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The newest exhibition at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, “Vincent’s Choice: The Musée Imaginaire of Van Gogh,” was nearly a victim of its own success. The opening two weeks ago might have promised an “imaginary museum” — a display of Vincent van Gogh’s 200 favorite paintings alongside his own works — but the crowd was all too real.
Somewhere inside the packed museum was exhibition designer Thierry Despont, the architect and decorator who has worked for Bill Gates, Leslie Wexner and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Somewhere outside were hometown designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren. A security guard blocked their entrance because they didn’t have an invitation in hand.
“We’re on the list,” said Snoeren, as dozens of Dutch citizens in woolly hats and cloth coats streamed by, waving their invitations.
“There is no list,” said the guard.
“We’re Viktor & Rolf,” persisted Snoeren.
“Do you work for the museum?” asked the guard.
They finally got in the front door — only to be smothered in another crowd squeezing into the actual galleries. After a few minutes, they fled for a quiet dinner at Blake’s Hotel.
Eventually, other VIPs landed in the lobby as well. As Despont and exhibition coordinator Andreas Blühm celebrated at evening’s end, they recalled how the decorator made the switch from building billionaires’ palaces to doing museum work.
“I had the idea for this exhibit,” deadpanned Despont, “and I wanted to find a museum to do it.”
The real story, as told by Blühm, also sparked laughs. Several years ago, when Blühm began work on “Vincent’s Choice,” he saw a documentary on the Getty Museum. In one scene, it showed Despont charming the pants off a stuffy museum board with his talk of fabrics and tassels.
“I thought, let’s ask this Frenchman to create van Gogh’s musée imaginaire,” recalled Blühm. “But I didn’t know who he was.”
And how did this top museum curator find the phone number of “this Frenchman,” one of the world’s most prestigious decorators? With Google.com.
Within days, they met in person and sealed the deal. Despont’s brief was to include one gallery in the style of a 19th-century salon — with fabric walls and paintings hung in multiple tiers — to re-create the way van Gogh would have seen his favorite works. The decorator began his research among van Gogh’s original letters to his brother, Theo.
“When you start reading those letters, you cannot help but see through his eyes,” explained Despont, noshing on sushi. “You really have the feeling he is around the corner and will come say: ‘Stop reading my letters!’”
“Vincent’s Choice” will be open until June 15, the 150th anniversary of van Gogh’s birth, and will be followed this fall by another show, “Gogh Forward,” which traces the painter’s influence on such contemporary artists as Ellsworth Kelly.