Helene Kröller-Müller: The Prestigious Patron

AN EMOTIONAL CONNECTION
WITH VINCENT

Piet de Jonge reports:

“Within fourteen years Helene Kröller-Müller assembled almost 100 paintings and 180 drawings by Van Gogh. In addition to a self-portrait, her collection includes depictions of the peasants and weavers in Brabant and the Dutch and French landscapes that inspired him. Van Gogh’s immediate surroundings are represented by portraits of friends and the garden of the asylum to which he had himself committed. These works give an overview of the life of her favorite painter” (p. 50).

The Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed (1887) was one of the finest of Van Gogh’s work— prompting Anton to boast that they didn’t have the largest number of Van Gogh’s art but had “the cream of the crop.” With so much of Vincent’s work available at the beginning of the 20th century they bought aggressively, taking full advantage of the opportunity.  Dozens of his iconic works fell into their hands including such well known works as: Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun (1889), La Berceuse (1889), Loom with Weaver (1884), The Ravine—Les Peyroulets (1889), Olive Grove (1889), The Lover (Portrait of Lieutenant Milliet) (1888),  Portrait of Joseph Roulin (1889), The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix) (1890), Road with Cypress and Star (1890), Flowers in a Blue Vase (1887), Cafe Terrace at Night (1888), Cypresses with Two Figures (1889).

Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed was purchased in 1908, one of Helene’s first acquisitions.  This work had profound associations for Helene who stipulated that it be the centerpiece for her funeral.  She also wrote a eulogy about this powerful painting which expressed her unattainable yearnings.  It is an intense work—yellow, orange, ochre, pale green, and brown depict four sunflowers set on their sides with upturned, savagely cut off  stems. Warm harvest hues glow inside the flowers which is intensified by contrasting cool surrounding colors. As many as three blues make their appearance in the fore and background— cobalt, ultramarine and cerulean. The leaves of the sunflowers are uplifted, flame-like with their upward motion echoed in the vertical strokes at the top of the painting.  There the blues merge into viridian green enriched in turn by touches of orange, red and light-green.

The whole surface pulsates with the broad motion of the brush while a central focus is established around the delicately-rendered intricate seeds of the flowers. Here the swirling pattern of the whole is silenced and one is invited to pause and admire the network of tiny dots and patterns making up the seeds This concentrated focus offers relief for the eye on one hand and is a symbolic gesture on the other. Symbolically it reminding one of the unity of life and death. The life of the plant has gone to seed with the potential of new life residing within them.  Van Gogh often spoke of his belief that death results in spiritual rebirth and resurrection.  This transcendent symbolism explains why this cherished painting was to play a primary role in Helene’s funeral.

As quoted in the film Helene, a Woman Between Love and Art, Helene wrote the following about this powerful painting:

“The moon was above the earth, higher and fuller than ever, it seemed. But suddenly, Sam, I saw something very odd. All of a sudden, close to the earth, I saw a second large, glowing ball. A haystack that had caught fire, with fiery flames breaking out on top. Oh Sam, those flames were like arms reaching out to the unattainable light . . . and, like Van Gogh’s sunflowers, they were burning their own heart . . . just like the fiery ball below, that will keep roaming the earth . . . until it finally surrenders to very, very strong arms that will embrace it firmly. “

Much that was unfulfilled in Helene’s life is referenced in this mysterious message. It contains several subjects found in Van Gogh’s art: a moon, haystack and sunflowers. Above all it

links the legacy of suffering at the root of her existence to tragic life of the painting’s maker. Perhaps the reference to strong arms that will embrace —alludes to unrequited love but more likely it is an expression of inexpressible spiritual longing.  The flames that reach up like arms toward the unattainable light of the full moon evokes a yearning for transcendent release and relief.  One finds a similar set of symbols in Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night where a massive moon and  upsurging cypress tree set an earth/ heaven dialogue in motion. Van Gogh said of this painting that it expressed his terrible need for religious affirmation and sacred security.  Helene and Vincent expressed similar desires for spiritual transcendence and transformation in reference to these works.  

It is also a remarkable coincidence that one of the first major works she purchased should have as its theme sunflowers gone to seed. Seeds are for planting—and this painting would germinate into a harvest of nearly 100 collected works stemming from this Van Gogh painting.

Anton also independently purchased some works of art. There is the hauntingly beautiful Portrait of Eva Callimachi Catargi by Henri Fantin-Latour (1881) which Anton gave as a gift to Helene on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. This life-sized portrait of Eva Callimachi (a much admired Parisian beauty) strongly resembled Helene as Anton remembered her in her twenties.  The portrait is shrouded in shadow projecting an alluring sense of mystery which says a good deal about Aton’s feelings about his enigmatic wife. The choice of this superb Fantin-Latour showed he had an eye for fine work.

Related closely to Van Gogh’s Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed (1887) is Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun (1889). Many of the same warm hues occur in both paintings. The reaper with sickle appears as a field worker doing his job amid the ripening wheat. Vincent said that the reaper was a symbol of death at the harvest of life. The connection with death and the reaper was ever-present in Van Gogh’s mind and which he brought up often in his letters and symbolized in in his art.

The links between the two paintings was obvious to Helene who was in tune with Van Gogh’s symbolism and the meanings cited in his letters—letters which Helene read and reread,  with Johanna Van Gogh having published them in both Dutch and German in 1914. 

Another work of exceptional beauty was the Olive Grove of 1889.  As van der Wolk recorded, Helene said of it: “But the most beautiful one is an olive orchard, so tender and profound and such a complete, great painting. I cannot describe it to you, but in most people’s eye it will be the most beautiful painting of all because it does not disturb you in any way” (p. 22).   Helene recognized that Van Gogh’s work often dealt with the ever-present reality of death  and suffering but she cherished certain paintings where Vincent conveyed a sense of solace, resolution and release from pain.  The Olive Grove exudes a soft, gentle mood. It was made at San Remy Asylum in the comforting olive groves surrounding the hospital (and remain there to this day). As a collector she was highly aware of the state-of-mind of an artist (a modern concern after Freud and the advent of psychology).  She recognized each of her Van Gogh paintings as poetic responses to his life’s journey and conjoined it with her own sojourn.

She welcomed the repose of this work and hoped viewers would drink in the quiet spirit of it as well. Her concern over the response of her viewers was born from her belief that an  heartfelt work based of art can impacts a viewer in deeply personal ways.  Van der Wolk quoted her as saying “But art, however difficult it may be to unravel, does not have this element of concealment; in art it is different. It never threatens; it can never threaten, for art is emotion and emotion is always genuine. Art is a Self-Portrait and in this sense art is pure truth and that is precisely what makes it so valuable, especially for us modern people . . .” (p. 71).

Helene held the conviction that emotion can be embodied by the touch, tenor and theme of a work. However for this embodiment to exist it must first of all be motivated by an artist’s sincere desire to evoke such feelings in the work itself. It most be done in the most direct and transparent way. Her notion that art can be a Self-Portrait arises from this view.

Her elevated view of a work of art along with her belief in artistic genius seems confirmed by the great number of viewers who have strong empathetic responses to Van Gogh’s art. One explanation for this phenomena is that he was so transparent in the transmission of his state-of-mind in his artistic projection.

Recent research in the field of neuroaesthetics has proven that humans are effected at subliminal homeostatic levels by the emotional state of another. These emphatic responses including the heart rate and breathing can be reset or ‘entrained’ by direct bodily contact with another person. Other examples of entrainment include exposure to the rhythm of waves where after a short time ones breathing and heart rate are entrained by these natural patterns. The explanation of entrainment begins in the womb where as infants are in direct contact with the  the mothers heartbeat and breathing.

Being in the presence of a work of art also exposes one to rhythms of brushwork, color patterns as records of the artist’s psychological state. This rhythmic patterning is similar to the impact of waves in entraining our central nervous system. This effect may account for the conviction by nonfigurative artists that viewers are emotionally impacted by their work in the same way that music can effect mental states. Proof of this has been shown in MRI scans and occurs in the film Musical Minds by Oliver Sacks.

When a narrative subject is offered along with the entrained effects of a highly expressive work (as in the case of a Van Gogh) the impact is very stronger on a viewer.   A candidate for such a strong empathetic response would be Van Gogh’s “The Good Samaritan” a painting he made to speed up his own recovery from severe epileptic episodes. One can surmise that the entrainment transmission of this work would be unusually strong on a viewer.

The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix) was painted in the last months of Van Gogh’s life. It is based on a Parable of Jesus in which the beatitude of compassionate love is shown by caring for another and in this parable an enemy. This work, like the Olive Grove suggests a respite and rescue from danger. The good Samaritan is saving a gravely injured man whom others have ignored and passed by. Van Gogh said this painting was a tribute to the doctors and nurses at San Remy who he credited with saving his life. He created this work in gratitude and as a healing aid in his own recovery.  This strong desire to express a deeply felt emotion is typical of Van Gogh and why his work impacts viewers so much. Had his work been produced for purely commercial purposes that would be sensed by an attuned viewer.

As Piet de Jonge observed, Helene had good reason for her emotional connection with Van Gogh.  In 1924 she was a patient in Dr. Dengler’s psychiatric Sanatorium in Baden-Baden and periodically sought healing in a sanatorium in the Black Forest (p. 30). She could identify withVincent’s themes of death, deliverance and healing. The mood of The Good Samaritan is the aftermath of a trial; it is consoling and redemptive and—like the Olive Grove—uplifting and reassuring.  Such works spoke directly to her and likely “entrained” her own mental states.

Other great Van Goghs in the collection include: Country Road in Provence by Night (1890), Flowers in a Blue Vase (1887), Terrace of a Cafe at Night (1888), Cypresses with Two Figures (1889). Each of these paintings are restorative in mood and were produced at vital periods in Van Gogh’ s life. Cypresses, flowers, and cafes have positive connotations and remain among his most popular works. Many of these are powerfully restorative works filled with hope and gentle persuasion.  For Van Gogh they were a response to the healing properties of nature and its ability to reach all of the human senses. One can walk, smell, see, hear, imagine and taste the sensory output of nature and nothing is as restorative as the entrainment power of field, forest, sky and ocean.

Cypresses with Two Figures, is perhaps the most tender of all.  It features two women in elegant dresses strolling in a field of flowers with majestic cypress trees rising protectively over them. This poetic, eulogy must have appealed to Helene for multiple reasons. It embodied a poetic feminine motif wedded to supremely fine craftsmanship. Van Gogh labored over this work to make it as complete a painting as possible.  Using a word that was especially meaningful for Van Gogh the work evokes  ‘solace’.  A term Vincent repeatedly used for something he sought namely peace of mind. The feminine presence is a reminder of his oft repeated desire for a wife and family. 

As Helene shared in her private letters she also was in great need of solace and peace of mind. At the time of her hospitalization for what was described as ‘neuroses’ Anton was also plagued by great financial loss. Additionally problems with their children were occurring. Having comforting works of art to immerse herself which had been made by a fellow sufferer were restorative aids to her peace of mind. Something she hoped that visitors to her museum would one day also experience.  The surrounding solace of the HogeVeluwe “fallow lands,” National Park near the rural village of Otterlo provided an ideal location for the “entrained” impact of art and nature to soothe, assuage and provide solace from the tensions of city life.

ASIDE: In the postmodern art world often the value of beauty in art has been maligned or ignored; yet the places where visitors converge in a museum is telling.  More often than not, the majority of visitors are found where Impressionist paintings are located.  The rich paint handling, generous color and convivial atmosphere in Monet, Pissarro, Sisley etc  has a universal appeal. It uplifts spirits. Museum collections devoted to beauty are those most appreciated by the public and why they remain much-visited and celebrated. Helene understood this well and intended her collection to be as beautiful as possible and appreciated in this light.

LIVES,  LETTERS AND LEGACIES

 

The suffering Helene shared with Vincent was paralleled by other cords of connection. Helene volunteered as a nurse during the First World War and had experiences like  those Van Gogh experienced as an evangelist/nurse in a Belgium mining community in the late 1870s. Vincent was appalled by the indifference of mine officials for the welfare and of the miners.  Helene similarly was indignant at the lack of hygiene and care of soldiers in the army hospital where she worked. She took it upon herself to improve sanitization and oversaw procedures for the daily care of the patients. During this time she said she was inspired by Vincent’s selflessness in the mining episode.

Vincent once said he “would never recognize love that was not an action,” and arduous action is what one finds especially in his mining experiences.  Helene said that of all of Vincent’s letters those he wrote about his mining ministry spoke the most deeply to her.

Following is a selection from a letter Vincent wrote to Theo from the Borinage mining community in 1879:

 

“Not long ago I made a very interesting expedition, spending six hours in a mine. It was Marcasse, one of the oldest and most dangerous mines in the neighborhood. It has a bad reputation because many perish in it, either going down or coming up, or through poisoned air, firedamp explosion, water seepage, cave-ins, etc. It is a gloomy spot, and at first everything around looks dreary and desolate. Most of the miners are thin and pale from fever; they look tired and emaciated, weather-beaten and aged before their time. On the whole the women are faded and worn. Around the mine are poor miners’ huts, a few dead trees black from smoke, thorn hedges, dunghills, ash dumps, heaps of useless coal, etc….

“The mine has five levels, but the three upper ones have been exhausted and abandoned; they are no longer worked because there is no more coal. A picture of the maintenages would be something new and unheard of—or rather, never before seen. Imagine a row of cells in a rather narrow, low passage, shored up with rough timber. In each of those cells a miner in a coarse linen suit, filthy and black as a chimney sweep, is busy hewing coal by the pale light of a small lamp. The miner can stand erect in some cells; in others, he lies on the ground . . . .The arrangement is more or less like the cells in a beehive, or like a dark, gloomy passage in an underground prison, or like a row of small weaving looms, or rather more like a row of baking ovens such as the peasants have, or like the partitions in a crypt. The tunnels themselves are like the big chimneys of the Brabant farms.

“The water leaks through in some, and the light of the miner’s lamp makes a curious effect, reflected as in a stalactite cave. Some of the miners work in the maintenages, others load the cut coal into small carts that run on rails, like a streetcar. This is mostly done by children, boys as well as girls. There is also a stable yard down there, 700 meters underground, with about seven old horses which pull a great many of those carts to the so-called accrochage, the place from which they are pulled up to the surface …. The villages here look desolate and dead and forsaken; life goes on underground instead of above. One might live here for years and never know the real state of things unless one went down in the mines.

“People here are very ignorant and untaught—most of them cannot read—but at the same time they are intelligent and quick at their difficult work; brave and frank, they are short but square shouldered, with melancholy deep set eyes. They are skillful at many things, and work terribly hard. They have a nervous temperament—I do not mean weak, but very sensitive. They have an innate, deep-rooted hatred and a strong mistrust of anyone who is domineering. With miners one must have a miner’s character and temperament, and no pretentious pride or mastery, or one will never get along with them or gain their confidence.

“Did I tell you at the time about the miner who was so badly hurt by a firedamp explosion? Thank God, he has recovered and is going out again, and is beginning to walk some distance just for exercise; his hands are still weak and it will be some time before he can use them for his work, but he is out of danger. Since that time there have been many cases of typhoid and malignant fever, of what they call la sotte fievre, which gives them bad dreams like nightmares and makes them delirious. So again there are many sickly and bedridden people—emaciated, weak, and miserable.

“In one house all ill with fever and little or no help, so that the patients have to nurse the patients. “Ici c’est les maladies qui soignent les maladies” [here the sick tend the sick], said a woman, like, “Le pauvre est l’ami du pauvre” [the poor man is the poor man’s friend] . . . .

“Going down into a mine is a very unpleasant sensation. One goes in a kind of basket or cage like a bucket in a well, but in a well from 500-700 meters deep, so that when looking upward from the bottom, the daylight is about the size of a star in the sky.

“It feels like being on a ship at sea for the first time, but it is worse; fortunately it does not last long. The miners get used to it, yet they keep an unconquerable feeling of horror and fear which reasonably and justifiably stays with them. But once down, the worst is over, and one is richly rewarded for the trouble by what one sees.”

Vincent noted that the miners were prematurely aged, tired and ill, and he was horrified by the plight of children alone and unprotected in the unsupervised isolation of their dismal underground world. He experienced firsthand the very settings depicted by Dickens in his novels.  The workers in the Borinage were constantly reassured by their overseers that the mines were safe. But this was far from the truth. Vincent told of an explosion underground where a man was badly injured, suffering terrible burns, and Vincent was compelled to nurse him back to life. The mines were in fact a living nightmare for the workers, where life was regularly snuffed out like a candle by explosions or the collapse of tunnels and shafts.

The image of the shining star was to appear often in Vincent’s letters and art “…when looking upward from the bottom, the daylight is about the size of a star in the sky.” His early letters described stars shimmering in black skies, eternity emboldened in glowing points. This glimmering vision and its starry promise was to reappear at the end of his life in one of his best-loved paintings The Starry Night of 1889.

During his time in the Borinage, Vincent nursed men back to life, specifically those suffering from third-degree burns. Covered with perspiration, these men were caked with fine, black coal dust which, when ignited, turned them into terrifying human torches, their coal-soaked bodies aflame like candles in the dark. Vincent discovered that the charred limbs of those who survived needed to be softened and oiled in order to regain suppleness. He would administer cloth compresses soaked in olive oil to their blackened skin, a restorative balm that also helped stave off disease.

Grounding his admiration for the miners was Van Gogh’s native love of soil for soil sake. This love of the earth was a deep Dutch characteristic considering that much of the earth of the Netherlands had to be recovered and de-salted as land was retrieved from the sea. The miners descended into the depths of the earth to its literal foundations and Vincent greatly admired these individuals for their courage and audacity.

Courage and audacity are not normally the qualities that comes to mind in reflecting over the life and legacy of Van Gogh. However what one finds in his mining episode shows that he possessed these characteristics and revealed them at key points in his life. Often the general view of Van Gogh that has emerged from film accounts paint him as a fragile and broken man— far from courageous or strong in vital ways. However a close study of his life reveals a tenacity and power to persevere and these qualities emerge from his letters and the testimony of many who knew him.

Those like Helene and Johanna—who studied his letters and gained personal testimonials from Van Gogh’s close friends and companions—came away with a positive view of his character and strength of will. It is for such reasons that many historians have leaned toward the possibility that his death was accidental and not self-inflicted. The mining accounts give evidence of a grit consistent with self preservation and a determinant life-giving attitude. Helene and Johanna were deeply impacted by this side of Vincent and why they valued his letters and legacy.

 

Continued …