White walls, white floor, white ceiling.
The gallery is the artist’s empty canvas. Its collection; his thoughts revealed. Spectators shuffle about, deep in thought. They speak in hushed tones of the artist’s mind.
I meander over to the wall of self-portraits. In eight paintings I see Van Gogh’s talent displayed to the public; his madness exposed to the world.
The first portrait depicts the emerging artist at thirty-three. The canvas is dark, with only a subtle use of light and shadow defining the angles of his face. The pose is dignified; dark, buttoned-up suit, a pipe, the serious expression…It’s a deep study of himself and the artist is present on both ends of the brush.
A collection of three drawings is next. Quick studies of his face. A distant, disconnected image at the bottom. A fragmented, unfinished image in the upper right corner. In the center, the most complete image speaks to me with his eyes. Is it anger…confusion… both?
The artist’s signature style begins to emerge in the next portrait. The colors continue to be muted, with the exception of a few red whiskers, but the brush strokes are laid on with more energy. The artist’s face is placed in its usual three-quarter position, the texture of his skin is smooth but grey and dead. His intense eyes seem tired…. As the focus moves away from his face the brush strokes become heavier, flying away from him in a halo of grey-black lines.
Color holds more meaning in the next portrait. Indigo lines define the collar of his coat, orange and red whiskers fill out his beard, a strip of white highlights his prominent nose, and three brush strokes of raw umber stand out against the other colors of his hat. The use of light blue and white for his eyes within the shadows of his browline intensifies his stare and I feel him judging me just as I do him. There’s a vitality produced by the use of such vibrant colors that make each separate from the other. I hear him declare his independence from the confines of what’s expected of him in this work…and he dares me to challenge his vision.
The artist is fully immersed in his bold, new style in the next portrait. It feels as if it were meant to be a spontaneous, painted sketch for another, unfinished work. There’s energy in the thick application of paint and bold lines, and my eyes follow them fluidly across the canvas. His eyes are vacant and he seems deep in thought…making me the intruder in his moment of quiet reflection.
The intensity of the artist’s eyes has moved into his forehead, mouth and chin. Angles are more pronounced and the heavy brushstrokes are layered on with a recklessness that is fully fleshed out as his signature style. They become wider as they fly out away from his face, where contrasting colors are juxtapostioned against each other. The artist exposes himself through the energy of his brush, but questions his decision with the suspicious, stricken look in his eyes.
A state of fragmentation radiates from the next painting. Heavy colors and bold lines flatten the depth but increase the vitality. My eyes follow the direction of the lines as they flow out from the center to join the rotating circle of blue color behind him. His right eye is in shadow but the area surrounding it is highlighted so that his connection to me is not diminished. The artist has intentionally changed his appearance to create a different being altogether and is unapologetic of it.
In the last portrait the artist portrays himself at work. Bold lines and a contrasting palate have been blended together into a much more subdued, refined painting. With his focus entirely on his canvas, he has disconnected himself from me, the Intruder. Van Gogh has successfully receded from the reality forced upon him by society and has retreated within himself to find his own balance and create his own unique world.
The effects of Van Gogh’s mental illness acting as the filter through which he painted has been debated since his death, but maybe there is another idea to consider. Here is a man of great genius, who saw things differently in a world that has never embraced differences with ease… Maybe his disease came as much from the outside as from within.
A square peg suffers when forced through a round hole, does it not?
The Van Gogh Museum is located in Amsterdam: http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/vgm/index.jsp?lang=nl