I am a docent for the general public at the Getty Center and give tours of the collection and exhibitions. I feel very honored and humbled to meet people from across the globe and share my thoughts and observations about the paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts that the Getty houses. One of the paintings I always include on my 'highlights' tour is Vincent van Gogh's "Irises" (1889).
When I read the recent New York Times article in the Travel section titled, "Where van Gogh Comes to Life" by Nina Siegal, I was reminded about the story of van Gogh's turbulent life in his quest to live and work as a painter before the turn of the century and of his 'irises,' painted in the last year of his short life. I was really surprised to read Siegal's admission that "I wasn't a van Gogh fan when I embarked on this journey...My trouble with van Gogh's work was that, to me, it had the familiarity of cereal boxes - or, as Andy Warhol might have it, soup cans - copied an reproduced to the point of unseeability. Even when I was standing among the originals, the freshness of his work evaded me (NY Times 12/23/15)." She goes on to explain her change of heart when she learned that he looked at and was inspired by Rembrandt's paintings. This idea of van Gogh's work likened to Pop Art never occurred to me. It is not his actual paintings that are familiar, but their subsequent reproduction as images. It is not simply purchasing a coffee mug these days that repeats the image and makes it familiar, but also the posts of the painting on social media and of the visitors knowing that 'Irises' is at the Getty - some literally only come to the museum to lay there eyes (and phones/cameras) on it! What I have learned in my gallery teaching so far is that most people are obsessed with knowing and seeing the original work. And this article to me is about the desire of knowing and seeing the original van Gogh as a person via cultural tourism that endorses and preserves the narrative of van Gogh's life.
There remains a lot of mystery and intrigue into van Gogh's life, but we do have his letters to his brother that are tender, conflicted, and revealing . The article mentions one of the homes he lived in when he was in the Borinage in Belgium. It was dilapidated and has recently been refurbished as the Maison Van Gogh in Colfontaine. The article also lists all the locations you can travel to to trace his life and work. I think a lot of his celebrity has been created as a product of myth-making. I'm more curious what people really think of van Gogh's work. A visitor at the Getty recently asked me about van Gogh's ear incident and wanted to know what happened. Her father then asked me why the artist has to be dead and then become famous. To this question, I also ask, does the more information we know about van Gogh and his journey tell us more about the irises he painted? Yes and no. But at the end of the day, all you have to do is look. Spend time with the painting and it will reveal a multiple of subjects, layers, and points of view. The privilege of seeing the original painting is something your eyes and mind cannot reproduce.
Click here to read the full NY TIMES article published 12/23/15