By Debra Brehmer, Director, Portrait Society Gallery
No one in the history of art has created a series of self-portraits as riveting as Vincent van Gogh’s. Rembrandt comes close. Frida Kahlo added inventive and fantastical drama. Warhol dipped into the vernacular of representation. But van Gogh nailed it. He spun the very molecules of existence, into the closest equivalent of what it feels like to be alive than any artist has ever breached. With van Gogh’s self portraits, there is no division between figure and ground; he asserts that human life comes from the same energy fields as air, water and land, a mere rearranging of atoms into ever shifting and colliding eruptions of transient, uncontainable matter. And he then molds paint into the emotive equivalents of natural forces. His urgent and aggressive mark making are literally like footprints in the wet mud of a farm field: Imprints of existence rather than abstract equivalents of representation.
One could look at the current exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Van Gogh’s Bedrooms (through May 10,2016), as a series of self portraits. The act of rendering, whether it is a pair of shoes, a landscape or a chair, is so emotively imbued with the easily identifiable hand of van Gogh that he looms as the subject of his work, no matter what the painting depicts. A tree is as alive and expressive as a face.
Basing an exhibition on three sequential paintings of his bedroom in Arles, (united for the first time) which might seem like a crowed-pleasing headline show built from narrow means, instead becomes a perfect fulcrum for expanding and exploring multiple themes in van Gogh’s work. Just when one would think there is no stone left unturned in this eminent artist’s oeuvre, the AIC tilts the perspective enough to get a different, more intimate glimpse of his brief life and career.
What the AIC does so beautifully is tie it all together with van Gogh’s biography but in a way that offers much more than a time line. Bits of the quotidian punctuate the show and offer small but profound moments to underscore the delivery of the master works. These minor asides and peripheral objects act as knots in the trajectory of the work, giving us pause and also connecting the paintings to a life and a place and its dusty accoutrements. The exhibition manages to hold onto and even recreate the sense of van Gogh’s poverty, his quiet desperation to build an existence around the act of painting, and his ultimate failure to do so.
One of the first rooms of the exhibition, which is arranged chronologically, holds a re-creation of a small Chinese, red lacquer wooden box holding various samples of yarn. The authentic box, which held 16 balls of wool, is in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_van012199601_01/_van012199601_01_0010.php. Apparently Van Gogh used this collection of threads to experiment with color combinations, laying a string of orange near a string of red, or twisting colors together. It is thought that he may have established palettes for some specific paintings using this technique. In this same room is the dynamic painting, Still life with white grapes, apples, pears and lemons, autumn 1887, revealing that although he had absorbed Impressionism in Paris and was influenced by Seurat, Van Gogh’s hyper-extenuated style was already firmly in place. The still life painting appears almost as if composed with individual pieces of yarn. Finely tuned complementary colors vibrate line by line, mark by mark. And yes, Van Gogh studied color theory, dispelling the myth that his talent came out of some automatic unconscious well of genius and/or madness.
In 1885, when he is living in Nuenen where his parents had moved, van Gogh does a series of paintings of bird nests. The exhibition’s first room presents two actual nests in plexiglass boxes, near two nest paintings, the point being that van Gogh’s interest in the notion of ‘home,’ the theme of this show, reveals itself early in the fact that he collected nests. What makes this anchor not as silly as it sounds is that Van Gogh writes about it in a letter dated to Theo in 1885, which includes a sketch of a nest: “When winter comes (when I have more time for it) I shall make more drawings of this kind of thing. La nichée et les nids [the nestlings and the nests], I feel deeply for them – especially people’s nests, those huts on the heath and their inhabitants.]”
A wall size photo of the Yellow House, where van Gogh rents rooms in Arles, and awaits Gauguin’s visit, brings us to the place, street and nearby park of this town in southern France where so much happened in 15 months. By the time he arrives in Arles, he has already lived in nearly 20 cities and four countries. But here, van Gogh dreams of settling and building an artists’ community, and spends great energy preparing.
The three bedroom paintings provide entry into this compacted time and document the artist’s peripatetic longing for a notion of ‘home.’ Just as he arranged and physically decorated his rooms in the Yellow House to create an oasis of comfort that might appeal to his guest, Gauguin, he applied paint to canvas with similar intent: both are inventions, arrangements, compositions that await human contact to set them afire. There was little boundary between van Gogh’s life and work. That is why the paintings of the bedroom resonate so fully; in a conceptual act he styles a room, then reproduces it three times, bringing both the physicality and emotional content of desire into play. Like us all, he longed for stability, comfort, friendship.
He creates the first bedroom painting, owned by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, in October 1888, as he awaits Gaugin’s arrival. When this painting becomes water damaged, he paints the second version in September 1889 (owned by the Art Institute of Chicago), after the ‘ear incident’ and Gauguin’s departure. He is now living in the asylum at Saint-Remy-de-Provence. The third and smallest version (owned by the Musee d’Orsay, Paris) of the bedroom was painted a few weeks later as a gift to the artist’s mother and sister. Although Van Gogh tended to work in serial notations of subjects (sunflowers, shoes, self-portraits, etc), the reason he painted three versions of his room is because, as he wrote to his brother Theo, he considered it one of his most successful works. Success to Van Gogh meant finding equilibrium between realism and symbolism.
Three wall sized video screens align in the exhibition to compare every inch of the trio of bedroom paintings, showing us van Gogh’s changes and adjustments. Explanatory text and video also outline how colors shifted over time. The bedroom walls were originally a lilac purple but are now blue. While this information is an interesting aside, it is really the relationship of the bedroom paintings to van Gogh’s other works in the show, such as the two portraits of chairs (his and Gauguin’s) and two portraits of shoes, that underscore his ability to fuse human and inanimate content.
Crowds swirl around the lineup of the three bedroom paintings, ignoring a small display on a nearby wall with van Gogh’s only surviving palette in it. Earthy colors (no piquant greens, oranges and blues), create a muddy landscape here, a map of thought and process that brings us as close to van Gogh as we will ever get. One can see where he heavily loaded the brush leaving a furrow of paint and where he dabbed off the excess. The palette dates from 1890, the last year of his life.
Rarely does an exhibition calibrate the pace and mental duration of the viewer as well as this one. Throughout, it twists and turns from traditional presentation modes to video environments then back to small bays of ephemera, then a full room designed for a rest and a selfie in front of a wall sized recreation of The Night Cafe (1888). And despite all these effective pyrotechnics of display, the ultimate reward of the show becomes what the viewer is patient enough to process and discover in the darker corners: the box of yarn, a nest, the artist’s palette.