A Visit with Vincent
Jacinta Barnes sat in the main hall of the Vincent van Gogh Museum on the Paulus Potterstraat in Amsterdam. Although she had been working here for six months now, she still could not believe her good fortune in being appointed to the position of head curator at this illustrious museum. Every day she was surrounded by the works of her favourite artist. Every day she could study the letters Van Gogh had written to his brother Theo and to learn more about the circumstances of his life.
Today, she was especially excited. She had scored a coup in securing the loan of “Starry Night” from the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. It was the first day for the exhibition of this magnum opus by Van Gogh and Jacinta was sitting now, wrapped in the quiet before the Museum opened, taking in every detail of the painting on the wall in front of her. The swirls of colour, the movement and turbulence of the yellows and blues and the texture of the paint and how it was applied, all fascinated her. She could look at this for hours and still it held wonder.
“What are you looking at?” a man’s voice intruded on her thoughts.
She did not look up at first. “The blues,” she said, “the swirls of Ultramarine with those extraordinary hints of Prussian Blue; and the yellows: cadmium, ochre, lemon, all swirled with enough white to make those stars iridescent – don’t you think it’s amazing?”
“Hmm,” he said. “I wouldn’t really know.”
She looked up at him then. His hair was a faded, shambolic red and barely hid his damaged left ear. His eyes were china blue and sad. He clutched a straw hat in his hand and his clothes were old and ragged. She turned her gaze back to the painting on the wall and the hint of a smile graced her lips.
“May I sit?” he asked, and when she nodded, he lowered himself to the bench and she felt the warmth of his body next to her.
“You know,” she said, “this is your most famous work.”
He laughed, a full, heartfelt, joyful laugh. “I was in the asylum when I painted that and not well at all.”
“I know,” Jacinta replied, pausing, “If you had known how much your work would be loved, do you think it would have made a difference?”
“Oh, I doubt it,” he sighed. “Besides, had I known, had I been well, I may have painted in an entirely different way.”
Jacinta stood then and held out her hand. “Come with me. Let us walk.” She led him through the huge, glass entry hall and outside to the garden where thousands of sunflowers bloomed in a maze path of brilliant yellow. He blinked in the bright light and placed his hat on his head, looking now, for all the world, like one of his self-portraits.
Jacinta laughed and asked, “How is it you are here?”
“Oh,” he said, “once every fifty years we are granted a day down here, in our old bodies. We can do whatever we wish, but only for one day. I’ve never been down before – didn’t want to see this place again, but Michelangelo came back last week and he was full of stories about all the changes and, well, I just felt I had to see.”
“Michelangelo was here!” Jacinta gasped.
“Well, I think he went to Italy. You do not get to choose where they send you on your day back. I was sent here, to Amsterdam.”
“So, what do you think?” Jacinta asked.
He smiled, looking upon all those sunflowers. “I think I need a canvas and some paints, but I will settle for a tour and a meal somewhere.”
Jacinta clapped her hands. All thought of being present for the first day of the exhibition were gone and she quickly made plans for the best way to spend her day with Vincent van Gogh. She gave him a tour of the Museum, even taking him into the archives where many of his paintings were held to be displayed on rotation with his other works. She showed him her favourite pieces, and he pointed out which ones he had liked the best. She took him for a walk along the canals of Amsterdam, and he found the busyness of people and the rush of traffic daunting. And then she took him to the Museum Café Le Tambourin for lunch.
The café was bright and airy and looked out over the beautiful grounds that surrounded the Museum. Vincent chose simple fare for his meal. French onion soup with a croissant, followed by a rare roast beef salad with croutons. Jacinta had the Caesar Salad, and both chose one of the delicious strawberries and fruit concoctions for dessert. Over lunch, they talked.
Vincent was pensive and said, “When I was in the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, I was frightened by the darkness of my mood. Every day was this battle to find anything joyful. Then, one morning, well before sunrise, when sleep was impossible, I looked from my window and there it was, this brilliant morning star, dominating the heavens and calling to me. It was like a summons from God, and I had to paint. It was a frenzy of activity, the colour claiming its place on the canvas. Now, you tell me, this is a famous work.” He smiled, a wan, disbelieving smile.
“It is magnificent.” Jacinta said. “So many of your works are loved and admired by the whole world. When you wrote all those letters to your brother Theo, you could not know that they would live on a history of your life. Theo really loved you and he and his wife, Johanna, did a great deal to make sure your work was preserved. A lot of the letters are on display in the museum.”
“Ha! My life in a fishbowl.”
Jacinta smiled at the inadvertent pun, thinking of the shape and form of great glass entry to the gallery. “You mentioned Michelangelo. Have you met any other artists in heaven?”
“There are some funny characters. Henri is there, you know, de Toulouse-Lautrec. We were friends during life, so that is nice. He has this absinthe, a drink he calls the green fairy. He brings it out every so often and a few of us sit around drinking and it really messes with the reality of things. Afterwards we have painting sessions and get many crazy results. There is this guy, Jackson Pollock, who thinks the crazy is normal, but I do not know. It is all too far from anything identifiable for me.”
“I have seen Jackson’s ‘Blue Poles’ several times,” Jacinta said, “and like your ‘Starry Night’, each time I see it I am in awe. If you see a photograph, it just looks like a mishmash of colour but in reality, every inch of that canvas is fascinating – colour and texture overlaid on colour and texture – the drip technique both haphazard and controlled – madness and genius colliding.”
“I’ll pass that on,” Vincent said, and they both laughed at the idea.
As they ordered coffee and lunch drew to its end, Vincent said he would leave soon. He had other places to see before the day ended.
“I feel so honoured,” Jacinta said. “Meeting you like this has been so… I am at a loss for words. You know, there is a song written about you. A line in that song… ‘this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you’. It’s as if the composer had met you, could see within you.”
Vincent shook his head, overwhelmed by this knowledge that he had lived on in so many ways. He looked out over the park around the museum and took a mental picture. When he left this realm at the end of this day, there would be unlimited supplies of paints and canvases, and he wanted now to capture as many ideas for those canvases as he could.
Jacinta stood, hoping she would have more time with Vincent. She turned her head looking towards the Museum entrance and when she looked back again, Vincent had gone. She walked back to the main hall to find it abuzz with the activity of dozens of people, all enthralled by the works of one humble man.
Susan Schrader © 2020
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