When I Give, I Give Myself

Where: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Concept and curator: Henk Schut
Participating artists: Eylem Aladogan, Maria Barnas, Michaël Borremans, Hafid Bouazza, Constant Dullaart, Jan Fabre, Alicia Framis, Ryan Gander, Arnon Grunberg, Christian Jankowski, Anish Kapoor, Job Koelewijn, Yayoi Kusama, Nicole Krauss, Gabriel Lester, Navid Nuur, Rory Pilgrim, Cheng Ran, Viviane Sassen, Pilvi Takala & Siri Baggerman, Simon van Til, Diego Tonus, Wouter Venema.

  • Do you know what I think about quite often – what I used to say to you back in the old days, that if I didn’t succeed I still thought that what I had worked on would be continued. Not directly, but one isn’t alone in believing things that are true. And what does one matter as a person then? I feel so strongly that the story of people is like the story of wheat, if one isn’t sown in the earth to germinate there, what does it matter, one is milled in order to become bread. The difference between happiness and unhappiness, both are necessary and useful, and death or passing away… it’s so relative – and so is life.

    (Fragment from letter 805, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Friday, 20 September 1889 by Vincent van Gogh)

  • ‘One is afraid to make friends, one is afraid to stir, one would like to call out to people from a distance like one of the old lepers: Don’t come too close, for contact with me will bring you sorrow and harm’ (letter 288, 26/27 November 1882). The theme of isolation, of wanting to be alone, comes up again and again in Framis’s work. She has made three chairs in which museum visitors can retreat from their surroundings. Her inspiration came from the Stendhal syndrome, the psychological state of being completely overcome by artistic beauty. Symptoms include an accelerated heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and fainting. Visitors could have a seat in one of Framis’s mobile ‘clinics’, to pause and reflect on the power of art.

  • Simon van Til, Untitled, 2015

    Van Til’s work focuses on the closely interwoven relationship between photography and reality. By exposing the same film twice in an analogue process, he has created a double image of a 19th-century Chinese porcelain vase. The object has been reduced to its own likeness, a reproduction in a photographic representation, photographed in the dead of night by the light of the full moon.

    In letter 619 (3 or 4 June 1888), Van Gogh describes subtle transformations of this kind: the sea changing colour and stars becoming precious stones. ‘Against the blue background stars twinkled, bright, greenish, white, light pink — brighter, more glittering, more like precious stones than at home — even in Paris’ (letter 619, 3 or 4 June 1888). Under special conditions of light and time, mysterious worlds appear.

  • Simon van Til, Untitled, 2015 Silver gelatin print on baryta paper

  • Gabriel Lester, Shell Shovelers, 2015.   Video, LED-Screen (5’ 34”)                Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam

    Gabriel Lester’s video is shown on a low-resolution screen, and as a result the forms are vague and blurry. Looking through your lashes, you can see the outlines of Peruvian workers building a road paved with shells. Lester made a connection with the many rural labourers in Van Gogh’s paintings and drawings.
    These painterly images are a response to the following passage by Van Gogh about a painting of women picking olives: ‘It’s a canvas I’m working on from memory after the study of the same size done on the spot, because I want a far-off thing like a vague memory softened by time’ (letter 829, 19 December 1889).

  • Navid Nuur, ‘I wish they would only take me the way I am’, 2013                                  Oil on canvas

    Van Gogh’s statement ‘I wish they would only take me the way I am’ (letter 220, c. 23 April 1882) inspired Nuur to paint this piece. Nuur created a vibrating effect by copying Van Gogh’s characteristic brushstrokes from different landscape paintings and superimposing them on each other. He takes the viewer beyond Van Gogh’s beautiful landscapes and – as he says – shows the artist with his creative hunger. Link to video interview with Navid Nuur.

  • Constant Dullaart, Jennifer in Paradise, CS6 filer series: Jennifer in Paradise Halftone circle, Jennifer in Paradise Chrome, Jennifer in Paradise Accented Edges, 2015. Archival lenticular print Courtesy Future Gallery, Berlin

    ‘Ah, what portraits we could make from life with photography and painting! I always have hopes that a great revolution still awaits us in portraiture’, Van Gogh wrote (letter 700, 9/10 October 1888).

    Constant Dullaart focuses on contemporary visual culture and its reproduction and manipulation. That explains his interest in Van Gogh’s remark about photography, which was then a new medium. His intention with these three manipulated photographs is to encourage new debate about the importance of the original work of art versus reproductions. This is an important topic in the 21st century, when countless images are available on the internet for anyone to access – and to alter.

Curator statement:

“The exhibition When I Give, I Give Myself with work from 23 contemporary artists all responding to a letter from Vincent van Gogh is the last part of a triptych I started working on in 2012 and which also resulted in the installation the Van Gogh Mile.

Reading all his letters I discovered a truly incisive thinker capable of critical self reflection. He has incredibly well thought out artistic insights on technique, use of color, the importance of context and artistic development. He also used his writing to ventilate his doubts and insecurities, to invoke himself with courage and share the things in life that pleased and inspired him. To me his writing can be seen as an integral part of his artistic practice and essential to his development.

Then I read a fragment in letter number 805 which for me is about the invisible and ongoing connection between past and present. Van Gogh firmly believed that the work of an artist was important not only to his contemporaries, but also to future generations. It is about ‘passing on’ your legacy, realizing that as an artist you are part of something bigger. It was the source for the third part of the triptych, the exhibition When I Give, I Give Myself, because his letters did not only resonate to my own artistic practice, but while reading I also constantly made connections with other living artists. With this exhibition I could show the relevance of Van Gogh’s intellectual legacy by making a connection with the contemporary art world. Because this letter about the cycle of life and death isn’t that something that Yayoi Kusama can relate to? Or this letter about the intrinsic value of color, isn’t that something Anish Kapoor could have said? The fear for the blank canvas and how you overcome this, how would the American novelist Nicole Krauss treat this material? Why don’t I send them a letter and ask them to respond? I made a list of artists and send each of them a very specifically chosen letter by Van Gogh that related to their art practice. Having contemporary artists respond to his writing shows their relevance today and the invisible and ongoing connection between past and present.

To emphasize the concept behind the exhibition the contemporary works are to be viewed as a temporarily integrated part of the main collection in the Rietveld building. Showing these works in between Van Gogh’s paintings with the letters as a trait d’union will bring his thinking to the foreground and reaffirm its value.

Surrounded by living colleagues Vincent is freed from the iconic status he got after he died and can be seen again as the artist he is: always wanting to learn more and with continuous self reflection. At the same time When I Give, I Give Myself gives an insight into the way contemporary artists respond to the same existential and artistic questions Van Gogh asked himself.

The title of the exhibition is a fragment from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman, who was also read by Van Gogh. To me this has to do with having to expose yourself as an artist and making choices. It is the essence of artistic creation. Risking something and showing who you are.”

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition was written by the Dutch art critic Hans den Hartog Jager.

When I Give, I Give Myself was realized in collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum. Funding came from the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts and the Gieskes-Strijbis Fund, the Goethe-Institut, Frame Visual Arts, M.A.O.C. Gravin van Bylandt Foundation and the Embassy of the Netherlands in London.