By John P. Walsh. May 6, 2016.
I finally saw the Van Gogh’s Bedrooms exhibition today at The Art Institute of Chicago (February 14-May 10, 2016). It was a mob scene. One’s splayed elbows became a regular tactic to navigate through an often immobile crowd in this (over)large show. The three featured paintings that are this show’s raison d’être and marvelous highlight are in the penultimate gallery of several high-ceiling galleries. Once there, my eyes settled on the Van Gogh Museum’s version as the most intriguing although the three works out of Amsterdam, The Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée d’Orsay are superficially identical. Most of the rest of the show might be counted as almost superflouous—permanent collection Barbizon and Impressionist works that, if they had remained on whatever AIC walls they already hung, would have had perhaps greater impact than they had here. In that regard there was not too much that was new to a regular AIC visitor. Fortunately no particular painting, drawing or (Japanese) print was particularly diminished even while subsumed into another typical Regenstein Hall blockbuster production. This propensity to Impressionist rehash (“delve” is the word the museum uses for this show) – a sort of art textbook come alive for the masses – was in further evidence with the re-appearance of the life-size maquette of the Yellow House from the 2001 vastly superior exhibition “Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South.” A slight personal diversion: I recall going to an “Ash Wednesday Service” to get ashes– and after the readings, chorals and homily, etc. those ashes finally appeared and began to be distributed around minute 50. It was sort of a maddening bait and switch. This AIC presentation bringing together all three versions of The Bedroom for the first time in North America is truly special, a powerful canon, and sufficient to the museum goer’s interest. It was maddening then to get to the advertised objects of interest at what was the virtual end of an otherwise severely earnest show.
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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