LONDON — Vincent van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear” (1889) is likely one of the jewels of the Courtauld Gallery assortment, which has been closed to the general public for 3 years to facilitate a whole refurbishment and rehang costing £57 million. In a very canny curatorial gesture, the portray is positioned amongst 12 of van Gogh’s 35 self-portraits, all made throughout a quick however prolific interval between his arrival in Paris in 1886 and his dying in 1890, within the reworked Courtauld’s first particular exhibition, Van Gogh: Self Portraits. Fashionable perceptions of van Gogh are too typically preoccupied with heart-wrenching accounts of psychological sickness, however curator Karen Serres takes pains to keep away from speculative psychoanalytic readings of 1 tortured face after one other. As a substitute, she maintains a studious artwork historic concentrate on technical evaluation, calling the portraits “important testing grounds for [his] skills.” The psychological part, nonetheless, is nonetheless ineluctable, making this a present that works powerfully on each an artwork historic and emotional degree.
The artwork historic scope is relatively slim, each chronologically and thematically: Van Gogh was seemingly unconcerned with any exterior sociopolitical or different contemporaneous themes, and was moreover constrained by price — lots of the earliest items are on a standardized “artist board” measurement and or on reused grounds from different works. Most depict head and shoulders solely; this permits for shut stylistic and technical research to a level that is probably not afforded in an exhibition with a broader thematic scope. Thus in an unexpectedly darkish early piece, “Self-Portrait with Felt Hat” (December 1886–January 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), wholly uncharacteristic of the colour suffusing the vast majority of his oeuvre, the caption attracts our consideration to the strategy of peinture à l’essence, through which oil paint is thinned with turpentine, insinuating that van Gogh absorbed the approach from acquaintances Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas.
Equally, the scope permits us to watch the gradual affect of pointillism over a number of distinct experimental examples. For “Self-Portrait” (Spring 1887, the Artwork Institute of Chicago), the wall textual content explains how van Gogh modified the colour rules of pointillism: the place contemporaries reminiscent of Georges Seurat juxtaposed opposites on the colour wheel to create a representational phantasm as per strict colour concept, right here van Gogh adapts the precept to his personal muted brown tones. His software of the opposing colours evolves from “factors” to dashes, to the distinctive lengthy strokes that characterize his work; by the late “Self-Portrait,” painted in a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy within the first week September 1889 (Nationwide Gallery of Artwork, Washington D.C.), the dashes strikingly type the contours of his blue jacket, and within the background start to crisscross one another in a fashion resembling a woven textile greater than paint. In “Self-Portrait with Gray Felt Hat (September–October 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), the hatching radiates outward, vertically from van Gogh’s nostril, after which horizontally, rippling from the define of his hat, nimbus like. It makes for a curious dichotomy between floor sample and pictorial illustration.
Up to now, so technical, and free from psycho-speculation. There’s nonetheless one haunting occasion through which van Gogh’s psychological sickness definitively overwhelms the portrait, in “Self-Portrait” (late August 1889, Nationwide Museum of Artwork, Structure and Design, Oslo), additionally painted at Saint-Rémy — and reunited right here with the opposite Saint-Rémy piece for the primary time since they have been painted within the asylum workroom. On this work it seems that psychological anguish has really impeded bodily functionality; sickly swamp-green hues are plastered onto the canvas with not one of the flowing contours and clearly outlined hatching considerable elsewhere. Van Gogh constantly used variations of unadulterated pink tones to delineate the attention sockets in his work; right here that pink is a blood purple. There isn’t any escaping psychological interpretation, as he particularly describes the piece in a letter to his brother, Theo, as one tried throughout sickness.
So easy, free from subjectivity — as promised — and easy are the supporting captions that one can forgive an indulgence on the finish through which “Van Gogh’s Chair” (1888, Nationwide Gallery) is described as a self-portrait in itself, its humble straw seat expressing his “lengthy affinity with peasant life.”
Regardless of the artwork traditionally informative presentation, meant to “dispel the notion that the self-portraits have been merely uncooked outpourings of emotion,” it’s practically inconceivable to disclaim their emotional resonance, nor ought to we low cost the significance of such. Serres achieves a steadiness by neither overworking the technical or artwork historic cues within the captions nor making radical — and unsupportable — claims. The present is unfold over two rooms, and the intimate really feel fits the portraits’ quiet but intense content material, the unshowy however intriguing technical evaluation, and the general position of the Courtauld as a smaller, but vital, London assortment. This can be a uncommon exhibition the place the admiration ought to go to the very idea of the present itself first, then secondarily the curation: Selecting van Gogh’s self-portraits was an exceptionally intelligent technique to promote the brand new galleries utilizing the Courtauld’s star attraction, to indicate off its new area put up refurb, and to mount an exhibition that’s deftly curated and informative and but emotionally compelling and affecting.
Addendum: After I had visited the exhibition I discovered that the Courtauld was promoting some slightly tasteless presents along side this present, together with erasers within the form of severed ears and sunflower cleaning soap labelled “for the tortured artist who enjoys fluffy bubbles.” Actually galleries typically stretch the bounds of relevance when tying in merchandise with particular exhibitions, and why not, as they’re a serious income. One can forgive the Courtauld cynically peddling, for instance, this Little Solar Gentle, presumably as a result of it’s vaguely evocative of van Gogh’s sunflowers, when each buy helps the gallery. But after curator Serres has dealt with the difficulty of psychological well being so delicately all through her present, a lot of her arduous work is undone with this huge blunder by the merchandising division. The Courtauld store’s web site states that its “entire vary has been fastidiously curated to enrich each The Courtauld’s assortment and its goals.” It clearly hasn’t.
Van Gogh: Self Portraits continues on the Courtauld Gallery (Somerset Home, Strand, London, England) by way of Could 8. The exhibition was curated by Karen Serres.