, to get yourself and your soon to be filleted wallet inside, you must first pass through a stringent security ring, worthy of an airport. This is no cursory bag search, but a long in depth examination of one’s property and perhaps soon, who knows, one’s most intimate areas. It would not be surprising to have your purse checked at the entrance to ensure you have enough money to spend in the shop. At the Van Gogh museum this security check is even more rigorous, long winded and intrusive, so by the time one has forced one’s way through the fractious crowds, past the foul smelling overused toilets and been searched for explosives, there is little appetite left to catch a scant glimpse of ‘Wheatfield with Crows’, through six ranks of constantly interchanging people. Instead you are left with little more than an empty wallet, a lungful of fetid air and an intimate knowledge of the variations in crowns of people’s heads from all over the world.
Once inside the museum, having paid an exorbitant entrance fee which has mysteriously doubled in three years and offers no discounts whatsoever for anyone, not the old, not the disabled, not the out of work, you face crowds milling in a perpetual state of frenetic animation and disorientation on three floors of the atrium-like building. A sense of confusion is prevalent, with that added crowd murmur that comes from the relief of gaining entry at last into the sacred space. You feel you have stumbled on a mass crowd event such as a football match or rock concert. People charge in all directions as if to secure the best seats, but there are no seats, only a few over-burdened minimalist benches on which an inordinate number of fatigued backsides perch. In the galleries of the Van Gogh Museum, people do their best not to walk into one another, or block each others view, but the hopelessly inadequate space for the teeming numbers makes this impossible. It is necessary for the authorities to move these herds around the gallery at a reasonable pace to ensure those heaving forward outside can get in as well. But the reason there is a need to get them in before closing time, is not because of the art they have come there to see, and their appreciation of it, it is because of the shop into which they will be directed to afterwards and the money they will spend there on top of their entry price.
For in today’s art gallery in a tourist swamped city like Amsterdam, a place where bodies are shovelled into the boiler of consumption like so many lumps of coal, it is the shop which is the engine house of the museum, not the artist and not his work. The works of art may be protected and cherished as priceless heirlooms left from the work of a visionary genius, but ultimately it is the selling of that myth that matters. In Van Gogh’s case, the selling of the visionary moniker, the ‘misunderstood genius’, is one that never loses its appeal to the masses who linger beneath a shroud of ersatz romanticism. Through a sense of idle curiosity and the instinct to graze on plausible rhetoric, the legend of this oddball painter with his over passionate nature and his penchant for tortured self-mutilation, sets the pulse racing in even the most listless souls. An artist like Van Gogh can be sold to any nation, any people, developing or declining, small or large, uneducated or educated. All are infected by the one-size-fits-all legend and by the – deceptively accessible – composed wildness of the colours, the sheer delirium of the brushwork. They can all sense he is a true modern flushed with anxiety, one who stands drastically apart from the politeness and restraint of went before. This makes him extremely saleable, for he both encapsulates human expressiveness via nature, its elusive beauty and insurmountable pain, together with a tragic story. It is the selling of this expertly packaged Van Gogh which is paramount, not the celebration of the real Van Gogh. And that is why the people doing the selling are at pains to inform the public it is all about celebrating Van Gogh, or the more cosily familiar, ‘Vincent’. To do this they never cease to inform over and again of certain stories and legends in relation to Vincent Van Gogh and his ‘beloved’ brother Theo.This seductive story with its sound-bite of ‘brotherly love’, appeals to the casual sentimentality of the newcomer, along with similarly easily swallowed nuggets about Van Gogh’s crow blessed death.
In a temporary exhibition in the basement, a selection of Van Gogh’s work from private galleries has been assembled. But again, there is a notable over informing going on, a palpable intrusion by the organisers, who cannot resist meddling, who cannot just display a series of paintings with a minimal but effective background text or introduction, but must display above and below the paintings other loosely connected works, which over enthusiastically advertise their vague relation to the Van Gogh in question. These intruders hem in the work we are trying to appreciate, forcing us to look away constantly from the Van Gogh and to them. As if this was not enough peripheral superfluity, we have to endure the giant sized instructions and prompts above the paintings, as if designed for the unlikely arrival of the village idiot. ‘Look closely, what can you see in this painting?’ they coax ‘Is that a partidge or a lark?’ ‘Is this self-portrait really Vincent, or is it his brother Theo? Join in the controversy, you decide…fill out this form.’ You might think these prompts were designed for school children, but sadly that is not the case. This overt ‘inclusivity’ perpetuated by those who now control the major art galleries and museums in Europe, is a symptom of our intellectually debased time, where the idea has become accepted that everyone can be an artist, a writer or a poet, you just have to ‘get involved’, have a go…This ill starred inclusive mentality stems from a well intentioned empowering socialism that spewed out of the late sixties, only to fall onto the sharpened spikes of the profit men, a disastrous weakness which they fully exploited. Now one cannot move for the numbers of writers and artists all labouring past with their trolleys of sub standard fayre before a barely conscious, horribly bloated public unable to differentiate between what will nourish them and what will make them even more sick.
Reacting to an indefinable pressure, like cannon fodder these people edge forward from each new generation, the next more deceived than the last. They are whether they like it or not, raised as commodities to be cut down like a plantation when the growers are ready. The populist assertion of inclusion has no bearing on the realities of art, the tension of its construction and the mysterious process of natural selection for its creators. This unwillingness to state anything intellectually, an almost pathological striving to not appear highbrow, has infected the major galleries and left a residue of patronizing nannying and a glut of self evidence to which even the dullest senses advance, like livestock drawn irresistibly towards sileage.
The shop in the Van Gogh Museum is, even by the standards of today’s thirst for reproduction, staggering in its scope and industrial capacity. The shop takes up one side of the ground floor of the museum, then there is a secondary shop on the basement level selling identical objects but on a smaller scale. To pass into the main selling space is to be assaulted on all sides by the same few selected paintings of Van Gogh reproduced on a bewildering variety of ordinary objects. Although we have been familiar for many years now with the ubiquitous Monet umbrella or the Kafka mug, the sheer array of objects here carrying the unfortunate image of choice is overwhelming. Not only Van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers gets the treatment but other paintings which one had perhaps a fondness for in the past, but whose lush growth in the individual consciousness have been stymied by a kind of commercial defoliation. One thinks of the beautiful Van Gogh painting of white almond blossom against a rich blue background, which here has been reproduced on pads and journals, pens and T shirts, glasses cases, handbags, travel bags, scarves, pocket mirrors, in fact anything you can think of. There are even flowerpots in brightly painted boxes advertising ‘Vincent’s Garden’. Why? Racks and racks of objects stand in their serried ranks, all alike, all bearing the almond blossom painting or the sunflowers, all making off with it without permission.
The original painting is still there on the floor above, but what use is it to go up and look at it now, for every fibre of its being has been stretched to breaking point and beyond. What people are looking at here today is not the same almond blossom painting which stood here before. The mass reproduction of this painting and a few others has dragged this painting through the mire of crowd appropriation, in the same way Munch’s ‘The Scream’ as an easily identifiable iconic image for the ‘age of anxiety’, has been corralled into a spoon fed image that anyone can digest. These almond blossoms that stood out so stunningly white against the impossibly blue sky, all those paints that Van Gogh applied in his struggle to capture that single moment in its entirety and it is said, even consumed on occasion in delirious frustration, are now covering these lifeless everyday objects like shrouds on so many corpses. But a woman passes and grabs a handbag, a pen, some booklet, notepaper, she has five or six items all with the almond blossom on, she must love this painting, she will not be satisfied with seeing it, she must acquire it and if there is more than one object displaying it so much the better. Two Japanese people try on hats with the almond blossom on and an Italian girl rather fancies herself in the head scarf. Yes, says her boyfriend, it suits you…but at forty euros that’s a bit pricey.’ At either end of the store the poster sellers are hard at work, toiling away with their cardboard rolls and tape. Business is brisk, for who would not want to own a Van Gogh?
On a vast shelf stands a general book about Van Gogh with the almond blossom as a cover. I count at least twenty languages, twenty different editions of the same book, all in a line, like a wave of almond blossoms, a domino effect about to happen. Throngs of people surge in and out, seemingly unprepared to acknowledge the justified presence of anyone else, they fill the aisles and hold each other up at key areas of interest. Others push in to see what the others are gawping at. No one wants to miss out. The tills ring ceaselessly, the queues form and diminish and form again. More merchandise is brought up from vast unseen warehouses filled with almond blossom and sunflowers, huge crates and piles covered in plastic wrapping are fork-lifted in daily to keep up with demand. The shelves of the main shop are always filled. Nothing appears to have run out and extra stock can be called upon with a simple phone call. How long people spend in the shop is up to them, but many stay longer than they did in the actual gallery, for in the shop they feel relaxed and comfortable, as if they are home at last, in the place they best understand and can negotiate with barely concealed admiration. Here those difficult paintings are subservient, reduced to manageable everyday items. Here they become easily adaptable and easily digestible, they become a single layer, their surface only. The original is pumped for more and more fuel. No one thinks of the consequences. The only thing that matters is superficiality and profit. No one consults the artist. Conveniently he is dead, as are all his relations. And surely they claim, it’s what he would have wanted anyway, as he was ignored in his lifetime, and now he is everywhere… on a child’s lunchbox, or a fridge magnet. He is a global icon, the man who hacked off his ear and ended up in the asylum, on whose endlessly mopped tiles we will never tread.
The shop murmurs conspiratorially with activity and the ecstasy of diversion. Each stare of each person secures another novelty, another object they might obtain, another suggestion of acquirement is nourished, as they drift along the well stocked aisles fingering this, stroking potentially that. The images are curiosities nothing more and they stay on their overburdened retinas for a few seconds, only to be cleared away for the next one, machine like their eyes try to take it all in, to have a taste of everything.
Have they even remembered where they were minutes ago, facing the actual paintings, the one original which only exists because a single man lay on a narrow iron bed in a tiny austere room slowly draining of blood from the stomach wound ‘created’ in a desperate convulsion of possibilities that could not be realized? This man has bought a set of drinks mats and this one a set of towels. He’ll go home bathe and wrap his naked body in the almond blossom painting, and only because this is possible and was decided upon by a functionary somewhere in a building secretly assured of its own future destruction. The takings today like every day have been impressive. There are plans a foot to expand the shop, because clearly further profits only depend on an extension of the space and an increase in the number of frivolous trinkets that can be churned out in Chinese factories. The rest is number crunching, the rest is academic.
Against Van Gogh’s last little bedroom in Auvers-sur-Oise, in France, a multimedia installation and interactive visitor centre has recently been built. Why this was deemed necessary no one is quite able to say. His room is visited by thousands each year who trudge up the old preserved wooden stairs, enter the modest space, turn around and go back down, almost as if performing a ritual, so specific and deliberate are their movements. At the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, similar movements are being performed by thousands in an unending performance. In mean little rooms where half crazed occupants suffered unimaginable grief and despair over protracted periods of time, today the curious pass through in minutes, a little awkwardly and deliberately, almost as if following unheard instructions. Foreigners, incongruous in their bright anoraks, are seen in the fields around Auvers, searching in vain for the infamous wheat field, cameras primed, others haunt the cemetery or point out with glee the appealingly knobbly apse of the church so recognizable in his painting. In Arles, tourist information signs speckle the Alyscamps, the ancient Roman necropolis, informing the visitor that Van Gogh set up his easel here amongst the sarcophagi. Even the St Paul Hospital in St Remy, once forgotten, now beckons with a ‘Van Gogh room’ and has opened a shop alongside the once peaceful Romanesque cloister. Travesties pile upon travesties in the name of poor Van Gogh, who in his lifetime was subjected to ridicule and indifference by the forebears of those who now stock up on his image in the museum named after him, they who today cannot leave without taking him with them, in the form their era has prescribed. Vermeer, Rembrandt and countless others of various nationality follow on behind in a commercially induced danse macabre. All get the same treatment, because it has been proved to work. No intelligible answer is possible, and no questions are likely to be asked.
Will Stone (text and photo)