Category Archives: Travel

Lessons Learned from Vincent Van God Awful

Have you heard what happened to Lisa Gherardini?!

No, she’s not the new Bachelorette.  And no, she didn’t get punched in the face on the latest episode of Real Housewives of New Jersey.

Her bones did, however, turn up in an Italian convent.

Cool!  A new murder mystery!  Tabloid fodder to outdo that now-dull celeb escapade. Yippee.

Actually, no again.

The big hoo-ha over Lisa Gherardini is due to her being the supposed model for that really important painting.  You know, the one with the “enigmatic smile”.

And now they’ve found her bones aren’t we excited to have that mystery finally laid to rest?

Hold on a sec.  Who says we want to know?  Isn’t the mystery part of what makes the painting so alluring?  Forget “alluring”, I should really just say “famous”, because at this point that’s all that painting is.  Simply the most famous of paintings to which hoards of people flock so they can mark it off their bucket list.  Last time I looked nobody was exactly admiring Leonardo’s brush strokes.

And I wonder.  If we rob Mona of her mystery will her fame not suffer as a result?  Don’t we need a good narrative to remind us of a thing’s importance?

So why doesn’t Johanna Bonger get more attention?  You know, Johanna Bonger?  Arguably the art world’s most important woman of all time.

Who?  Johanna Bonger.  AKA Johanna Cohen Gosschalk.  Oh, come on!

Johanna Van Gogh!

And no, not Vincent’s wife.  His sister-in-law.

A little while I ago I had the misfortune (no, that’s not a typo) to go to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.  I diligently bought my tickets in advance, knowing that if I were to wait I would likely be distracted by other things (I can’t imagine what other distractions Amsterdam has to offer) and once again miss the opportunity to stand up close and personal with Van Gogh’s resplendently celebrated “Sunflowers”.

So there I was on a glorious June day, entering the hallowed halls of one of Amsterdam’s choices art prizes.  And as I wandered from room to room, following the paintings in prescribed chronological order, something dark and unsettling gnawed at me, a forbidden realization that I felt ashamed to admit to.

But standing before the Van Gogh’s pièce de résistance, his moment of triumph, his “Sunflowers”, I could deny my shameful insight no longer.

This guy is a pathetic hack!

Some things are better digital.


Right from the start one gets the impression of a young man who desperately wants to be a great artist but who doesn’t yet have the technique, or even the insight.  It all looks very much like bad student work, from the sort of novice who thinks that just because he has what he believes is a good idea (which is debatable as well) that this makes him a great artist.

And over the course of his short career, it never changes. This is a man who just wanted to be famous.  Nowhere in the work could I see a desire to reveal some hidden truth, or capture some ephemeral quality of life.  No Seurat, Gauguin, or Monet.  Nope.  It was all about how frustrated he was that other people didn’t recognize him as a great artist.  It’s in the subject matter, the brush strokes, even the color.

And “Sunflowers”?  The plaque beside the “masterpiece” talks about how Van Gogh wanted to create an artist colony in Arles where other (and more lauded) artists could come and inspire one another.  Typical delusions of grandeur.  How many film students have I heard talk about this great idea of putting together a collective?  Forget actually having any projects.  If we can just get everyone together, fame and fortune will surely follow.

So in February of 1888 a young and misguided Vincent rustled together a couple of paintings to decorate the walls of his destined-for-glory commune (the 19th century equivalent of popping down to T.J. Max and picking up a couple of cheap prints) and voilà, “Sunflowers”.  The colony, by the way, didn’t really take off, and by July 1890 he was impoverished, sans one ear, and dead by his own hand.

This is where Johanna Bonger enters the picture (though not as literally as in Picasso’s work).

After Van Gogh unceremoniously offed himself and brother Theo bit the bullet not six months later, Theo’s wife, Johanna, was lumped with a pile of art, cluttering up her life and leaving her with a dilemma.  I can picture her muttering, “What the hell do I do with all this crap?”

So what did she do?  She single-handedly went out and convinced the world that this egotistical nutter, who never had the patience to learn his craft but still wondered why nobody was taking him seriously, was the greatest artist of all time.

I don’t know about you, but that’s impressive.

Convincing the glitterati that sloppy technique is really genius abandon, that cutting off ones ear is the true mark of artistic nobility, that takes balls.   And it’s a narrative that we’re all still gobbling up.

Because we do so need the narrative to convince us of all things significant.  Hence poor Lisa Gherardini’s exhumation.  Or Picasso’s harem of muses.  And above all, hapless old Vincent’s ear.

But let’s face it, without someone to dicky up the story and make the rest of us pay attention, you can cut off your ear, nose, and right nipple for all that that will make the difference.

So I take my hat off to the salespeople of the world.  The glorious marketers who peddle our second rate wares by weaving many a fantastic tale.  Because without these turd-polishers we would be nothing but a bunch of frauds, gibbering about how the world doesn’t take us seriously. What whiny babies we are.

Maybe that’s ultimately why we love Van Gogh more than the rest.  Because, like us, he’s a fool and a hack, who was simply lucky enough to have an actually brilliant individual sell his shit to the rest of the dim-witted public.  If only we all had a Johanna Bonger to turn our dull existence into a mysterious, intriguing, and above all profitable story.  Cha-ching!

PS. It is worth noting that all of Van Gogh’s art looks better in reproduction.  As if his true genius was capturing that “je ne sais quoi” quality that makes cheap art look that much better as Z-Gallerie tat.

The Case of the Rabid Bear and the Darkened Cave

Telling people I was traveling to Guatemala recently elicited a number of varied and colorful responses. “Oh!” “Why?” “Huh?”  My favorite was the glazed look, a momentary lapse in consciousness as folks consulted their inner world map and realized they couldn’t find their way out of Pasadena.

It’s as if there existed some block to things unknown, a resistance to anything new, and that the only viable options for travel are pleasantly predictable locations such as Paris, Florence, or maybe Prague if you are pleasantly particularly “adventurous”.

But Guatemala?  Heavens!  “Isn’t it dangerous?!”  Sounds like the response I get when I tell people I’m from Israel.  It’s a tiresome one, and I shall skip the obligatory and much exhausted discussion of the disparity between media representation and reality.

The reality of my trip to Guatemala, however?  Truly magnificent.  Antigua, Tikal, Lake Petén Itzá, et al.  All utterly phenomenal.  And the true measure of its magnificence is in the people I encountered.  Generous to a fault, kind and understanding, and possessing a quiet wisdom that suggests they know exactly what is important in life, and what isn’t.  And who doesn’t want to learn that lesson?

One might expect these people to be suspicious by nature, wary of outsiders. After all, they are only recently emerged from a prolonged civil war (36 years in total), precipitated in no short terms by a meddling US government (I leave it to you to do your own Google search on the United Fruit Company, President Jacobo Arbenz, The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit, ie. GNRU etc.).

But suspicious?  Far from it.  Every Guatemalan person I encountered spoke with an openness and candor I rarely witness in the US.  This despite my total lack of a command of the Spanish language (thank you Pimsleur for my 3 week crash course). But somehow the limitations in my ability to communicate, accompanied by many a flailing hand gesture, only accentuated the honesty of our conversation.

Strangely, I was reminded of the people I met when I visited Uganda many years ago.  There too I found people with an inherent calm and generosity, a sweetness even, that seemed much at odds with the country’s tumultuous and bloody history (Long before Kony there was Idi).

But I am baffled.  Why is it that in a place where people have every right to be cautious and full of distrust are they anything but?  And if I dare compare them to the anxious denizens of this place I call home then I am left feeling ashamed and a little embarrassed.  Mayhaps there is good reason for this disparity.

Suppose I posit you in front of a darkened cave.  I tell you that inside there is either a pot of gold or a rabid bear. You stand a 50-50 chance of joining the Midas club for the criminally wealthy.  However, you also stand a 50-50 chance of becoming a plate of sushi for a particularly angry eater.

Do you take the chance?  My guess is not.  Because the mere suggestion that there might be a bear is enough to trigger a self-defense mechanism that has served us well throughout evolution.  It is fear of the unknown; the unknown being something that could potentially tear you limb from limb, and best avoided.

Fear of the unknown is innate, and essential, but can get a little twisted in overly protected, passive-aggressive Southern California.  In a land where we really have nothing to fear (except that our internet connection might slow down) we can find cause for panic in almost anything: the Mexican gardener’s attempt to mollify, the Honduran nanny’s disdainful look, or the Guatemalan maid’s silent condemnation (Did you say Guatemala?  “Oh!”  “Why?”  “Huh?”)  Is it any wonder we cocoon ourselves in that which is familiar?  The thought of confronting the unknown fills us with dread and suddenly Paris is indeed the perfect getaway, full of anticipated and known delights.

But what if the unknown becomes known?  What if the prospect of a bear becomes an actual bear?  And not only that, but you know for a fact where the bear is, how he’s feeling that day, and how to easily avoid him.  That makes life a hell of a lot easier, doesn’t it?  All that uncertainty and fear evaporates as quickly as the hype surrounding the latest M Night Shamalamadingdong film.

I think this is what happens in countries where the threat is a known commodity.  Countries like Uganda, Guatemala, Israel too (and many others).  For when there is an actual threat, and you know precisely where the threat lies, you don’t sweat the small stuff.  And subsequently, life becomes manageable and your dealings with others more honest.

Are we who live in places removed from actual danger at a disadvantage, cheated of a richer perspective on life?  I believe so.  Because we are at the mercy of our imagination, desperate as it is to fill the void where known threats are supposed to reside.  And we all know imagination is far more terrifying than reality.  (Just watch the latest M Night Shamalamadingdong film for proof of that point.)  Could it be that imagination limits our ability to learn what we don’t already know?  Hmmm.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it best during his inaugural address.  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.  But perhaps he’s only right if you don’t have a rabid bear staring you down.