My Pursuit of Van Gogh: The True Story

Life is remarkably circular. Sometimes life works in ways you can’t even predict. Fifteen years ago, I encountered a story that little did I know will touch my heart in the most unexpected way.

In the early 00’s, encyclopaedias were still our default search engine as the ultimate source of information. Thick, hard-bound books shelved in glass cabinets, catalogued alphabetically according to the sets where it belongs. One day, it was one of those times I was hanging out with a life-long buddy at the library during lunch break when this person handed me an infamous story about a famed artist of the nineteenth century who cut off his ear and shot himself. My 12-year old naive, innocent and Catholic-oriented self was undeniably shocked. Back then, I looked up at these magnificent people from the past as glorious beings who ever walked on earth; Faultless, infallible and immaculate. A quintessence of an ideal human being.

“How could one of the most famous and influential post-impressionist painter lived such a life?”

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Image source: Holland.com

It was the time I was still obstinate and intolerant to the imperfections of life. The story was incomprehensible for me to accept and digest. From then on, I only focused on his works and refused to read about his life. It was simply unsuitable to take a young mind’s innocence and corrupt it with the dark intentions of human beings. So I thought.

Over the years, it has been my personal goal to expand my views and be more open-minded as possible. I allowed to put myself on someone’s shoes in every subject matter, remove all prejudice, breakdown every cultural norm and understand the root of such belief, behaviour and mindset. Since then, it has been my ultimate goal in life: To understand everyone and everything. Everything is a though word and impossible to achieve, but hey, we got to set the bar to the highest level.

One and a half decades later, I’ve pretty much achieved my goal in every subject that crosses my path. By removing personal preferences and inhibitions, I am able to dissect every detail of a fact, opinion or argument. It’s a very liberating thing to do. It’s the perfect time to go back to one story that I tried dancing around for quite a long time.

Life took its turn and presented me with the opportunity to revisit an old friend I’ve kept buried in my memory. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in partnership with Art Exhibitions Australia and independent art historian Sjraar van Heugten curated Van Gogh and the Seasons as one of its international exhibitions for 2017.

“Hey! It’s Van Gogh. Not to be missed for sure!” I thought. It’s true. It was a wonderful once in a life time experience to see such an exhibit that focused on the four seasons of his works. The storytelling of the exhibit was impeccable. One, if only he will allow to immerse himself to the experience, will clearly feel the connection with Van Gogh’s personal life; How he came to be as one of the most renowned artists of all time.

 

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Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story by Bernadette Murphy

After going through the exhibit, I exited into the souvenir shop without the intention of purchasing any merchandise. There was a large coffee table book, most likely 12″ x 12″ in size detailing the entire exhibit which I personally find above my budget to own. Everyone seems to have bought it. Besides, it was an exclusive publication for this particular exhibit. My best friend bought one, being a huge Van Gogh fan that she is. I personally wasn’t a huge fan of impressionist paintings so I gave it a pass. While browsing through the books section, I saw two copies of Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story by Bernadette Murphy in paperback neatly placed on a table, seemed untouched. The title is very catchy, I scanned a bit, read a few pages and left.

Days later, the book seems to be calling out for me. NGV was conveniently located two blocks away from my workplace so I went back to the souvenir shop during my lunch break. I went back to the table where I last saw it but to my surprise, there’s none left. I saw an elderly man, around 70 years of age, intently reading the only copy of the book in sight. I wanted to wait for him so I can grab it for myself but he seemed so serious and wouldn’t put it down any time soon.

I asked the first staff I could find but I was told that it was completely sold out! I couldn’t accept it. “She seems like one of those staff who are lazy to get some stock.” The person I happen to asked must be a newbie. So I looked for the most easily swayed staff, younger than me, someone who looks like he doesn’t want to upset anyone, from the minority group, and asked again. I explained to him how badly I wanted the book. I know that I can purchase it online, but sometimes, you just want it right now.  I waited for some time and he came out with a bunch of new stocks. I was delighted and thanked him repeatedly. I got two copies and sent one to my best friend who lives in Sydney.

I started reading it as soon as I got the book. I couldn’t just put it down. The investigative, story-telling narration style was so captivating. The enigma of the book piqued my curiosity and I was completely sold. The story revolved around the pursuit to identify “Rachel”, the allegedly prostitute which Van Gogh offered his ear after cutting it off one night of December 1888. There were a lot of times while reading the book, my mind was impatient and furious, “Who the f*** is ‘Rachel’?!” But of course, I knew that her identity will only be revealed in the end. I didn’t want to skip anything! Every detail is vital to the story. I’m a lazy reader and I’ve got to say that not a part of this book bored me neither gave me a reason to give up.

Van Gogh’s mental breakdowns – why, when and where it happened – were all essential in understanding the ultimate act of insanity that went down to his story and eventually to history.

This book revealed so much from what I have expected. Bernadette Murphy took seven laborious years gathering information and ID-ing every single resident of Arles in every situation. She traveled in every place mentioned in the book to see first hand and imagine what it was like to live during Van Gogh’s time. Her effort in completing this book is truly amazing. This book explains the different medical diagnoses of the painter and uncovered the truths behind the sensationalised newspaper prints during his time. It also allowed us to see and feel the ultimate bond between two brothers despite the financial hardship they went through.

After all these years, I have finally able to embrace his story in perfect timing. It’s utterly overwhelming to have finished the book with a tragic end (as we all know) but it leaves a heartwarming experience that will forever linger in the soul.

 

 

Leuralla Toy and Railway Museum

Who would’ve thought that somewhere in the historic town of Leura, a suburb in Blue Mountains west of Sydney CBD, Australia’s largest toy collection can be found. A mixture of railways, cars, planes, action figures, Children’s books and vintage dolls, particularly, Alice in Wonderland, Barbie, Popeye, Noddy and Harry Potter.

The Federation Free Classical style of the two-storey house was built in 1910 for the wealthy yachtsman Harry Andreas and his family after the first house on the site, known as Leuralla, built in 1903, was burned down by a bushfire. The entire property including the garden is 12 acres in size. Harry’s daughter, Marjorie, married Clive Evatt, an Australian politician and barrister and took over the house. At present time, their son, Clive Evatt Jr and his family owns the property and are responsible for the current museum exhibiting their railway and toy collection including his uncle HV Evatt’s memorabillas.

Toy and Railway Museum-2The interior of the house is furnished with Queensland maple notable for its extensive paneling and carvings. As soon as you stepped inside, you’ll immediately be overwhelmed by the heritage and extensive history that will unfold before your eyes. The toy and railway collections dates back in the early 19th Century manufactured by different companies all over the world.

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It is noticeable how the owners have a special inclination towards Alice In Wonderland. You will be able to find it in every room and every corner of the house.

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The railway collection is indeed massive. I’ve never seen so many train sets in my life. It ranges from different types of locomotives, railways, trams and trains that dates back to the industrial revolution up until late 20th Century. My photos can not even justify the number of sets displayed in the museum. Here are a few of them:

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There are also a small collection of Children’s vintage hard-bound books. I was surprised to know that Noddy, a fictional character by English children’s author Enid Blyton, was created in 1949. I can still remember my little brother watching a new TV cartoon series of Noddy, back in early 2000s.

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A number of die-cast model cars can also be seen throughout the museum. Notably, the owners must have travelled to Germany to collect some of them. The presence of toys made in Germany and Nazi figures can easily be identified.

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If there are car model toys, there should also be planes and ships! Hanging in the ceiling of the staircase are two huge model biplanes.

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Another Alice In Wonderland collection from the latest franchise can be seen at the top and bottom of the glass cabinet.

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Lehmann Toys by Ernst Paul Lehmann Patenwerk, a famous German toy maker in 19th Century. Toy and Railway Museum-33Toy and Railway Museum-34Toy and Railway Museum-40

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There are tiny model houses that is run by electricity. I used to have one when I was little and just by looking at these makes me want to have my own collection too. The tiny details and the amount of work put into it are incredible.

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Of course, toy collections wouldn’t be complete without vintage board games. But this one is just a collection from Noddy.

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Surprise, surprise, the owners must have been a fan of Archie comics. They even collected cosmetics apart from dolls.

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Apart from Alice In Wonderland, it seems like the owners are huge fans of Popeye too. Their collection range from books, merchandises, figurines and toys.
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Toy soldiers are displayed neatly and organized according to its time period in history. There are medieval knights, soldiers from World Wars and warriors of ethnic tribes.

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I tried remembering the name of this castle but I couldn’t. Anyway, it’s on display too.Toy and Railway Museum-88

Part of the museum has been dedicated to HV Evatt’s memorabilla, an Australian judge, lawyer, parliamentarian and writer. There’s a collection of matches, tin cans, art materials, household products, pins, banknotes and what seems to be – coat strings.

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The doll collection is so varied in styles and time in history. The oldest one I can date back is a 19th Century ceramic doll called bisque dolls made in France and Germany wearing affluent clothing of the period. These kinds of dolls were popularized in the market until after World War I and marketed to the rich families. Some of the dolls from the collection were owned by the daughters in the family of this house. Toy and Railway Museum-76

There are also special edition dolls after the Queen and Princess of the British Monarchy.

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Fast forward to present time, Harry Potter and James Bond toy and merchandise collections are the first ones you’ll see as soon as you step into the house.  The James Bond collection has been arranged according to its franchise timeline too.

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Last but not the least, an extensive Barbie and Friends collection from the very first Barbie, Ken and Skipper dolls, designer editions, anniversary editions, movie merchandises, and limited editions to mark historical events.

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The very first edition barbie doll (1959) in its original packaging and stand wearing striped bathing suit, large white sunglasses, ring earrings, black stillettos, brushed wavy hair in pony tail. Available in two different hair colours: Blonde and Brunette. The first reproduction was released in 1994 in celebration of her 35th birthday and another was released in 2015.

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The first Ken doll was introduced in 1961, the toy displayed is still in its original packaging.Toy and Railway Museum-108

Skipper, Barbie’s younger sister, introduced by Mattel in 1964, a shorter doll standing 9.25 inches in height on its first release.

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Some designer Barbies including Christian Dior, Calvin Klein, Anne Klein, Macys, Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani.

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Barbie’s 50th Anniversary, MAC Cosmetics edition and Millennium Princess edition.

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Barbie Coca-Cola editions.Toy and Railway Museum-60

Barbie pageant editions:Toy and Railway Museum-65Toy and Railway Museum-66Toy and Railway Museum-68Toy and Railway Museum-109Toy and Railway Museum-110

Movie editions of Barbie dolls featuring Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, The Munsters and Wizard of Oz. Toy and Railway Museum-118Toy and Railway Museum-119Toy and Railway Museum-120Toy and Railway Museum-117Toy and Railway Museum-116Toy and Railway Museum-67

Barbie outfits throughout history:Toy and Railway Museum-121Toy and Railway Museum-122Toy and Railway Museum-43Toy and Railway Museum-44Toy and Railway Museum-86Toy and Railway Museum-81

Leuralla Toy and Railway Museum is located at 36 Olympian Parade, Leura in New South Wales, Australia. It’s included as one of the stops of Blue Mountains Explorer Bus  in Katoomba.

 

NGV: Whistler’s Mother

Portrait of Artist’s Mother (1871), one of the most iconic paintings in the world, was exhibited in NGV, Whistler’s Motheralong with the artist’s and other Australian painters’ works that were highly influenced by Whistler’s art.

The original title of the famous painting is Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, which refers to the exploration of form and colour rather than the portrait of his mother present in the painting. The original title was also inspired by the abstract form of music, with the use of “Arrangement of… No.1” a standard title commonly used in classical music.

It is quite surprising that a masterpiece popularly referred to as a portrait was not originally intended to be a portrait painting at all. The solid blocks of colours, the proportional alignment of each block, and the combination of warm and dark tones portrays Whistler’s strong geometric composition on this painting. It is also important to note that Whistler’s mother’s dress is a block of solid black colour, which is one of the abstract elements that he included.

Interesting though, Alfred Barr, director of MOMA in New York back in 1943, pointed out a mind blowing fact about this painting. He wrote that, without the image of the mother, this large-scale painting is, “a composition of rectangles… not very different from the abstract Composition in white, black and red [1936] painted by [Piet] Mondrian.” He then referred to this painting as a precursor of modern abstract art. 

IMG_6599Portrait of Artist’s Mother (1871)

All my life, like most people who have seen this painting, I looked at its biographical aspect and ignored its existing visibly abstract elements. It could be due to my lack of formal art trainings and my limited exploration of my interest to visual art which has always been finitely intrapersonal. Visiting this exhibit has sparked my curiosities of further understanding behind the visual elements of an art piece, the outspoken message it communicates and the admirable skill and personal history of the artist.

Staring at this large-scale painting alone, exhibited solely in one large room, while all spotlights illuminating only it, was so dramatic, it’s moving. The overwhelming feeling I had when I first laid my eyes on Juan Luna’s Spoliarium (1884) suddenly hit me again. Its grandeur, magnificence and emotional artistic value are undeniably present.

The layout of the entire exhibit itself was carefully crafted that it started introducing the early life of the artist, his life journey, his relationship with his mother and the meaningful backstories that eventually lead him to create such masterpiece. The layout was highly commendable for the dramatic effect it created for every visitor.


James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) is an American master artist who was born in Massachusetts, USA. His family moved to St. Petersburg, Russia in 1843 after the inglorious period of US Military Academy. In 1955, he trained in Paris as a painter for four years before moving to London. He created several works before his commendable masterpiece, Portrait of Artist’s Mother (1871), has been recognised as aestheticism, an art form which has a combination of realist and formalist elements.

Source: NGV Whistler’s Mother