By John P. Walsh. May 6, 2016.
I saw the Van Gogh’s Bedrooms exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago (February 14-May 10, 2016) on the last Friday afternoon before the show closed. The museum that day was drawing a large crowd and it was challenging to navigate through the multi-room art show in a mass of frequently immobile art lovers. Exactly for what cause some stationary patrons might be transfixed could only be speculated upon but often no art was present. No one I think comes to art shows to be caught in a logjam of people yet that recurrent phenomenon in Van Gogh’s Bedrooms soon became one of its unpleasant features. The expansive exhibition space—striking for its illogical reasoning to display three relatively small masterpieces—proved impractical, or at least a two-edged sword, in terms of containing its throngs.
Those three featured paintings are this show’s raison d’être and prove a marvelous highlight after reaching them by way of a dozen or so high-ceiling galleries. Once arrived to the show’s penultimate room, my eyes settled on the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam’s version as the most intriguing of the three superficially identical works. The other two versions are from the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
When 35-year-old Van Gogh painted his The Bedroom series starting in October 1888, the Dutchman had been an artist only a short while: about 7 years. This had followed a variety of other occupations, although Van Gogh began his professional life as an art dealer. By late 1888—less than two years before his death by self-inflicted gunshot in Auvers-sur-Oise in July 1890—Van Gogh had traveled long and far from his beginnings in North Brabant. He arrived into Paris in 1885 to paint and join his brother Theo who was an avant-garde art dealer in the Rue Montmartre. Looking to sell more of his artwork, he began painting in the bright Impressionist style for which Van Gogh is probably most famous today. By February 1888 Van Gogh relocated to Arles in the South of France on account of his health and to possibly start an art colony. Still quite poor and alone, this roughly 15-month period in Arles proved to be prolific for the artist’s production when Van Gogh completed 200 paintings, and over 100 drawings and watercolors. Many of Van Gogh’s most famous works were created in this fecund period—for example, his portraits of Eugène Boch (Musée d’Orsay), Postman Joseph Roulin and Augustine Roulin (both Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and Madame Ginoux (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) among several others; sunflowers and irises such as Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers (National Gallery, London), Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers (Neue Pinakothek, Munich) and Irises (Getty Museum, Los Angeles); 15 canvases of cypresses; and his iconic Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin in the Harvard Art Museums.
None of these contextual artworks were in the Chicago show but demonstrate the range and depth of Van Gogh’s artistic vision in the same time period that The Bedrooms—which shared his body of work’s intoxication with color and decorative strategies—were painted. Despite its title—Van Gogh’s Bedrooms—this show is not content to let their presence in Chicago suffice. Instead, much of the other parts of this massive show were from the Art Institute’s permanent collection of mostly Barbizon and Impressionist artwork. Perhaps if they had been left on whatever museum walls from which they had come, these fine artworks might have maintained an even greater impact for themselves and this show’s ultimate purpose than crowding them onto walls into this special exhibition space. That said, the condensed interpretive curatorial exercise of parts of the permanent collection in this show could prove interesting for visitors who are not willing or able to visit other parts of the museum. In a show that took on the formula of a typical Regenstein Hall blockbuster, its propensity for Impressionist rehash (“delve” was the museum’s word) had a boring art textbook’s sensibility. Recognizing that the show dipped into the museum storehouse to retrieve the life-size maquette of the Yellow House from AIC’s vastly superior exhibition Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South in 2001, produced a dispiriting effect on at least one viewer who recognized 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 which is very special and undoubtedly sufficient to any museum goer’s time and interest. I don’t believe, however, that their full artistic power was best served by being able to see these objects intensely advertised in the media markets and then only hung at the show’s virtual end following a cacophony of mostly extraneous art historical resources however severely earnestly presented. Instead, a surfeit of front-loaded artistic riches labors to obscure these significant Van Goghs that finally appear in the second to last gallery, all of which are jam-packed with art, people, various filmic explorations, somewhat bloviating wall texts, whole house reconstructions, etc.
It is certainly obvious that Van Gogh’s Bedrooms 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. If one wants to read blow by blow explanations of virtually every curatorial application in the show, one might turn to other reviews cited in “Further Reading” below. The equitably in-depth appreciation of this trio of Van Gogh works—and minus the Disney World trappings—might be advanced using timed tickets (as done for Van Gogh and Gauguin: 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 while largely missing a tangible evocation of bachelor Van Gogh’s humble petit boulevard persona who produced in Arles in 1888 and in Saint-Rémy in 1889 these bold canvases of his simple bedroom and even gifting one of the versions (the one now in Paris) to his aged mother and sister to reassure them in his destitution. For Van Gogh the motif of his private and hard-featured bedroom in Arles continued his bold self-expression in a tightly woven and complex painting composed in broad outlines using a many-hued post-impressionistic palette in thick impasto. Despite Van Gogh’s reputation as mad—he mutilated his ear in this bedroom in December 1888—he soon carried on painting two more versions of The Bedroom (the last one slightly reduced) with the apparent added intention to express to his family and friends that the artist was as stable and restful as his artistic subject.
What should an exhibition advertised as Van Gogh’s Three Bedrooms wish to have its spectators looking for and come away with? By the time a visitor reaches Van Gogh’s three paintings after plowing through the aforesaid gauntlet of people and well-known Chicago art resources, the exhibition almost runs the danger of displaying these highly-prized artworks not as denouement but incidental. These Van Gogh paintings are hardly allowed to speak freely for themselves. Of course they have a fascinating history but to what degree should these particular artworks’ written history be simultaneous to their exhibition? Thinking of the viewer, does the display of three paintings of an artist’s bedroom (albeit Vincent Van Gogh’s) that when placed side by side measures the whole of about ten feet across merit thousands of cubic feet of mostly academic groundwork before a viewer can even see them? To what degree are artistic exhibition and their intellectual exposition necessarily complementary since many museum art shows follow this tactic?
The final gallery after the display of the three bedrooms continued Van Gogh’s Bedrooms’ devotion to comprehensive information and theatricality—although a side-by-side blow-up of the bedrooms’ diverging painterly details was perhaps the most useful techie display so to appreciate the artist’s handling of the individual paintings. Yet it begged a question: could this orientation to detail, to seeing the painting, somehow serve as the exhibition’s primary or sole introduction, such as in a film theatre? This last gallery then led directly to the ubiquitous and depressing gift shop hosting the galleries’ same multitude disporting themselves basically as they did there. Hearing its timbre I wondered if a 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 an intimate and perhaps personally revealing look into these three sensitive treasures of Van Gogh’s oeuvre as its elemental objective—or had Van Gogh merely omitted to paint into the scene a proverbial kitchen sink?
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