By John P. Walsh. May 6, 2016.
I saw the Van Gogh’s Bedrooms exhibition today at The Art Institute of Chicago (February 14-May 10, 2016). It was quite crowded. Splayed elbows became a tactic to navigate through a sometimes immobile crowd in a very expansive show. The three featured paintings which are the show’s raison d’être are a marvelous highlight although one had to traffic through the show’s high-ceilinged galleries to reach them in a penultimate room. Once arrived, my eyes settled on the Van Gogh Museum’s version as the most intriguing of the three superficially identical works out of Amsterdam, The Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée d’Orsay. Compared to Van Gogh’s Bedrooms, much of the other parts of the show—permanent collection Barbizon and Impressionist works—could be seen as overkill. If they had remained on whatever AIC walls they already hung, these artworks may have maintained an impact they lost here. In that regard, for the frequent AIC viewer there were not other new paintings to see although the condensed interpretive curatorial exercise of parts of the permanent collection could prove interesting for many visitors. No particular painting, drawing or Japanese print was diminished even when subsumed into what was very much another typical Regenstein Hall art show blockbuster. The propensity for Impressionist rehash in this show (“delve” is the museum’s word) had an art textbook’s sensibility. Going into the warehouse to retrieve for Van Gogh’s Bedrooms the life-size maquette of the Yellow House from 2001’s vastly superior exhibition Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South had mostly a dispiriting effect on me who recognized the old prop rather than its renewed educational value for which the curators intended it. But so far I am quibbling: this AIC exhibition brings together the powerful canon of all three versions of Van Gogh’s The Bedroom for the first time in North America and is truly special and undoubtedly sufficient to the museum goer’s time and interest. I don’t believe, however, that their artistic power was best served by being able to see these intensely advertised objects only at the virtual end of a large show following and among other art historical resources which could be described as extraneous, if severely earnest.
This show possibly could have benefited by not pulling out all the stops (“in-depth study”) but to focus on the three colorful masterpieces uniquely gathered in their essential power. Instead, a surfeit of front-loaded artistic riches labors to obscure these important Van Goghs that only lately appear in the second to last gallery, all of which are jam-packed with art, people, various filmic explorations, wall texts, house reconstructions, etc. If one wants to read blow by blow explanations of virtually every curatorial application in this show, one might turn to other reviews (see “Further Reading”). An equitably in-depth appreciation of this trio of Van Gogh works – and minus the Disney World trappings – might be accomplished using timed tickets (as done for “The Studio of the South”) and within a pared down and simpler exhibition scope. The way things are constructed by the show’s curator Gloria Groom, Chair of European Painting and Sculpture at The Art Institute of Chicago, the exhibition transmits encyclopedic knowledge of Van Gogh’s art history while missing a largely tangible evocation of the humble petit boulevard artist and bachelor who proudly produced these straightforward canvases of his bedroom in Arles in 1888 and Saint-Rémy in 1889 – and shared it with his mother and sister. So, then, what does an exhibition advertised as Van Gogh’s Three Bedrooms wish to have spectators looking at, or for? By the time the visitor reaches Van Gogh’s three paintings after plowing through this gauntlet of human flesh and a great deal of well-known Chicago resources on Van Gogh’s career up to these bedroom works, it seems the main thing of exhibiting them is almost secondary. The final gallery after the three bedrooms continued this show’s devotion to comprehensive information and theatricality – although side-by-side blow-ups of the bedrooms’ diverging details were perhaps the most useful techie display to appreciate the artist’s handling of the individual paintings and begged the question: why hadn’t it been placed at the start of the show and not at its end? This last gallery led directly to the gift shop with the same crowd disporting themselves basically as they did in the galleries. That same timbre led me to wonder if the unique opportunity to view together the three Van Gogh bedroom paintings – “the first time in North America” – had under- or overplayed its hand. Had “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” rightly oriented and imparted to its viewers his or her own intimate and perhaps revealing look into these three sensitive treasures of Van Gogh’s bedrooms as its elementary purpose- or had Van Gogh simply omitted to paint into his scene the proverbial kitchen sink?
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