I was in Amsterdam last weekend, my plane blown in by storm Eunice just before most flights were cancelled. Trains and buses into the city had stopped running earlier that afternoon for safety reasons. I stood in line at the airport with some thousand other people waiting for a taxi, while everything mobile shook and rattled and blew away. The buffeting of my taxi into the city was like being randomly slapped about by the hands of a giant.
Trees were falling all over the city. They fell on cars, against the canal houses, into the canals, and on to the houseboats moored there. Tractors were frantically moving from felled tree to felled tree, to chainsaw them into pieces and take them away.
The rain was torrential; the sky the darkest grey. One storm was giving way to another, although to me it seemed like one constant seamless roar.
By the next morning the wind was still howling, although not as badly. I set off to walk to the Van Gogh Museum for my pre-booked time slot. It’s apparently the norm these days to pre-book your tickets in European cities to many popular museums and galleries. I don’t like planning out my life in advance like that, but hey.
From 11am I happily wandered around the museum, which is organized more or less chronologically. I had never been there before, and was especially pleased to see his painting of a pair of old boots, long a beloved image of mine. There were his small self-portraits, with his intense gaze at himself, and the stippled brushwork. There was the deeply satisfying composition of Bedroom in Arles, with its yellow bed, blue walls and blocky furniture. There were the famous Sunflowers, the Lilies, and the blue and white dazzle of Almond Blossoms.
As I wandered around I noted the three gift shops, each one located on a different level. Fabulous as the paintings on show are, the Van Gogh Museum is not large. Three gift shops, I vaguely noted, seemed like a lot for one small museum. Like many people I love the gift shops in galleries and museums, and once finished looking at the artwork I began my perusal of these shops.
In short, each of the shops had taken a particular painting and branded the hell out it. The Sunflowers, Lilies, and Almond Blossoms turned up on things you would scarcely imagine could be branded. Forget umbrellas and tchotchke and tea towels. There were crazy expensive tea sets “inspired” by the Lilies. Playmobil Vincent lying in the Playmobil bed of the Playmobil bedroom at Arles (“exclusive” to the museum). Tacky, but very expensive, sunflowers and lilies themed jewellery.
There were mugs, knitted dolls, duvet covers, cheese slicers, water bottles, fans, screens, cushions, silver-plated tea caddies, jigsaws, bath towels. And many, many more items. You could easily decorate your entire house with Van Gogh-themed stuff.
At what point, I wondered, does the frantic volume of the merchandise begin to cheapen the work it represents? Is the Van Gogh Museum actually one enormous shop masquerading as a gallery? Is that something a visitor is allowed to say out loud or is it sacrilege?
I was in the third and ground-floor shop by this stage, my head aching from the visual overload of the hundreds of branded items. It was in this shop that the most audacious piece of merchandise was on display. A reproduction of Almond Blossom hung on a wall near the cash machine. There was a sign under it. “Van Gogh Museum Editions represents a collection of premium quality, limited-edition 3D reproductions or masterpieces of Vincent van Gogh. Each reproduction is part of a limited and certified edition of 260 works per painting.”
The price for your fake, sorry, certified reproduction created by a machine of one of van Gogh’s masterpieces? Why, a mere €17,500 each. I did some calculations. That’s €4.5 million-plus per “limited-edition” reproduction run, and he created plenty of masterpieces.
The question isn’t so much as to whom among us would be stupid enough to part with such a huge sum of money for the posh equivalent of a poster. It’s why an international museum would so cynically exploit the work of the long-dead artist whose legacy they are meant to safeguard.
Lest anyone forget, van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime. His work now commands staggering sums. In November last year, Christie’s in New York sold four of his paintings for a collective sum of $161 million.
The van Gogh paintings in the Amsterdam museum that carries his name will never – hopefully – be for sale. But it is a fact they are shamelessly flogging copies of his work created by a computer for the kind of prices most visual artists creating actual paintings rarely receive.
On the sign advertising the reproductions, there was also a quote from van Gogh himself: as if the museum was trying to reassure the buyer that the artist who died penniless at the age of 37 would approve of their ludicrous purchase.
“Fully in accordance with Vincent van Gogh’s spirit. ‘In fact, I believe in doing it in such a way that nobody should need to feel regret in having participated’,”.
Fully in accordance with van Gogh’s spirit, whose genius was not recognized in his lifetime? I don’t think so. A sorrier, more cynical hustle, I have never seen in a museum.