VOX POPULI: The Van Gogh show in Tokyo owes wealth to a woman’s passion


German art collector Helene Kroller-Muller (1869-1939), born into wealth and married to a Dutch shipping magnate, acquired paintings by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) as if she were possessed.

In her first year of fundraising, she invested the equivalent of 6.8 million yen. By her third year, she had increased the amount to 20 million yen and two years later to 288 million yen.

I was overwhelmed by his obsession with collecting when I visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in the capital’s Ueno district to see an exhibition titled ‘Collecting Van Gogh: Helene Kroller-Muller’s Passion for the Vincent’s art ”.

Kroller-Muller was in his thirties when she first discovered the works of this Dutch painter who died in the dark. Something in her tragic life must have resonated with her on a deep level.

According to Natsuko Ohashi, curator of the museum, Kroller-Muller was fabulously rich but his life was often troubled.

Her parents forbade her to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a teacher. After starting her own family, her four children rebelled against her.

“She was particularly upset when her eldest daughter falsely accused her of having an affair with a younger man,” Ohashi said.

His father was a successful supplier of raw materials for the mining and steel industries. But at the end of World War I, the special wartime boom also ended, and the family business suffered a serious financial blow.

Kroller-Muller’s art collection has slowed down. She was also forced to put her plans to build an art museum on hold.

Yet she continues to believe in her business, believing that van Gogh’s paintings have the power to “touch the edge of the soul.”

She died in 1939, a year after realizing her dream of opening the Kroller-Muller Museum, a national art museum and sculpture garden in the Netherlands.

At the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, I saw a photo of his coffin surrounded by paintings by van Gogh.

It reminded me of a Japanese tycoon who acquired a van Gogh at an auction during the asset-booming economy, and allegedly asked for the painting to be placed in his coffin when he died.

When Kroller-Muller started collecting van Gogh, she too initially intended to keep all the works only for her own enjoyment. Some time later, however, she reportedly started wanting to share them with the public.

She has amassed more than 270 works.

Without it, I wouldn’t have had the chance to enjoy a large number of Van Gogh’s masterpieces all in one place in Tokyo this fall.

I thanked her for her passion and determination, as well as for her wealth.

–L’Asahi Shimbun, October 23

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that covers a wide range of topics including culture, the arts, and social trends and developments. Written by veteran writers from Asahi Shimbun, the column offers useful insights and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.


About Bernice D. Brewer

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