JOHANNA: THE OTHER VAN GOGH
THE PRESTIGIOUS PATRON:
On December 15, 1939 Helene’s flower ladened casket reposed in the museum gallery. Small unadorned pines stood like silent sentinels behind her bier and on the wall above her (honoring her final wishes) Van Gogh’s Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed had been placed. Helene Kröller-Müller’s funeral was 10 days before Christmas and the pine scent lingering in the room was like a fragrant farewell from the nearby forest.
The renowned Kröller-Müller Museum museum is located within the HogeVeluwe “fallow lands,” a National Park near the village of Otterlo in the central Netherlands. Surrounding the Museum are approximately 14,000 acres of dense trees, grass lands and sandy expanses where deer and wild boar proliferate. The contrast between the untended wilderness and the modernist building calls attention to its understated elegance. It also underscores the unlikely location of the second-largest Van Gogh collection in the world inside a rural park.
I don’t recall seeing other visitors that spring day in 1968 when I (William Havlicek) ventured into the HogeVeluwe for the first time. In the late 60s he museum wasn’t as well-known as it is today. Now, over fifty years later it’s a required destination for any Van Gogh enthusiast. In addition to a strenuous trek through the park, a vivid memory of that day was seeing Van Gogh’s Head of a Woman (1884-85) for the first time in a side gallery of the museum. Alone in a side gallery with the portrait, the soulful eyes of a weathered woman confronted me with a pained gaze. Moving up close to the painting, it seemed alive with urgent layers of orange, brown and black paint over which a web of umber brushwork was engraved. The effect was like a mixture of human flesh and parched clay— as if the earth had risen up and brought a 19th century field worker back to life.
This poignant peasant was one of numerous portrait studies Van Gogh made for his famed Potato Eaters of 1885. Now it was housed in a museum that was in the words of its founder Helene … “born out of sadness” like the sorrow etched upon the furrowed face of the peasant woman. This powerful yet sober work reflected Helene’s own disquieted life and her museum birthed under extraordinary circumstances
After a day in the museum I began to jog back through the park toward the main road. In the dim light of the late afternoon I was startled to see what appeared to be a small bear in the lane just ahead of me. Then I noticed the white tusks —it was an ominous looking wild boar. After a few threatening minutes the grayish grizzled creature slowly moved into the nearby low-lying pine trees that instantly camouflaged it’s black bristled body. I moved cautiously past its point of entry— the silence was reassuring.
I had three unforgettable experiences that day in 1968: An introduction to a great museum, a soulful session with aVan Gogh portrait and an encounter with a menacing wild boar. Mixed memories of fascination and fear were my prelude to the legendary legacy of Helene and the Kröller-Müller Museum.