The older I get the more I find myself seeing great artists as real life people and not just historical icons. Beyond the words and the famous paintings, I found them speaking directly to me. A newfound kinship began to flourish in Amsterdam between Anne, Vincent, and I.
A week in Amsterdam and I began to fully realize that I am the one putting limits on my world. I am the only thing standing in my way. I don’t have a formidable fascist foe or crippling and dangerously misunderstood depression at the root of my issues. I only have the subconscious scars smarting after all these years. I know hurt. I know sorrow. But I can breathe the fresh chilly Dutch air. I can see a therapist to discuss my past trauma without the threat of being committed for madness. I can share my writing with the world on this blog. It’s not much but it’s a start.
Anne Frank and Vincent van Gogh were sensitive souls born out of time. Anne kept a red and white gingham diary during her years hidden in the annex of her father’s business. She died in a concentration camp still a young girl. Never to see the future she wrote so much about in her journal. Vincent existed at the other end of the spectrum as a late-blooming starving artist, after a relentless bout of melancholy, ending his life with a gunshot to the chest. He would never see an entire museum dedicated to his genius. Neither Anne nor Vincent would live to see the queue of tourist waiting patiently to enter their respective worlds.
How Jenn met Anne
“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
― Anne Frank
“You kinda look like Anne Frank.”
― Will Kuncz
I would have never gone to the Netherlands if not for John Green’s heartrenching novel and subsequent film. Before The Fault in Our Stars, I had no recollection that the annex that hid Anne Frank was in Amsterdam. A city known for bikes, pot cafes, and prostitution in a spiral of bridges and canals beyond the windmills and tulips does not lend itself to the Holocaust or anything pertaining to it. It’s just not the first or tenth thing that springs to mind whenever Amsterdam is mentioned. However, the Anne Frank House, by way of a YA tome, brought me to the Dutch capital not the weed cookies.
Of course, I had read Diary of a Young Girl in middle school or maybe high school. I knew it was highly edited. I knew that it was important. Angela Chase was obsessed with the book in the ‘90s classic teen angst drama, My So-Called Life. But it didn’t resonate with me then. During my solo lady adventure, I took up the critical edition of Anne’s diary and spent my nights absorbing her words preparing myself to visit the annex, a trip that I was sure to produce embarrassing sobs; yet to my great surprise, I felt immensely grateful and amazingly humbled within those walls.
For once in my life, my emotions did not result in a puddle of tears, I held my head high holding back nothing and absorbing everything. Going through each floor, bare of furniture, watching video clips of Otto Frank speaking of his teenage daughter. Placards lining the walls covered with the original wallpaper and makeshift posters that Anne used to liven up the small living space; a thin layer of plexiglass protecting the fragile wall furnishings. The floor creaked from shuffling feet throughout the building I kept my pace slow, taking in each and every object, carefully. The horde passed me by. It was just Anne and I. One dead. One alive. There are no ghosts left hiding in the secret annex. No trace of Nazi brutality left behind. But her diary is here, in a dark room, passages on full display. Pages holding girlish scribbles in a language I cannot understand. She’s not here today but I am. All those hopes and dreams she had for the future are my hopes and dreams now. I do this for her. I do this for my aunt Chris. I do this for all those no longer with us. I carry on. I get to live when others have given up. I get to live when I failed to end it by my own hand. I thank God for this failure as it brought me here.
There is no shame for being a sensitive artistic person striving for connection. Wanting to be heard and understood but having no idea how to create such a union. Feeling like no one heard me. No one cared to hear my voice. My story. But on this day I have the privilege to see where Anne and her family hid and afterwards, enjoy two crepes, a beer, and a cappuccino for dinner smiling with every bite. Ending my meal with a silent prayer, “life is good.”
How Jenn met Vincent
“I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.”
― Vincent van Gogh
You won’t find Starry Starry Night in Amsterdam. It’s at MOMA in New York. Although, you will find Sunflowers and The Potato Eaters at the Van Gogh Museum in the museum district next to Stedelijk sharing a vast and sprawling green park with the hulking Rijksmuseum and the infamous I AMSTERDAM sign. I spent the entire day here. I had a chicken frankfurter covered in bacon, onion, relish, mayo, and curry for 3 Euros. I ate my lunch in front of the modern art museum watching a strange art installation called #metamarathon staring Shia LaBeouf in teal, purple, and pink running around the building with willing participants. I sloppily ate my Dutch hot dog taking in the spectacle. He passed me at least ten times. He looked like an Eastern European marathon runner – not like the kid from the Transformers films.
I met Vincent in Amsterdam. His works filling an ultramodern museum overstuffed with visitors. Like most museums dedicated to a single artist, there are early works leading up to the notable and famous. To be a master one must go through the traditional steps honing the craft before creating their own style, genre, medium or motif. All the greats had to practice with still life, landscapes, and portraitures. Most of them copied other artists they admired. Some of the most famous painters spent hours in the Louvre or Prado copying from those that came before. It takes a lot of hard work, patience, and time. Of course, time is money. Vincent had little of both, although, he was a fierce observer, an avid reader, and a staunch supporter of galleries. He started late for a master painter, at the age of 28, producing his best work in the last two years of his life. He killed himself at 37. His genius was not recognized in his time but that didn’t stop him. He put his entire heart on the canvas with each thick stroke and with each bold swirl of color and light. Often, starting over reusing canvas a layer of white coating work that displeased him, and starting afresh. Burying the original with layers of paint.
Each piece consumed my entire attention. I spent longer in this gallery than any other. I stood and stared at apparent brushstrokes, the way the light hit the yellows in such a way that made each piece glitter like liquid gold. How textural and tangible every single image created by Vincent van Gogh marked a deep understanding of all matter of emotions. All the rooms were heavy. At the end of my visit, I was completely drained and needed the neon green grass and blinding sunlight to shake off the thickness. The park did just that. And I walked thinking of his work. I thought about the sunshine at home. How the sky in Amsterdam could go from overcast and grey to nothing but blue. How this reminded me of the unpredictable weather in the Sunshine State. Sure its sunny most days but not for the entire day.
I like to think Vincent walked with me that afternoon. I like to think he latched onto my shadow. He would make an interesting invisible friend to say the least. I wonder if he knew English. I wonder if he would understand why I was here.