An Afternoon at the Kröller-Müller Museum

Lorie and I made a day trip yesterday to the Hoge Veluwe national park, located just a few kilometers to the north of us. In fact, much of the area here seems to be part of the “Veluwe”, since it appears on so many trail signs, even well out of the park. I think it is probably similar to how we have Yellowstone National Park in the US, but the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem occupies a significantly larger area that encompasses most of the cities surrounding the park borders. Nestled inside the Hoge Veluwe, though, is an art museum.

The Kröller-Müller museum and a national park seem like odd bedfellows, but it’s actually fairly sensible when one knows the origin of both. A philanthropic couple, Anton Kröller and Helene Kröller-Müller bought the large estate in 1909. Mr. Kröller was interested in hunting, so the land was managed with wildlife in mind, and Mrs. Kröller-Müller was interested in art, so she acquired a substantial collection of work from the late 1800’s and early 20th century, most prominently a lot of Van Gogh’s works. I’m not precisely sure how everything is managed these days– I think it’s a “private” national park in that it’s managed by a foundation, rather than a government agency, but one way or the other, it’s a nice museum inside of a nice park.

One day really isn’t a lot of time for the park, really– we saw a good portion of it as we biked to the museum, and a good bit of terrain during our 14 mile bike ride to the park, but we felt like we had to prioritize a bit with the nice weather, so we made sure to see the museum, just in case we don’t have time to return before we head back to the US.

It was a lot of fun to see the collection there, both in the museum, and outside in the sculpture garden. I think the big names like Picasso, Mondrian, Renoir, and Van Gogh can command a lot of attention, but there was a lot of great work by folks that I was newly introduced to at the museum.

While there, I noticed a couple of things. The first concerned myself– it turns out I’m a “close-looker”. I don’t really know what museum etiquette is (I tried not to cut in front of anyone who was looking at something), but I think I preferred to look at things at least twice as close as most of the other folks. For large work, of course, I really like the wide view, but I like to get in close, to appreciate the work as an object, not just an image. I like to see the texture of the work, and the brush strokes. While I was looking at Cafe Terrace at Night, I also realized that I was probably hovering my face at about the same distance the artists themselves worked from the canvas, which gave me a curious feeling of connection– like I was occupying the personal space of a ghost. It gave an odd feeling that I was sticking my face into an invisible mask of sorts, watching Van Gogh apply his brush strokes, or Seurat pepper the points to the canvas. It made it a much more personal experience, and I felt like I was in a friend’s studio, being among the first to see a recently-completed work.

The other thing I noticed was more of a general thought, or observation. Many paintings, sometimes even between works from the same artist, had a dramatically different color palette from each other, regardless of relative age. Some of the paintings from the 17th century, for example, seemed to have perhaps faded a bit though decades, but maintained a balanced tonality. Others from more recent times (circa 1890) seemed to have “muddied up” more in the shadows, or been very dark all around, and I wasn’t sure how much of it was aesthetic intent on the part of the artist, or due to the passage of time. Several of the Van Gogh images were very dark– literally dark, without the bright colors usually associated with other works, making them seem perhaps more grim than the artist had intended. Or was it the intent? I couldn’t help but wonder if the viewers of 120 years ago were looking at different paintings. They were almost certainly looking at them differently, in smoky, dark parlors, lit perhaps by gas lamp, or the amber glow of early electric bulbs, rather than in an evenly illuminated, color-balanced white-walled environment like a contemporary museum.

Lorie mentioned that some pigments would darken with age, depending on what material went into them, which makes perfect sense, especially if the material was “new” at the time, and relatively untested over the passage of years. And why wouldn’t Van Gogh, often the literal textbook example of a “starving artist”, make use of perhaps cheaper or more widely available materials if money was short? Of course, this wasn’t limited to Van Gogh– as I mentioned, it applied to many paintings by many artists, so it must be something fairly well-known to the art conservation community, if indeed it is a “thing” at all, and not simply a stylistic choice. Maybe I’m just looking at it with some modern bias, where I’m used to looking at images with a more extensive tonal range, and thus have an unconscious expectation that I apply to other images, interpreting some of them as “underexposed”. Anyway, it’s just a thing I noticed. I’m sure there are experts out there who will indicate a whole spectrum of interpretation: it’s intentional, it’s accidental, or it’s intentionally accidental. The only person who could really answer the question is the artist him or herself, and most of them aren’t available for such questions. I suppose that’s the thing about art, though: once the maker has departed, and the work is out in the world is out on its own, it’s up to it to speak for itself, even if its message may unintentionally drift over time as it or its audience gradually changes.

Anyway, it was nice to see the work, and very inspiring. And hopefully we’ll be able to get back to the park to see some more of the terrain, and perhaps some of the wildlife.

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