Saturday, March 19, 2016

'Room'inations on a Theme: Art Institute's Van Gogh Exhibition Excels Well Beyond the Confines of His Bedrooms -- Art Exhibition Review

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Art Exhibit Review

Van Gogh's Bedrooms
The Art Institute of Chicago
Thru May 10

Along with being one of the greatest artists of all time--and my personal favorite--Vincent van Gogh is probably the most prominent archetype of the fine line said to exist between genius and insanity.

While precise diagnosis of the mental illnesses that plagued the Dutch painter will forever be debated, whether as a consequence or contributing cause of his anguish, Van Gogh spent his shortened adult life shuffling between residences (in various locales), short-lived jobs and mostly unrequited romantic pursuits.

In late December 1888, he famously cut off his ear--Wikipedia says it was his left ear, but Van Gogh's portraits with a bandaged head would suggest it was his right ear--after a rift with fellow artist Paul Gauguin, who had come to live with him in Arles, France.

Van Gogh's anticipation of Gauguin's visit is what prompted him to paint The Bedroom--the first of three similar paintings that form the core of the Art Institute of Chicago's excellent new exhibition, Van Gogh's Bedrooms--as well as several other masterpieces simply meant to decorate the walls of the now-famed Yellow House. 

It's easy to perceive that Vincent never regained stability after the ear-slicing episode and departure of Gauguin, especially as following medical treatment he voluntarily entered an asylum in Saint-Rémy, where he would stay for a year.

After a move to Auvers-sur-Oise in northern France for supervised care by a specific doctor, Vincent van Gogh would shoot himself in the chest on July 27, 1890 and die the next day.

Yet while his state of mind was clearly, and probably pretty consistently, tortured, particularly near the end of his life, it was during the last couple years that Van Gogh painted many of his most famed and brilliant masterpieces, including The Starry Night (June 1889) and Irises (after May 1889).

I haven't done much in-depth study on Van Gogh, but it certainly seems plausible that painting--an avocation he only avidly pursued in the last decade of his life--provided a respite from his demons. And while I think it would be fair to describe him as oft-troubled, I don't know how addled he may have (or may not have) been from day-to-day or hour-to-hour. Clearly, based on his output until nearly the end, his emotional turmoil didn't render him physically nor artistically debilitated.

Vincent van Gogh, Landscape at Arles, 1888.
The Art Institute of Chicago.
From the trademark thickness of his staccato brushstrokes, which render his paintings more viscerally exciting to see up close in person than those of any other great artist, I have always imagined that Van Gogh's anxiety, agitation, etc., fueled the intensity that made his creations so unique--and masterful, even if only acclaimed as such long after his lifetime.

In this regard, I often think of Vincent van Gogh as analogous to Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, whose own turbulence made for songs that feel gut-wrenchingly filled with real pain, which given that Cobain took his own life with a bullet at age 27 can't be taken as mere artistic affectation.

But much as Cobain--who for all the addictions and afflictions presumably fueling the primal screams of "Lithium," the "there's gotta be a better way" howls of "Territorial Pissings," the "I'm anemic royalty" despair of "Pennyroyal Tea" and more--was inarguably bright, perceptive, literate and skilled enough at his craft to not only write some of the best rock songs ever, but to perform them blisteringly until his final days, the insights provided in the Art Institute's exclusive exhibition helped me see with greater acuity that Van Gogh wasn't merely some kind of madman savant.

Hence, while the three similar-but-different Bedroom paintings--one of which the Art Institute owns hung alongside two on loan from renowned European museums--form the exhibit's ostensible reason, rarity, marketing angle and gasp-inducing central gallery, well-abetted by contextual information, painting comparison/technique/analysis videos, some of the actual portraits (by Van Gogh) immortalized on the bedroom walls and a full-size reconstruction of Vincent's bedroom, I actually found other aspects and artwork of the exhibit even more fascinating and illuminating.

Which isn't to say The Bedrooms aren't wonderful; although I've seen each separately there is something extraordinary about seeing them juxtaposed, as they've never before been hung collectively in North America.

And much of what I relished learning, or having reiterated about Van Gogh, does angle toward the titular gist of the exhibition; this isn't an extensive greatest hits retrospective.

Vincent van Gogh, Birds' Nest, 1885.
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
But several of the best factoids, insights and even paintings included in exhibition aren't acutely tied to The Bedroom triad, and visitors--and out-of-towners wondering if the exhibit merits a Windy City trip by May 10--may be quite surprised that the show's marketing belies the more comprehensive magnificence on display.

Early in the exhibit comes a timeline of Vincent van Gogh's life, showing that in his 37 years, he lived in 37 residences across 24 cities in the Netherlands, England, Belgium and France.

Notwithstanding how excruciatingly long it took for patrons to advance along the timeline--especially as it can be viewed online at was revelatory for me to see a reproduction of Van Gogh's earliest known drawing, a remarkably detailed and accomplished sketch done when he was just 10 (see above).

This shed insight that although Van Gogh didn't decide to "become a painter" until the age of 27 in 1880--following a succession of jobs including working for an art dealer, being an assistant teacher at a boarding school, preaching, serving as a general assistant in a bookstore and training to be an evangelist--the core talent that led to several artworks now auctioned or valued at $100+ million was at least somewhat evident as a child.

Vincent van Gogh, Parisian Novels, 1887. Private collection.
The exhibition's first gallery of paintings begins with influential works by Millet and Daubigny, while including pieces by Van Gogh reflecting the dark hues and somber tones he favored early in his oeuvre. One of these (as shown in a photo I've included) depicts birds' nests, with some actual 19th century nests displayed nearby.

While the vibrancy of Van Gogh's work shown in the subsequent gallery, representing the colorful palette he acquired among the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionist in Paris, is demonstrably more exciting, before getting there the well-curated exhibit shares that the prior predominance of black and brown paints was due to Vincent's belief that pictures of peasants (a common subject matter) must appear to be painted with soil from the fields.

Copy of Red Lacquered Box containing balls of wool,
owned by Vincent van Gogh
There are some wonderful Van Gogh works in the Paris gallery--most delectably Parisian Novels, a large canvas on loan from a private collection that I've never seen even in books, and serving to enlighten about Vincent's love of literature--with additional revelations about influences upon him.

Gathered are several Japanese prints such as the ones Van Gogh collected by the hundreds--which he credited for helping to brighten his palette--a copy of a box containing balls of yarn that the artist used to experiment with color combinations, prints of caricatures by Honoré Daumier that Vincent admired for their expressiveness, a long display case containing novels he loved and illustrated journals that inspired him, including one with an engraving depicting the desk and chair of Charles Dickens, which may have correlated directly to Van Gogh's decision to capture his bedroom on canvas.

After Samuel Luke Fildes, The Room in Which
Charles Dickens Wrote
, from Harper's Weekly, 1871
By and large, I have found biographical information about visionary artists--in various idioms--to reveal a common bond concerning early, deep-seated and fairly widespread embrace of other works of art, music, theater, literature, fashion, etc.

Genius rarely manifests itself in a vacuum, and nuggets about Van Gogh being a voracious reader, fluent in Dutch, French & English, smitten with Japanese art, influenced by predecessors and contemporaries, befriended by other artists, highly verbose in letters to his beloved brother Theo, etc., serve not only to add considerable depth to Van Gogh's Bedrooms as an exhibition, but to document that--despite the demons that beset him--Vincent van Gogh was a rather shrewd, studied, substantive fellow, not just a nutjob with a gift.

Even if all of this didn't lead into galleries concerning Van Gogh's moving to Arles, renting a home dubbed the Yellow House, inviting Gauguin to join him there, painting fervently to decorate the home--including the first bedroom painting, held at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam--and the during his ill-fated time living with the French post-Impressionist, I still would have found it of great value and enrichment.

That said, it certainly was a thrill seeing the three iterations of The Bedroom next to each other--the second and third having been painted essentially as reproductions in September 1889, long after Van Gogh moved from the Yellow House; these are held by the Art Institute and the Musee d'Orsay, respectively--but nearly as much so two of the portraits (of Belgian painter Eugene Bock and a soldier named Paul-Eugene Milliet, both friends in Arles) that Van Gogh painted, hung in his bedroom and portrayed in the first version.

Vincent van Gogh. Eugene Boch, 1888, Musee d'Orsay. The Lover (Portrait
of Lieutenant Milliet)
, 1888, Kroller-Mueller Museum, Otterlo.
Self-Portrait, 1889, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
In re-creating The Bedroom painting twice after the fact--and a great big video wall points up the similarities and differences--Van Gogh swapped out the portraits on the wall, with a masterful self-portrait worked into the Art Institute's version being on-loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

The Art Institute's own pointillist-styled Van Gogh self-portrait is also on view in the exhibition.

Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh's Chair, 1888, The National Gallery, London.
Gauguin's Chair, 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Providing goosebumps almost as much as the paintings, including those of Van Gogh's Chair and Gauguin's Chair, both painted by Vincent--no paintings by Gauguin are included in this exhibition--is one of Van Gogh's actual palettes, tubes of paint and (presumably) originals of letters he wrote to Theo that included sketches of paintings he was envisioning.

And while one might guess the gallery with the three bedroom pictures displayed together for the first time in U.S. history would be the grand finale leading into the exhibition gift shop, the paintings in the next gallery were actually better.

Vincent van Gogh letter to Theo van Gogh.
Vincent's palette and paints.
Actually, first there was a "reading gallery" with copies of the exhibition catalog to peruse, a full-wall reproduction of Van Gogh's rather astonishing The Night Cafe and video clips from Vincente Minelli's 1956 biopic on the artist, Lust for Life. (I haven't yet seen the movie but enjoyed and recommend my friend Susan Doll's recent blog essay about it.)

Chronicling, though not in great depth, Vincent's mental breakdown in which he cut off part of his ear--I still think the paintings show it was his right ear, not his left as the exhibition text states in accordance with Wikipedia, unless the bandaged self-portraits are mirrored images--the last gallery denotes his year in the asylum in Saint-Rémy (in Provence, like Arles) and then under the care of Dr. Paul Gachet in Auvers-sur-Oise in the north of France, which put him closer to his brother Theo, a noted art dealer in Paris.

Vincent van Gogh, Corridor in the Asylum, 1889.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
While one might surmise his work would have suffered after such duress, Van Gogh remained extremely prolific in the last 14 months of his life, and the last room of Van Gogh's Bedrooms contains at least five stone cold masterpieces from 1889-90, most that I've never seen before even in printed form.

I love the way Van Gogh made his canvases dance with color, enhanced by spirited brushstrokes no one has since duplicated, and A Corner of the Asylum and the Garden with a Heavy, Sawed-Off Tree and especially Hospital at Saint-Remy rank with the greatest paintings I've ever seen, by anyone. (See below.)

And particularly in being a work on paper, Corridor in the Asylum is beguilingly fascinating.

All told, Van Gogh's Bedrooms has about 20 Grade "A" paintings by Vincent van Gogh, with a good handful being holdings of the Art Institute of Chicago. In my mind, simply one great Van Gogh is worth anyone's time and attention, but this isn't the most exhaustive of exhibitions.

And while I was ecstatic to spend a couple hours exploring it, as promoted around The Bedroom trilogy I'm not sure I'd recommend specific trips from New York, London, New Zealand or even Naperville, especially if one has seen any of the versions previously. (They're all brilliant, and wondrous to see together, but not all that different from one another.)

But it is all that is shown--in multiple contexts--beyond The Bedroom that makes this exhibition a dream come true, and a compelling testament to one of the most singular artists ever to have lived.

Vincent van Gogh, A Corner of the Asylum and the Garden with a Heavy, Sawed-Off Tree, 1889.
Museum Folkwang, Essen
Vincent van Gogh, Hospital at Saint-Remy, 1889. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.
Vincent van Gogh, View of the Asylum with a Pine Tree, 1889. Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Vincent van Gogh, Houses at Auvers, 1890. Toledo Museum of Art.
Vincent van Gogh, Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles, 1888. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

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