Before I come to Amsterdam for a few days my daughter, who is an art history student, tells me I must visit the Van Gogh Museum. I’m a little bit ho-hum about this. I wonder if I need to? Can there be an artist whose work we have seen reproduced more often than Van Gogh? Stupidly, I imagine that I know all there is to know, it’s such a well-worn story. The sunflowers, the bandaged ear, the Irises going for millions in New York, Don Maclean’s “Starry Starry Night”, Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life. I’m only half joking.
Still, I trust her judgement, so I book a ticket in advance like she tells me to, and make my way to the museum with all the other tourists. From the moment I step inside, my head starts to change. The ground floor is given over to his self-portraits, so you go from face to face, seeing how he tried things out on his own image, looking into his eyes over and over again, and you feel something unmistakable, which is connection, simple human connection.
Then you read the facts, and realise you don’t know everything, or you’ve forgotten it. Like the fact that he only painted for ten years, and in that short time created about 900 paintings and 1,000 drawings. Towards the very end of his life, in between attacks of debilitating mental illness, he produced 75 paintings in 70 days, which is mind-boggling: then you LOOK at those actual paintings and realise that if they represented a whole life’s work they would still be astonishing. And they represent 70 days, snatched from illness and breakdown.
I suppose it’s no wonder we find his work so gripping. Later that evening I tweet about visiting the museum, expecting three people to be interested, and instead the response is overwhelming. Hundreds of people reply to tell me saying they too have stood in front of Sunflowers feeling a wave of emotion and being unsure where it has come from. We agree that they are the kind of paintings you feel you’ve never seen before, as though you have discovered a new artist, who is painting right now.
I think of the section in the museum which shows you, under a microscope, how he added wet paint to wet paint; and the paintings of trees in blossom that seem strung with electric lights; and wheat fields waving like oceans; and a sky so blue it could be midday or midnight; and small sections of woodland floor more vivid than entire landscapes. And most poignantly, the part dedicated to his sister-in-law Johanna, who worked tirelessly after his death to ensure his work finally received the acclaim it deserved.
As if all this emotion isn’t enough, the next day I visit the Anne Frank Museum. The experience is much as I expected, sombre and dispiriting. Walking round the tiny attic rooms and climbing the narrow stairs in a crowd is a claustrophobic experience, and at one point I experience a sensation of genuine panic, feeling trapped between two rooms. I pause, and take a breath, and realise that feeling trapped and claustrophobic is appropriate.
The crowd of tourists is the most silent I have ever been among. With most listening to the audio guide, there is barely any talking, and nothing above a whisper. We read about how quiet the hidden families had to be – and wince as the floorboards creak under our steps. A man sneezes and the sound booms like a gunshot.
It’s the details which get you. The lines on the wall marking the heights of Anne and Margot, measuring how they grew during the years here. They were children, you remember. Still growing. On Anne’s wall are her cut-out photos of film stars – Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, Norma Shearer. Glamour and beauty, dreams and escapism.
I leave with the thought that I’ve nothing to say that hasn’t been said, and as I step outside my eye is caught by a shape on the road. I look closer – it’s the remains of a dead bird. Only the wings are left, fanned out and flattened by traffic. Someone takes a selfie in front of the house, and I wonder why they would do that, and I glance down at the shadow of the bird, all that’s left of something that was once alive and once could fly.
Next week: Kate Mossman
This article appears in the 13 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Britain was sold