My Father and the Sunflowers

“He’s too far gone to read anything, dear,” said my mother, “but he still loves looking at photos.” So I bought a picture book full of the world’s greatest paintings and flew to Johannesburg. That was the last gift I ever gave my father.

He pretended to recognise me when I went to visit him. We smoked a cigarette together outside and he kept calling me John, which was close enough for me, because my first name is Johan. We sat and played with the dogs until my father got annoyed with them and started shouting: “Shut up! Shut up!” Which was what he – a Dutch immigrant – always shouted when he meant “bugger off”.

We went back inside and I made several pointless attempts to strike up a conversation while my father sat staring at the book, which was sitting on the table in its garish wrapper.

“Shall I open it for you?” I asked.

When he didn’t reply, I tore off the paper and sat down next to him on the couch. I placed the book on his lap and opened it at a random page. I’m not sure which famous painting was depicted there – I think a Caravaggio – but I heard a sharp intake of breath beside me. And then my father started flipping through the book like a hungry man counting slices of bread, mumbling in wonder: “So, so difficult. So, so difficult.”

He stopped when he got to the paintings by Van Gogh, sighed in delight and exasperation and said: “Vincent … so, so difficult.”

“But your sunflowers are beautiful,” I said. “Mom still has them up on her wall.”

“The colours,” he said. “So, so difficult.”

My father passed away several months later. While we were clearing out his office, my mother asked if there was anything of his that I wanted to take back to Amsterdam with me. The first thing that came to mind was his oil paints and pastels, which I put in a plastic bag and buried between the clothes in my suitcase. When I got home, I put them in one of my drawers, where they lay unopened for four or five years, until my daughter needed paint for an art project. So we dug up the boxes and opened the twisted tubes one by one, our disappointment growing with each opened cap, because they were all dry and useless.

“Should we throw them away, Dad?” asked my daughter.

“No,” I said. “I want to keep them. Maybe we can put them to good use someday. Maybe we can make something Opa would have liked.”

PS: A warm word of thanks to Dr. Leo Jansen for guiding us around the fabulously renovated Van Gogh Museum and for allowing me to snap this picture of myself, with my father’s paints in hand, viewing Van Gogh’s sunflowers. I hope many of you will follow in my father’s footsteps and gain pleasure and inspiration from Vincent’s deceptively simple masterpieces, which are in truth “so, so difficult”.

PPS: The current exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum focuses on the artist at work: his technique, materials, development, contemporaries, sources of inspiration. All of which offer an intriguing, close-up perspective on the works we are so familiar with. The exhibition also includes some of Van Gogh’s sketchbooks, which are a wonderful reminder that even the most celebrated works of art began as a simple sketch.

Posted by:   Richard de Nooy  | 
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Lee Sutherland

Thank you to my good friend Sioux for sharing this with me. I am no artist but I love the work of von Gogh and I was absolutely inspired by my visit to the museum last year. I also love Amsterdam, and my father was Dutch so our visit to the Museum was in his honour. I have read a novel by Richard and his writing is real and powerful. What a combination!

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