Axel Rüger

This week, a previously unknown drawing of a landscape of Paris’ Montmartre – the area known as a source of inspiration for many artists – was acknowledged as an authentic work by Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh by experts from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The Hill of Montmartre with Stone Quarry was bought in 2014 by the Van Vlissingen Art Foundation, which then showed the work to specialists at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam who confirmed that it is indeed by Van Gogh. As a great news never comes alone, the Van Gogh Museum has now revealed that a similar drawing, The Hill of Montmartre, from its own collection, and previously rejected (2001) is also a real Van Gogh.

Axel Rüger became Director of the Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam in April 2006. He previously worked at a number of museums in Atlanta, Detroit and Washington until 1999, when he was appointed Curator of Dutch Paintings (1600–1800) at the National Gallery in London. He curated two international exhibitions during his time in London: ‘Vermeer and the Delft School’ (2001), in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and ‘Aelbert Cuyp’ (2002), with the National Gallery of Art in Washington. He has published and lectured widely on seventeenth-century Dutch art and widely contributed to catalogue essays.

Axel Rüger talks to Art is Alive about his trips to Arles, the Van Gogh artworks in storage, the work of Zheng Fanzhi, and reveals why the artist always signed his paintings with his first name.

As Director of the Van Gogh Museum, what’s your biggest challenge: curating exhibitions, acquiring relevant works or making sure people come to the museum?

I would say all of them together, but all challenges are fun. For example, we are constantly improving our visitor flow. Visitor numbers in 2017 have once again to a new record, and we are thrilled that we continue to inspire people from all over the world with the art and legacy of Vincent van Gogh. Offering timed tickets online is one of the methods used to improve the distribution of visitors throughout the day. Through this approach the museum’s capacity is also put to best use in off-peak periods. In turn, this has resulted in improved our visitor experience and as a consequence, high ratings: 88% of all visitors rate their time at the museum as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’. We are very happy with these results.

Tell us something we don’t know about Vincent Van Gogh?

Vincent always signed his works using his first name instead of his surname. Perhaps because, after working as an art dealer in England and France, he realised that people from abroad often had difficulty pronouncing his family name. But it could also be that his choice was driven by ambition. By only signing using his first name, Vincent may have been following in the tradition of renowned artists. After all, Rembrandt also only used his first name…

What are your views about the injection or juxtaposition of contemporary art in pre-20th century art museums? Do you think that’s a strong way to present art?

I think it highly depends on the context in which contemporary art is presented in pre-20th century art museum: depending on the museum and/or in the way it is presented. For the Van Gogh Museum, it works to demonstrate how Van Gogh still inspires present-day artists, and how his legacy lives on in contemporary art.

At the moment, the Van Gogh Museum presents five works by Zeng Fanzhi (born 1964), one of the best-known contemporary Chinese artists and a fervent admirer of Vincent van Gogh. Zeng Fanzhi | Van Gogh fits into a series of exhibitions of modern and contemporary art in the Van Gogh Museum that show the influence Van Gogh had on the generations that followed him. This exhibition demonstrates that Van Gogh remains a source of inspiration today.

Working at the Van Gogh Museum, have you uncovered new things about the artist, have you changed your perspective on the artist?

There is still something to learn each day. My admiration for Vincent really grew when I started taking an in-depth look at his life, given that I originally decided to specialize in 17th century Dutch art. His perseverance and the urgent desire to exercise the artistic profession, in particular, are worthy of admiration. He was not afraid to literately travel the distance in his quest to find the right path, and so he moved to different areas. Moreover, from the letters he wrote I can tell that he was an intellectual man; he reflected on life and its reasons.

What makes his oeuvre so relevant to art history today?

Van Gogh is known for his energetic brush strokes, and focusing on well-known subjects, familiar to everyone: everyday people, objects and surroundings. Van Gogh can be seen as a founder or pioneer for modern art. Without his work, we might not have access to modern artworks we know today. The Van Gogh Museum makes the life and work of Vincent van Gogh and the art of his time accessible to as many people as possible and to enrich and inspire them. The main objective of the Van Gogh Museum is the management and conservation of the collection and making this accessible to a wide audience. The Van Gogh Museum has ensured optimal access to the collection and its buildings.

Have you seen Loving Vincent yet and what are your views about the project?

Yes, I have. As I said, the Van Gogh Museum’s intention is to make the life and work of Vincent van Gogh accessible to as many people as possible in order to inspire them. We applaud innovative approaches to reach Vincent’s fans all over the world. We are therefore very happy with the inspiration that Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman felt to create the cinematic masterpiece Loving Vincent.

Loving Vincent is the culmination of years of dedication and hard work, and the Van Gogh Museum has supported the project since 2014. We have drawn on our extensive expertise to provide assistance throughout the research and development phases. The Van Gogh Museum firmly believes that Loving Vincent will contribute to raising further awareness of Vincent van Gogh’s work, his letters, and his turbulent life. As part of our educational programme, we will also be exploring new forms of collaboration with film-makers.

Tell us about a few highlights in the collection and artworks in storage?

A few of the masterpieces in our collection are of course the Sunflowers, Almond Blossom and The Potato Eaters. We are very proud that we are able to share these impressive and special pieces with our visitors. Also, two paintings by Van Gogh that were feared lost after being stolen in 2002 also have a special place in our collection. After an absence of 14 years, the paintings View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882) and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884) were found and returned to our collection at the beginning of this year. The paintings are now being restored in the conservation studio.

Furthermore, the museum keeps many drawings, sketches and letters in storage. These objects are very valuable to us, since they tell us a lot about Van Gogh and his life. We display them every once in a while and let them then rest in storage, as they are very fragile.

Your dream projects related to Van Gogh?

Within my position I’ve realized many dreams already. For example, the completion of our new entrance building in 2015 was a long-cherished wish and I am proud that this dream came true. Ever since then, our visitor numbers keep on rising and I feel honored that more than 2.2 million visitors visited our museum last year and enjoyed it to the fullest.

I have also been privileged to host many great exhibitions in our venue, such as the very successful Munch : Van Gogh in 2015. But it is also great to be able to explore our rich collection and make exhibitions like the one we did last spring, Prints in Paris 1900: From elite to the street, to show the diversity of art and how one type of art influences another. Being able to make such exhibitions with many great colleagues and renowned artists and institutions, is very inspiring and a dream as such.

Also, I am very happy that we can contribute to appreciation of art worldwide, for example through a unique livestream we did this past summer: On Monday 14 August, Facebook hosted five consecutive live streams in which international museum directors and conservators presented the version of Sunflowers in their own institution. Five different Sunflowers paintings were reunited for the first time in history. Millions of people around the world watched the livestream. It is a dream to be able to do all these projects.

Future initiative we should be aware of?

As mentioned in the previous answer, in the spring and early summer of 2018 the new exhibition Van Gogh & Japan will be on show in our museum.

The show, which will comprise around 60 paintings and drawings by Van Gogh and a rich selection of Japanese prints, will highlight the painter’s all-embracing admiration for this art and how fundamentally his work changed in response to it. Exceptional loans from museums and private collections from all over the world will be brought to Amsterdam, including Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889 (The Courtauld Gallery, London), a fragile work that has not left the UK since 1955 and has not been in The Netherlands since 1930. This is the first time that an exhibition on such a scale has been organized on this theme.

Van Gogh & Japan is a collaboration with Hokkaido Shimbun Press and NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art in Sapporo, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and The National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto. The exhibition is being held at these three Japanese museums in 2017–18, and will be shown at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam from 23 March to 24 June 2018.

Your favourite Van Gogh exhibition outside the Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam?

The National Gallery of Victoria had a beautiful exhibition last spring called Van Gogh and the seasons. This exhibition was devoted to each of the four seasons and Van Gogh’s profound connection to nature through nearly 50 paintings and drawings. We were very delighted to contribute to this exhibition and to be able to inspire people with Van Gogh all the way to the other side of the world in Australia.

Your tastes in contemporary art, who do you look at and like?

This year, there were a few travelling David Hockney exhibitions I liked: a the Centre Pompidou in Paris for example. It was great to see so many artworks by Hockney presented together, and compare the changes he made in his working process during his career. Hockney kept on trying new techniques accross the years, which makes him a daring artist in my eyes, just like Van Gogh.

I am also extremely honoured that Chinese contemporary artist Zeng Fanzhi made works for the museum. I am really impressed by these works and love how they set Van Gogh into a new light.

Lastly, do you spend a lot of time in Arles?

I do visit Arles every now and then thanks to my job, and it is always special to be there and experience the ambiance that inspired Van Gogh for so many of his paintings.






The Van Gogh Museum: Photos: Jan-Kees Steenman.
Van Gogh artworks: Irises, 1890 and Almond Blossom, 1890