There are good reasons to thank the curators who organized “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms.” The exhibition consists of thirty-six Van Gogh paintings, a bunch of drawings and letters, a few works by Honoré Daumier and Jean-François Millet and some stimulating ancillary material: Japanese woodblock prints, engravings from “The Illustrated London News” and even one of Van Gogh’s palettes. Most importantly, there are the three versions of “The Bedroom” at Arles, one of which belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago.
This trio of pictures has never before been exhibited together (well, not in the same room) and certainly never examined with such pertinacity. In fact, it is doubtful if any paintings (I started to write patients) have ever been so prodded and probed: by X-ray fluorescence and refraction analysis; ultraviolet, infrared and raking-light photography; stereomicroscopy, spectroscopy, liquid chromatography, hyperspectral imaging and more. Video projections in the exhibition convey some of the findings: The colors have shifted from warm to cool, resulting in pictures that suggest more space and air (and less color contrast) than the artist intended. These are significant results, but the relentlessness of the endeavor, combined with undue focus on the concept of “home” in the life and art of Van Gogh, undercuts the coherence and finally even denies the pleasure of the exhibition.
There is no question that Van Gogh wanted what Virginia Woolf in 1929 called “a room of one’s own”—a living-space and steady income sufficient to support independent, creative work. Before arriving in Arles by night train on February 20, 1888, the artist lived in no less that thirty-five residences in Groot Zundert (where he was born in 1853), London, Brixton, Paris, Ramsgate, Dordrecht, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Paris and elsewhere. Some of this itinerancy was the consequence of his early choice to be a Christian evangelist, but much was the result of his dissidence and obduracy. He was, he wrote, like “a great shaggy dog…with wet paws that nobody wanted in the house.” He was “a revolutionary or rebel” who scandalized his conservative family and friends with his support for democracy and class struggle, resulting in a kind of bohemian vagrancy. In Nuenen, where he painted “The Potato Eaters” in 1885, he wrote: “I feel for the brood and the nest—particularly those human nests, those cottages on the heath and their inhabitants.” He painted bird nests and cottages during this time, and one of each is included in the exhibition.
Even in Paris, where Van Gogh moved in late 1885, he stood apart from his fellow Impressionists by his simultaneous autonomy and collectivism. He devised a completely unique style but wanted artists to support one another like the Japanese Ukiyo-e craftsmen whose woodcuts he admired and exhibited at the Café du Tambourin in 1887. Tired of the competitiveness and bickering among the Parisian avant-garde and fearful that his newly acquired bad habits of excessive drink and brothel visits would endanger his health and career, he embarked for the south, where he hoped to establish a commune in collaboration with Paul Gauguin. Staked to some money as a result of an inheritance, Van Gogh rented a small house (the “yellow house”) on the Place Lamartine in Arles and provisioned it with sturdy-looking furniture: two beds and some chairs and tables. He naturally hung his own artworks, mostly landscapes and portraits, on the walls.
The story of the three versions of “The Bedroom” may be simply told. He painted the first, now owned by the Van Gogh Museum, over two days from October 16 to 18, 1888. It was subsequently water-damaged and so, before sending it to his brother Theo to be repaired, he painted a second. This version, greener and flatter, is owned by the Art Institute. (We know which is which primarily because of the nature of the damage and the artist’s written descriptions.) The third painting, made in late September 1889, is about twenty percent smaller than the others and was made as a present for Van Gogh’s mother. It’s notable that the self-portrait on the right-hand wall in this picture differs from the Chicago version in showing a younger, clean-shaven man—that must have been how mama liked her son! In the exhibition, it was a mistake to hang this picture on the same wall as the other two. Seen from an equal distance, it appears shrunken and cramped, like a slightly deflated balloon.
Gauguin’s two-month stay with Van Gogh was a disaster. They bickered like the Odd Couple and on December 23 had a terrific row that somehow ended with Van Gogh having a piece of his ear cut off. He was hospitalized in Arles and then institutionalized for a year at the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, suffering it seems from some kind of epilepsy, though this is still disputed. In May 1890, he moved back north to Auvers-sur-Oise, and two months later died of blood loss and sepsis from a gunshot wound to the stomach.
In addition to the three bedroom pictures, the exhibition includes “Parisian Novels” (1887), “Van Gogh’s Chair” (1888), “Gauguin’s Chair” (1888), and “Self-Portrait” holding a palette and brushes (1889). For people who love Van Gogh, the exhibition must be seen. But its salience is vitiated by a dubious thesis: that the life and career of Van Gogh manifested a narrative arc. Vagabonded in youth, the artist realized at Arles a dream of home. Following that, he fell hard and fast: After spending the better part of his last two years in an institution, he committed suicide without ever finding again the home he depicted in “The Bedroom.”
This narrative is wrong. First, if Van Gogh, as intellectually engaged as any artist of the nineteenth century, was without fixed address for most of his life, it was because he consciously rejected the institutions and social structures connected with the bourgeois idea of home. Secondly, the yellow house at Arles was not so much a home, as a “studio of the South” where a cohort of modern artists could live and work in solidarity. That’s why Van Gogh bought twelve chairs for it! Thirdly, there is no arc to Van Gogh’s career and “The Bedroom” was not its pinnacle. The works he produced after he left the yellow house are as innovative as the ones that came before. He continued to grow and experiment until his tragic and probably accidental, early death. And finally, Van Gogh’s art was an effort to destroy narrative, anecdote and individual biography—the stuff of the officially sanctioned Salon art that was still predominant in his day. Here one of the catalogue authors, Louis Van Tilborgh, has it right: “In his work, he searched openly for a broadly human expression rather than a narrowly individual one, and except for his self-portraits, he wanted his art to transcend biographical peculiarity….”
At the geographic center of the exhibition is a facsimile of the Arles bedrooms complete with the furniture and the tchotchkes depicted in the paintings. Setting aside its Masterpiece Theatre-quality—there is music as well as projected images, quotations and brushstrokes—it falsely proposes that the three paintings are recordings of what Van Gogh saw rather than highly contrived inventions intended, as he wrote, “to be suggestive of rest or of sleep in general.” The presence of a real bedroom in the exhibition, like the intrusive videos summarizing the scientific findings about Van Gogh’s pigment and canvas, diminishes the artworks by reducing them to mere information. My advice is go see “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms,”—but only for the pictures.
“Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” shows through May 10 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan.