Vincent and Me

I know I said I was going to tell you about Ireland, but… We passed through Paris for a few days on the way because CDG is in the middle of everything and I love Paris. Another visit to the Musee d’Orsay got me thinking about the impressionists I love, especially Van Gogh. So, this post isn’t about Ireland OR Paris, it’s about my experience at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.


In the summer of 2018, I passed through Amsterdam for a single day. You can read about the rest of the day here, but this post is dedicated 100% to the Van Gogh Museum.  It was such an inspiring and emotional experience for me that I paused to take notes about my thoughts and feelings as I was walking through the collection. Usually, I write reflections afterward, but my mind was racing with insights and inspirations so fast, I was afraid I might forget. I mentioned in my essay about the Musee d’Orsay how connected I feel to Vincent, but it wasn’t until I toured this museum in Amsterdam that I really understood the depth of my feelings.

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I didn’t include this in my original stories about that summer because I wanted to watch the movie “Loving Vincent” before I finished writing it. I finally got that chance when it turned up on Netflix for a short run earlier this year. The movie was beautifully hand painted in Van Gogh’s signature style, but I was surprised to find it’s almost entirely about his death rather than his life. The point of view character is charged with delivering a letter and gets caught up in the mysterious circumstances of Vincent’s supposed suicide.

I’ve always loved Van Gogh, and it seems everything I learned about him at that museum only made me love him more.

The Museum

The museum is so crowded. I had the very earliest time slot available and I still felt hemmed in by bodies. I went backwards from his death on the third floor to his youth on the ground level. I’m glad I started at the top because after 3 hours of wandering the displays, I felt all itchy skinned at having to deal with mountains of bodies, mostly focused on their audio tours, and many trying to take photos even though it’s not allowed except at special photo-op areas. Even then, the museum took my photo for me, and sent it later by email.

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That was a big contrast over the d’Orsay. There everyone queued up to snap photos of famous painting (yeah, me too), while in Amsterdam, people are just clumped around, usually plugged into headphones and oblivious to the presence of other visitors. I’m not sure which is better/worse. I think it would just generally be better if it were less crowded. It’s hard to get time with a painting when being jostled and stepped around. I’m glad everyone wants to experience the art but it feels like it looses something to my “oh my God get the humans off me” response. I can’t even imagine how it is during “peak” times.

I’ll talk about the main displays in a moment, but one little fun mention is the tactile sunflowers near the gift shop. Art museums are not usually targeted to the blind or visually impaired, but someone had created  a reproduction of the famous sunflower painting that can be touched. Along with touch, the senses of sound in the form of violin music with amplified sounds of the flower growing, blooming and dying (listen below), and the sense of smell with some sunflowers in a box. Interestingly, it was not only the smell of the flower but the smell of the painting as well. It’s not a part of Vincent’s art, but I thought it was an amazing way to experience art in a new way.

On to Vincent — backwards.

He died July 29, 1890, two days after receiving a bullet wound to the torso, possibly self inflicted.

Auvers-sur-Oise (May–July 1890)

 The works at the end of his life were frenzied like he knew his time was almost out of time, and he had to get as many paintings done as possible. He finished 75 paintings in 70 days, many of which are his most famous works: like Wheat Fields with Crows in Amsterdam, or Church at Auvers in Paris. There is impatience in the brush strokes and they looked massively different from a few feet away and across the room.

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The way he is attracted to the colors of night, the intense deep blue of the sky on days it gets so blue it becomes dark. The blue and pale gold of all his wheat fields that is a color scheme I would live inside if I could. He did scores of these kind of blue and gold themed paintings during his last days, but it wasn’t the first time he hit on the intensity of those countryside colors.

Saint-Rémy (May 1889 – May 1890)

Although Starry Night and Almond Blossoms were both made during this time, the paintings on display for this part of his life are drab compared to his other colors. Almost painfully dominated by brown and dark green with pale skies. He was in pain and unable to escape.

Part of the display in the museum here are audio recordings of some of his letters. We could pick up an ear piece and listen. I was entranced. Listening to his letters I could hear my own thoughts, yearning for something best called “religion”. He says that he doesn’t go to church, but he goes outside at night to look at the stars and the sky that is cobalt blue. He muses about color, that all things appear colorless when looked at too closely (sand, water, air), but that doesn’t make it true. He talks about his friends: that the bonds of friendship are one of the best things in life even if we resent those bonds in our times of depression.

I don’t know the best way to explain it other than to say his words resonated with me on a very deep level. I think we all struggle to be understood in some way and in a moment when you realize someone you admire and respect understands the way you think and feel, what’s more, understood it long before you were born… I suppose it could make someone feel less special or unique, but for me it’s like finding a friend across not just space, but also time.

Arles (1888–89)

This is where Vincent painted the famous Sunflowers, and where many people feel he truly found his voice as an artist, taking what he’d learned and finally becoming free. Van Gogh’s treasured friendships also started here where he sought an artists commune and cultivated a joyful and supportive relationship with several painters. They frequently sent letters, sketches, and even paintings to one another the way that we sent Snapchats and Memes across social media today. There is a painting by Gauguin of Vincent painting sunflowers. It is an imagination since Gauguin was not present when the sunflower paintings were made, but it reminded me of the “taking a picture of someone taking a picture” fashion in modern photography. It seems friends play the same games with images whenever they can.

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Vincent asked Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard to each send him a portrait of the other. Instead, they sent self portraits but had a portrait of the other hanging on a wall as part of the background.  It’s such a wonderful and lighthearted sense of humor. Sadly, Gauguin was such an arrogant ass that he never granted his true friendship, and instead left Vincent always chasing after his affection and respect, contributing to his anxiety and depression, and to his eventual mental breakdown, self-mutilation, and hospitalization. I don’t like Gauguin for a lot of reasons, this is really just one more.

On the other hand, Paul Signac, a neo-impresionist I only recently discovered in 2018 and one who has rocketed to the top of my all time favorite paintings list, visited Vincent in the hospital twice while Gauguin was busy avoiding him, so that’s nice to know.

Paris (1886–1888)

Moving to Paris was the best thing he could have ever done. Watching him develop his color palette reminded me of the first time I realized I was allowed to paint whatever colors I wanted. I didn’t have to make it realistic. It was so freeing and I finally started to like some of my paintings. Looking at his early bright-color works they all have an awkward, exploring feeling which is quite different from the bold and confident colors later.

He used a grid for perspective, which was a thing I struggled with, and he spent years doing just drawings because he wanted to focus on shapes and poses. He didn’t only consider them sketches but full works of art which he signed. I did very much the same thing. He also had a brief but torrid love affair with Japanese culture in 1887, and that was the first foreign culture I was drawn to before I really went full globe trotter. I have never been able to afford as much paint and canvas as I want, and the advent of digital photography and graphic design gave me a much cheaper way to pursue my artistic inclinations.909px-Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Bloeiende_pruimenboomgaard-_naar_Hiroshige_-_Google_Art_Project

While many of his artist friends preferred to paint from imagination, Vincent  preferred to paint from life. I wonder what he would have thought of color photography. It’s a way to capture a scene, a moment of light and color. Modern digital effects even allow us to manipulate the colors and light of a captured image. You can make a blue sky bluer, or over-saturate the colors of a cafe at night… I think he might have enjoyed it?

The Netherlands (1881-1885)

At the outset of his artistic career, he was trying to create a look that was popular at the time and that he genuinely admired, that of artists like Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton. Millet and Breton (left) were famous for dark and drab paintings of peasant life. They were very stark and brutal depictions of what life was like for poor and hard working, technically lovely, but emotionally ugly. Of course, art historians refer to this style of painting as revealing “the beauty and idyllic vision of rural existence”. I think that’s only true if you’ve never been poor. VanGogh (right) was determined to be like them.

He did an enormous body of work sketching local peasants and farm workers, the centerpiece of which is The Potato Eaters (below). It’s all done in the same color palette and mood as Millet and Breton, but the faces look almost cartoonish in his effort to capture feelings over accuracy.

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Seeing his still life of fruit in all brown tones, I was shocked to see it was Van Gogh and not Millet’s or Breton. 

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Just looking at the church in Nunes (left) next to the church in Auvers (right), you can see the change and growth. Yes, I promise, they’re both Van Gogh, but from drastically different stages of his artistic development.

I don’t know if he liked it, but it’s definitely a period of drab and dark colors maybe the landscape was more drab or maybe it was the influence of being near his father. He stayed enamored of Millet (left) for most of the rest of his life, and recreated many of those idyllic, pastoral scenes in his own brightly colored impressionistic style (right).

Life Before Painting (1853-1881)

It’s said that his mother never recovered from the loss of her firstborn child and that her relationship with Vincent was strained, but he was also recorded as being a “serious, quiet and thoughtful” child. His father was a minister, and two of his uncles were art dealers. He tried both careers with little success. His father was constantly disappointed in his inability to make it as an adult. Perhaps it was his time as an art dealer that made him try his hand at creating art, and why he spent so much time and effort trying to replicate the style and subject of the famous and successful artists of the time.

Reflections

Going backwards was an interesting choice. I realize that I, like most people, love best his works from 1888-1890. It seems like such a brief time span, but he practiced art for less than 10 years before he died. It is astonishing the amount of work he produced. When people say “practice” this is really what they mean. On the other hand, he was constantly trying to improve, so the fact that he clearly did is a testament to his devotion to self cultivation.

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Watching him evolve was a rushing, intimate roller-coaster of creativity and self-expression under difficult circumstances. He didn’t have formal art training, but taught himself by studying others. He experienced enormous frustration that his attempts to imitate the respected artists he was familiar with failed. Eventually, he found a community of like minded people and permission to explore color and shape on his own in Paris. It was the beginning of finding his own true self, and yet it destroyed his mind to the point that he landed in the hospital more than once. And yet, that Parisian community is what would sustain him in the form of letters, art exchanges, and the oh-so-important stability that even distant friends can offer. 

There’s a misconception that great artists are never appreciated in their own time, but that’s simply untrue. Most famous artists throughout history were superstars of their own day, like Hollywood actors and TV stars today. That Vincent never gained any recognition or respect until after his death was likely a contributing factor to his suffering in life.

Did he kill himself? Maybe. I know that the episode of Dr. Who where Amy and the Doctor visit Vincent is one of my favorite. That it helped me process the suicide of my own dear friend to realize that we can do everything right to be supportive and yet mental illness can still take someone away as surely as cancer. “Loving Vincent” made me question his death all over as suspicious information came to light regarding the gun, the wound, and the strange behavior of the people in Auvers. Officially, his death is still ruled a suicide, but his life remains a brilliant and sad mystery in many ways. According to his brother who was there at the end, Vincent’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever”

In some ways I’m glad I did not read about his life when I was younger. If I’d discovered all our similarities at the age of 20 I might have developed a complex. I might have worked less hard to get help and spent more time glorifying what was happening to me. Instead, when I learned that we shared a diagnosis, I was content just to know there was someone else with my brain trouble.

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I remember when things were very bad thinking that if cutting my ear off would make it stop, I would gladly do so, but Vincent had already proven it wouldn’t work. I could understand the feelings that drove him to see the world in colors and swirls, that drove him mad enough to drink and self-harm, that landed him in an asylum and eventually dead. I understood the sentiment, but I didn’t know anything else about him beyond a few paintings and his suicide. Back then, I looked only at his art and at the very most well known facts about his life and felt a connection.

Now that I’ve learned more details, from his family life, to his progress through art, to his views on the universe and human relationships? I’m blown away by it.

I’m not trying to say I’m channeling van Gogh, but I’ve always felt a kinship with him. I didn’t move to Paris and join an artist commune, so I don’t have a tiny fraction of his nearly 1,000 finished works. I probably never will, because I was able to manage my state of mind better, whether from support of my community or improved medical care, who can say. The end result is that I got it under control and now I not only have a lot more responsibilities than Vincent did, I have also avoided multi-year stretches of confinement under a doctor’s care. Despite this divergence, I can say that trying to be “normal”, “acceptable”, or “popular” in his own lifetime was something he desperately wanted and could never achieve is a feeling I know all too well.

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You can see photos of the complete works of Vincent Van Gogh on this wiki.

You can explore the collection at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsteram here.

The Unexpected Side of the Veil

Many years ago, I thought as probably many young Americans did, that the coverings Muslim women wore were oppressive. That is was unfair to force women to dress in baggy tent cloaks and cover their hair and faces. Eventually, I embraced the idea that a woman being free to wear whatever she wants should include covering as much of herself as she wants. I still don’t think I agree with the forced adoption of the abaya in Saudi, but I also don’t like the niqab ban in France. Turns out, wearing an Islamic style face veil in France gets you a 200 Euro fine, ouch!

When I went shopping for my own Abaya and hijab, I went into it with the expectation that it was a sort of necessary inconvenience. If I wanted to go to Saudi, I had to obey the laws and respect the culture. And the shopping experience itself helped me to a new understanding that the covering garments were culturally appreciated as beautiful, sort of the same way that seeing a woman in a nice dress or a man in a nice suit is: it shows a care for your appearance, not in this case by showing it off, but by protecting it for the right person.

You see, that’s the positive aspect of abaya/hijab/niqab wearing that I hear most often from Muslima. There is of course the call for modesty (for men and women) in the Quran, but there isn’t a specific dress code anywhere in the religion, so what qualifies as modest varies from culture to culture. (Although, I do understand that there is a specific mention of covering the bosom/chest.) Additionally, they’re supposed to not show-off their beauty to anyone but their husband, but there is no description of what showing off means or of what exactly is “her beauty”. Is that her hair? her face? her legs? her ass? who knows?

Other Muslima say that they like to wear it because it keeps men from looking at them like sex objects. I’m not sure this is realistic. The men here still try to pick up girls, they hurl their phone numbers at them from car windows, plaster their social media accounts as bumper stickers on their cars, and wander around malls with their blue-tooth connections open, signalling single ladies with a subtle hand sign or hat tip that they’re available. The abaya may keep men from seeing a woman’s body shape (to a point, cause the wind plasters those things right down like a bodysuit), but it doesn’t stop men from passing around dirty pictures like they have done since the dawn of time and fantasizing about the women they can’t have.

Some Muslima even talk about how much they like chatting online with men because they know the man must be interested in their words and personality because he can’t see their face or body. I absolutely believe that men all over the world are capable of appreciating a woman for her mind and personality. But I have a really hard time believing that the internet is full of sexually frustrated young Muslim men who are interested in these women for their minds. So, I’ll just be holding off judgement on the objectification prevention aspect of the abaya. Maybe some men can weigh in on this one.

Many Muslima say that they like to wear the coverings because it keeps anyone from seeing their beauty but those whom they choose. This seems almost romantic when they talk about it, guarding their beauty for the man they love, but I’m not sure about this one either. They barely get a chance to meet, often only see each other once or twice while chaperoned and then phone or online conversations to “get to know one another” before the wedding. I’m not saying love can’t grow out of an arranged marriage, but it does seem overly Disney Princess to imagine that you’re hiding your beauty for your true love’s eyes only.

On the other hand, I have to say that as an American woman, I get pretty fed up with the notion that my beauty is on display for everyone all the time. There’s an expectation in America (and probably large chunks of Canada, Europe, Asia and South America) that we should be dressing up every day. That it is our duty to look good not for ourselves, or even just our husbands or boyfriends, but for every man whose field of vision we will enter that day. The idea that if I choose to go out of the house in comfy jeans and t-shirt with no make-up and my hair in a casual bun that I must not be feeling well (best case scenario) or that I’m a lesbian who doesn’t want to turn men on (not even the worst case, but you get the idea). Leaving aside the fact that lesbians might want to turn women on with their looks, its totally ridiculous that we can’t have casual days without there being some big reason other than “I wanted to be comfortable” or “I like how I feel about myself in this”.

*Seattle may be an exception, cause people there dress in PJs and yoga pants. It’s been accused of being a fashion blind city and I love it to pieces, because I can’t stand the idea of wearing makeup every day.

Recently there has been a photo movement  which encourages Muslima to take a selfie in their hijab (with or without niqab) with the hashtag #damnIlookgood. The idea is to raise awareness that women who cover their hair and faces still feel beautiful and confident and want to capture that feeling to share with their friends and their future selves. All reasons we take selfies in the West, too.

I expressed a desire to find some kind of middle ground for modesty in dress and behavior and the ability to still have friends of the opposite gender. It sure would be nice to be able to dress in a way that made me comfortable and not feel sexually objectified without being called ugly, fat, tired, sick or butch. To be able to feel beautiful and confident without feeling like I’m on display, and then be able to break out the sexy when I choose and for whom I choose. Seriously, how cool would that be. But, I really like my guy friends. It drives me crazy that every dude in this country who talks to me in anything other than a strictly professional capacity ends up coming across like that creepy drunk in the bar who makes you beg your gay friend to pretend to be your boyfriend. And I feel like this is a direct consequence of not being allowed to talk to girls their whole lives. So, middle ground.

In the end, though, these are all aspects of the veil that I’d read about or heard about in some form before coming here. The experience certainly adds depth to my understanding of these motivations, but none of them were wholly unexpected.

What was unexpected was the feeling of safety, security and protectedness that the veil imparted to me.

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When I first arrived here, I had an overwhelming desire to meet the bare minimum of the legal requirements. I would wear the abaya, but I knew it wasn’t legally required for Western women to cover their hair, and dang its hot in September here. It was explained to me swiftly that Tabuk is a more conservative town, so it would be a “good idea” to wear my hijab as well. Two of the ladies I work with also wear the niqab (face veil) as well. Only one chooses to veil for religious reasons. The other one started off not wearing the veil here, but experienced so much harassment from men that she started veiling in self-defense.

Sadly, she probably got more harassment because she is African-American and her skin tone (while light) is still more similar to someone of Arabic or African nationality than Caucasian, so the Saudi’s are more likely to think she’s a third class expat than a first class one. Sad but true, they are pretty bigoted against certain nationalities and tend to forget that there are black people all over the world.

At the time she told me about this, I had experienced nothing but positive interactions with the people I’d met in Saudi, men and women, so I felt very far removed from the possibility of experiencing similar problems. But over the course of the next several weeks, events in my life changed my perspective.

I’ve only worn the niqab once, but I remember feeling that it made me invisible, like I was looking out from behind a two-way mirror. This was actually a little trippy and kind of empowering, but not enough to make me want to wear the niqab all the time.

Then there was the unfortunate experience with the hotel manager. Cause few things make you feel more vulnerable and unsafe than the guy with the master key and all the close circuit tv cameras in the building walking around your apartment, touching your stuff and leering at you. It was pointed out to me at great length that the way I dressed and who I talked to was very crucial to my reputation here in Saudi, and that if I was seen as easy or loose (already well on my way just by being American) that it would be seen as an invitation for advances from other men. Showing your hair or smiling at man can be perceived as easy and loose behavior, by the way. And worse, if my reputation gets too bad, then other people will believe that I invited it (was asking for it) instead of holding the man accountable for being a skeezebag.

The “white knight” in the above linked post who so violently defended my honor against the hotel manager also turned out to be way more psycho than I originally realized. Violent behavior was not limited to defending young women’s honor, and he’s caused so many fights and traffic accidents that he’s wanted by the police! My normal friendly behavior and Facebook friend acceptance led to some very awkward electronic communication, even though I have not seen him since that day. Including invitations to join the Communist Party, pictures of car wrecks he caused, stories about ISIS beheadings (apparently he sent the video of the beheadings to one of the male teachers here), pictures of hickies he’s gotten, and multiple public threats to murder someone on my behalf.

And speaking of Facebook, I’ve had to make statements on the Saudi Facebook pages I’m on to the effect that I will not befriend any men living in Saudi, and that I will not go places or visit or otherwise hang out with men in Saudi. In the first place, my personal facebook page is generally limited to people I’ve met in person. I don’t like having anonymous people of either gender reading about things I’m trying to share with my friends and family. In the second, its a huge problem to be friendly with guys here. The pages are great, cause its a public forum where we can talk and exchange ideas and be protected by the moderators and the presence of other readers. But dudes who want to private message or friend me are mostly just looking for easy loose American women. No thank you.

Worse, I’ve had people try to bully me into not being “such a prude” about talking to guys (blocked, btw), and dudes who deliberately had vague profiles. In one post while I was in Jeddah, I said I was going back to the beach and any ladies who would like to share a taxi were welcome, but sorry no men. Someone PM’d me about sharing a taxi and I didn’t realize for a while that it wasn’t a lady. I got upset and tried to terminate the conversation, ended up having to say I felt like I’d been lied to since I’d specifically said no men and he’d responded anyway, and he kept pushing me to meet him at the beach.

Then there were the taxis in Jeddah. Yeesh. I got so fed up with the treatment I got there, marriage proposals, unwanted touching, pretending to get lost or demanding more money when I turned them down. Awful. Finally, I decided to see if my coworker’s experience would help me and made sure my hijab was properly and modestly fastened, and while it didn’t stop the harassment entirely, it cut way back, and I had drivers and shopkeepers who were much more polite and respectful.

One driver told me that he was very happy to see me wearing the hijab because usually Americans showed too much hair, and I had a Starbuck’s employee tell me that he thought I was Egyptian.

I started to notice more and more when I was being treated like a Muslim should treat a woman and when I was not. I started to realize that friendly smiles and handshakes were the Saudi equivalent of “Hey baby, how you doin’?” and grabbing my ass (or at least wrapping an arm around my waist). Behavior that I would not tolerate from strangers at all.

And then I started to realize that all the tension and apprehension that comes along with feeling like a sheep in a room full of wolves when skeezy men are on the prowl and you have to keep your guard up, ladies I know you’ve all felt this way at least once.. all that tight-shoulder-shallow-breath feeling went away when I put on the hijab.

It stopped being a sad or strange theoretical possibility that men harassed women here or that the veil made women invisible, and it became a solid visceral feeling of relief and safety. I couldn’t have been more surprised.

I don’t like my hijab, although the abaya is growing on me (mostly because it makes me feel like a Hogwart’s professor), but I do like the feeling of safety and freedom that it gives me while living here. Of course, I would prefer to be in a society where being friendly didn’t mean being sleezy, but the idea that there’s a piece of clothing that makes men at least act with respect toward the women they meet is pretty amazing, and the way it made me feel was totally unexpected.