Van Gogh Museum Editions: a curator's perspective

The link between Vincent Van Gogh and a razor blade has had a profound effect on our perception of the artist since the regrettable incident. Two days before Christmas 1888 an almost psychotic Van Gogh cut off his earlobe. This tragic self-punishment has become emblematic of the artist and perfectly encompasses any pre-determined idea we may have had linking this genius to a madman.
There is however, another, far more reasonable side to Vincent. One aspect of this realistic Van Gogh was his ambition to achieve financial stability through his art. This is an important notion for a painter to adopt as he must accept commerciality as a tool to spread his art. Van Gogh believed his best work came forward when isolated from public expectation, this unfortunately meant that he was tormented with his own isolation.
There was a period where Vincent and his brother had very different ideas of the path Vincent’s work needed to take. Theo worried that his brother's use of the heavy brushstroke would be an impediment to their marketability. Fortunately for both of them, Vincent had a pragmatic reaction to his brother's predicament. ‘Don’t let it bother you if I just leave the brushstrokes on my paintings as they are, with smaller or larger protrusions of paint. This doesn't mean a thing — if one leaves them a year or so and scrapes over them quickly with a razor blade’. In fact, it has been found that this technique was considerably advantageous for Vincent’s self exploration process. Through razor skimming ‘one gets much more permanency of color than would be the case if the paint were put on lightly.' One feature that makes Van Gogh’s painting stand out from those of other artists, is the liberal use of the loaded brush, or impasto. The process of the thick strokes is closely linked to our appreciation for his style and character. It has also allowed for a benchmark to be created when observing similar stylistic choices. His decision not to follow Theo's council has allowed for this style and work to remain timeless as well as forever linked to the troublesome life of it’s creator.
First of all, the visible brushstrokes help to make us aware of the immediacy of his working method. We get the feeling that we can follow the artist at work. Usually such looseness of brushwork was limited to preparatory work, to the sketch. In Van Gogh’s oeuvres, the thick brush strokes occur in large-scale work, or the finished tableau. Sketch work is important when it comes to field work. The painter attempts to catch the fleeting aspects of nature, as the Impressionists had done. Many of Van Gogh’s tableaus were made in the studio, so their sketch-like aspect was not due to them being painted out in the open. The choice of painting thickly and quickly was evidently an artistic one. Van Gogh may have done this to preserve the spontaneity of the sketch in his finished work. This allows us to bare witness to his creative process. It can also be said that Vincent had become used to working with great speed. During the last few weeks of his life, in June-July 1890, he produced on average more than one painting a day. We are not just witness to a painter that wants to catch up with changing atmospheric conditions, but to a painter who tries to catch up with his own creative process.
The loose brushstroke becomes a symbol of his artistic character throughout his work. His style and method have become the material image of his mind at work.
Just as his use of vibrant colour contrast, Van Gogh experienced the exaggerated use of thickly applied paint as a sign of his mental instability. After checking himself into the Saint-Rémy asylum he took the decision to change his way of painting altogether. He explained “I think it likely that I’ll do hardly any more things in impasto, it’s the result of the calm life of seclusion I’m leading, and I feel I’m better for it.”  Vincent could no longer suppress his urge to paint with thick strokes. When an art critic hailed him as something like a deranged genius, he had him sent one of his most crusty paintings, as if wanting to confirm the writer’s analysis. Theo worried about Vincent, he urged him to work calmly and believed that working without impasto furthered the quality of his paintings. Theo divulged: “I feel that there’s more atmosphere in your latest works, more distance than in the preceding ones. Which comes perhaps from the fact that you don’t use so much impasto everywhere.”It is possible that the underlying reason for his disdain was that he, too, saw his thick brushwork as a sign of Vincent’s mental instability.
When reproduced in a two-dimensional way, we lose this aspect of the experience of the art of Van Gogh. Today’s technical advances as applied in the relievo technique make it possible to recreate this total artistic expression. (see the Van Gogh Museum Relievo Collection)
Within the context of Van Gogh’s works and writings, reproducing works of art was a household trade. He frequently recreated earlier paintings. Their composition was often based on real scale drawings which he could use to re-establish the contours. Presumably, the Sunflowers in this collection were made in this way.
There are many more examples of repetitions of this kind in Van Gogh’s work. Early on in his career, while still working in Holland, Vincent had his work photographed for commercial purposes. Before he had finished his Potato-Eaters, he copied its composition in a lithographic print. This was to be used as an art prospectus for the art trade of his masterpiece in the making. The Van Gogh Museum Relievo Collection surpasses this example. We can touch their surfaces and thus add a final sensory perception to our experience of Van Gogh.
Ever rising numbers of art lovers visit the great collections of the Van Gogh Museum and the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands. Most of us will only rarely have the opportunity to appreciate these masterpieces in person. Let alone getting to know them intimately. The Van Gogh Museum Relievo Collection allows for a more personal appreciation of the paintings.
By Fred Leeman Former Chief Curator of the Van Gogh Museum 17-08-2015