In his most private space, Vincent had fearlessly unveiled his most private self, stripped of all pretence, where a bed is a bed and yet so much more. A few moments in its presence brings the awareness of an ephemeral calm, the kind that suffuses with intense life just before a storm.
Why should we take the effort and expense to visit art galleries, to look at paintings on walls, when we can enjoy high-resolution digital versions from the comfort of our computer screens? Virtual tours offer unprecedented seamless access to the finest museums in the world. We are able to study paintings at close quarters, to zoom in to arbitrary details, to gaze at them as long as we want, as often as we choose. Is there anything to recommend standing before a painting, beyond the possibility of studying its sheer materiality, or perhaps the sentimentality of seeing the ‘original’? I found my answer in Vincent’s bedroom.
On 29 July 2020, it will be 130 years since the Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent Willem van Gogh [1853-1890] died of a self-inflicted bullet injury. Although his contemporaries expressed mixed opinions about his artistic calibre (only one painting sold in his lifetime), Van Gogh’s canvases have proved to be remarkably resilient in their public visibility. The wilt in ochre sunflowers, the waves in cypress trees, the swirls in a starry night sky, the unflinching gaze of several self-portraits — with a straw hat or with bandaged ear, the same wounded expression on a desolate man — these have become among the most recognised images in the world. His paint, layered, dabbed, twirled thick on the canvas, coaxes the eye to travel in myriad planes all at once, hypnotic patterns that beg the viewer’s involvement, her surrender to the artist’s passionate inhabitation of a visual moment.
A testimony to Van Gogh’s continued popularity is the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the largest collection of the artist’s work, where tickets are sold in advance and traffic of visitors carefully distributed through each day, most slots filled to maximum capacity. The museum was on my itinerary too while on a recent Erasmus scholarship to the Netherlands, but I did not expect any surprises — my familiarity with Van Gogh canvases had spanned over two decades, not only from reading about his life and looking at his images carefully, repeatedly, but from my efforts to learn oil painting by making reproductions of his canvases. Those copies were both pedagogical exercises and personal tributes. When you look at a canvas long enough, try to reproduce every stroke, even the parts you discern as struggles for the artist, you inhabit another consciousness, perhaps even glimpse an aesthetic from within itself. At a time when I was struggling to write my early novels (in my late twenties), searching for the shape of a voice in a solitary pursuit, it was comforting to turn to a dead artist’s tempestuous life and output, and it brought a familiarity like no other. There was, of course, the Van Gogh celebrated by the world, and then there was my Vincent, an informed personal version. Yes, it is fair to say that I did not expect the museum to show me anything that I did not already know about Vincent. And yet something unexpected happened to me when I stood by a canvas that is popularly known as ‘The Bedroom’ or ‘Bedroom in Arles’.
The story of The Bedroom is best understood if we know something of Vincent’s life. Vincent took his time to announce art as his calling – 27 years is indeed rather old for a nineteenth-century art world that valorized child prodigies and put teenagers to apprenticeship. There was little support from the family for the new career, but Vincent quit his job with an art dealer and started to practise drawing with a desperation that only comes to those who start late and want to catch up with their peers. In his early thirties, Vincent moved to Paris to join his devoted brother Theo who had a job in the art business. It was in Paris that Vincent came in contact with the excitement of ongoing impressionist innovations in painting – canvases suffused with bursts of colour and light, perspectives teased beyond strictures of realism (the conventional primacy of the line in a drawing) to a fluid modernist sensibility (brush strokes and dabs replacing the line). This language of articulating life and art made sense to Vincent, the colours on his palette changing from brooding earth to luminous primaries, his forms building dimension. At the same time, Vincent felt the need to explore his own style, and that is when he headed to Arles, a town in the south of France. He dreamt of inviting artists to join him there, starting with his friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin, to paint together in sunlight (rather than the studio) and incubate overlapping creative visions – in other words, an artist’s colony that would remain utopic and unrealized.
However, when he first arrived in Arles in 1888, Vincent was optimistic and had rented a modest two-storey home known as ‘the Yellow House’ whose walls he had begun to decorate with his sunflower paintings (in anticipation of Gauguin’s visit). Before long, he was writing to his brother Theo about a painting he had started of his bedroom, describing it as a work where colour would become the narrative: ‘the pale, lilac walls, the uneven, faded red on the floor, the chrome-yellow chairs and bed, the pillows and sheet is a very pale lime green, the blood-red blanket, the orange coloured washstand, the blue washbasin, and the green window. I wanted to express absolute repose with these different colours.’
Vincent would paint three versions of the bedroom – all of them nearly identical. The first version is the one displayed at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. As has been well recorded in many biographical studies, Gauguin’s visit to Vincent in Arles was anything but collegial or harmonious, and Vincent suffered an intense psychological breakdown soon after—these dark shadows would trail him till his death.
At the Van Gogh museum, as one walks into a viewing floor (and there are several of these spaces at various levels) the paintings are arranged at times in a thematic fashion (for instance, self-portraits) but are mostly chronological, allowing the viewer to soak in the progression of the artist’s oeuvre. The paintings are watched by several officials who remind visitors not to take photographs or come too close to the artwork, and it is easy to see where the crowds flock – yes, of course, the sunflowers, mounted on a pillar in the middle of a hall to accommodate clusters of admirers. It is a canvas very familiar to us, but all the digital reproductions I had seen had not done justice to the earthy weight of the petal-shorn brown sunflowers in the centre of the composition, or those minute bleeding lines of chrome and ochre yellows in limp petals. But it was what was on the other side of that pillar that took my breath away.
Vincent’s bedroom, where he wanted to hang his sunflower paintings, comes to us as a flat open rectangle canvas (about 72 cm x 90 cm): patiently bare furniture, angled lines of the floor that move closer to each other, watchful window, the few objects from a spartan life of singlehood – a mirror, a towel, a jug. A painting that I had always thought of as rather banal was anything but ordinary as one stood before it, not as viewer or voyeur, but as the fourth wall of that achingly honest lonely room. I understood then why I could never have inhabited that space from seeing flat digital reproductions, the viscerality of chipping and fading paint entirely withheld from my senses, the spatiality of that absent fourth wall likewise precluded. Digital or print versions of Vincent’s bedroom tend to narrow and flatten the space, like a delivery box after its job is done, but the painting itself does exactly the opposite – the walls breathe and then hold still, the eye does not push the objects in the room closer to each other, but each defined form is in balance, separate from the parts that indicate air. One is acutely aware of a gentle opening up of space, to all that the creative spirit aspires to hold close, but confesses nonetheless.
As I stood in front of the canvas I saw what I had missed for years. In his most private space, Vincent had fearlessly unveiled his most private self, stripped of all pretence, where a bed is a bed and yet so much more. A few moments in its presence brings the awareness of an ephemeral calm, the kind that suffuses with intense life just before a storm. Like entering a shrine of purest intention, the viewer is humbled to tears by the hope and vulnerability that has been entrusted to her. I swallowed back the tears, but new ones arose to fill my space, now continuous with Vincent’s bedroom. This is why one visits a painting, I thought, to honour all that artists endure to share a vision, to confess our own limited understanding and assumptions, for that possibility of unearthing an intense, lyric beauty in the everyday.