Telling Vincent van Gogh’s story through his ‘Bedrooms’

No one in the history of art has created a series of self-portraits as riveting as Vincent van Gogh’s. Rembrandt came close. Frida Kahlo added inventive and fantastical drama. Warhol dipped into the vernacular of representation.

But van Gogh nailed it. He spun the very molecules of existence into the closest equivalent of what it feels like to be alive than any artist has ever reached.

With van Gogh’s self-portraits, there is no division between figure and ground. He asserts that human life comes from the same energy fields as air, water and land, a mere rearranging of atoms into ever-shifting and colliding eruptions of transient, uncontainable matter. And he then molds paint into the emotive equivalents of natural forces. His urgent and aggressive mark-making are literally like footprints in the wet mud of a farm field — imprints of existence rather than abstract equivalents of representation.

One could look at the current exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Van Gogh’s Bedrooms (through May 10,2016), as a series of self-portraits, even when van Gogh’s face does not in fact appear. Everything depicted — a pair of shoes, a landscape, a chair — is so imbued with the easily identifiable hand of van Gogh that he looms as the subject of his work, no matter what the painting depicts. A tree is as alive and expressive as a face.

The 36-piece show is built around three sequential paintings of van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles, united for the first time. It might seem like a crowd-pleasing headline show built from narrow means. Instead it becomes a perfect fulcrum for expanding and exploring multiple themes in van Gogh’s work. Just when one would think there is no stone left unturned in this eminent artist’s oeuvre, the AIC tilts the perspective enough to get a different, more intimate glimpse of his brief life and career.

The exhibition beautifully ties these works into van Gogh’s biography in a way that offers much more than a timeline. Bits of the quotidian punctuate the show, and offer small but profound moments to underscore the delivery of the masterworks. These minor asides and peripheral objects act as knots in the trajectory of the work, giving us pause and also connecting the paintings to a life and a place and its dusty accoutrements. The exhibition manages to hold onto and even recreate the sense of van Gogh’s poverty, his quiet desperation to build an existence around the act of painting, and his ultimate failure to do so.

One of the first rooms of the chronologically arranged exhibition holds a re-creation of a small Chinese, red lacquer wooden box holding various samples of yarn. The authentic box, which held 16 balls of wool, is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Apparently van Gogh used this collection of threads to experiment with color combinations, laying a string of orange near a string of red, or twisting colors together. It is thought that he may have established palettes for some specific paintings using this technique.

In this same room is the dynamic painting Still Life with White Grapes, Apples, Pears and Lemons (1887). It reveals that, although he had absorbed Impressionism in Paris and was influenced by Seurat, Van Gogh’s hyper-extenuated style was firmly in place from the very beginnings of his career. The still life appears almost as if composed with individual pieces of yarn. Finely tuned complementary colors vibrate line by line, mark by mark, putting the lie to the myth that van Gogh didn’t know color theory and his talent came from some automatic unconscious well of genius and/or madness.

One of the themes Van Gogh’s Bedrooms focuses on is the notion of “home,” and this first room emphasizes this by highlighting two paintings van Gogh did of bird nests. In 1885, van Gogh was living in the town of Nuenen, where his parents had moved. There, he collected bird nests, and created a series of paintings of them; adjacent to the two paintings featured at the AIC show are two actual nests in plexiglass boxes.

What makes this anchor not as silly as it sounds is what van Gogh writes about it in a letter dated to his brother Theo in 1885: “When winter comes (when I have more time for it) I shall make more drawings of this kind of thing. La nichée et les nids [the nestlings and the nests], I feel deeply for them — especially people’s nests, those huts on the heath and their inhabitants.”

A wall-size photo of the Yellow House brings us to the place, street and nearby park of the town of Arles in southern France, where so much happened in 15 months. By the time van Gogh arrived in Arles, he had already lived in nearly 20 cities and four countries. But here, where he rents rooms to await a visit from Paul Gauguin, van Gogh dreams of settling and building an artists’ community.

The three bedroom paintings provide entry into this compacted time and document the artist’s peripatetic longing for “home.” Just as he arranged and physically decorated his rooms in the Yellow House to create an oasis of comfort that might appeal to Gauguin, he applied paint to canvas with similar intent.

Both are inventions, arrangements, compositions that await human contact to set them afire. There was little boundary between van Gogh’s life and work. That is why the paintings of the bedroom resonate so fully. In a conceptual act, he styles a room, then reproduces it three times, bringing both the physicality and emotional content of desire into play. Like us all, he longed for stability, comfort, friendship.

Van Gogh created the first bedroom painting (owned by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) in October 1888, as he awaited Gaugin’s arrival, but it was later damaged by water. He painted a second version (owned by the Art Institute of Chicago) in September 1889 while he was living in an asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, recovering the violent episode in which he severed his own ear. A few weeks later, he painted the third and smallest version of the bedroom (owned by the Musee d’Orsay, Paris) as a gift for his mother and sister.

Although van Gogh tended to work in serial notations of subjects (sunflowers, shoes, self-portraits, etc), he painted three versions of his room because, as he wrote to his brother Theo, he considered it one of his most successful works. Success to van Gogh meant finding equilibrium between realism and symbolism.

Three wall-sized video screens align in the exhibition to compare every inch of the three paintings, showing us van Gogh’s changes and adjustments. Explanatory text and video also outline how colors shifted over time. The bedroom walls were originally a lilac purple but are now blue. While this information is an interesting aside, it is really the relationship of the bedroom paintings to van Gogh’s other works in the show, such as the two portraits of chairs (his and Gauguin’s) and two portraits of shoes, that underscore his ability to fuse human and inanimate content.

Crowds swirl around the three bedroom paintings, but many ignore a small display on a nearby wall containing van Gogh’s only surviving palette. Earthy colors (no piquant greens, oranges and blues) create a muddy landscape, a map of thought and process that brings us as close to van Gogh as we will ever get. One can see where he heavily loaded the brush, leaving a furrow of paint, and where he dabbed off the excess. The palette dates to 1890, the last year of his life.

Rarely does an exhibition calibrate the pace and mental duration of the viewer as well as this one. Throughout, it twists and turns from traditional presentation modes to video environments then back to small bays of ephemera. It concludes with a full room designed for a rest, and a selfie in front of a wall-sized reproduction of The Night Cafe (1888).

The exhibition’s paintings are haunting and beautiful, accented by these effective pyrotechnics. But the ultimate reward comes from those treasures in the darker corners: the box of yarn, a nest, the artist’s palette.