‘Magical, mysterious and electrifyingly intimate’ – Van Gogh: Self-Portraits Review | Vincent Van Gogh

One of the flagship attractions of the collection of Courtauld Gallery in London is Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, painted in January 1889. The artist mutilated his left ear two days before Christmas, following a quarrel with Paul Gauguin, with who he shared a house in Arles. Van Gogh looks pale and introspective, clean-shaven, dressed for the winter cold in his yellow bedroom, an easel behind him and a Japanese print on the wall (the Courtauld also owns this print, but it was stolen in the 1980s and never restored). The Dutch artist has the hunted gaze of a man who is not yet ready to enter the world, except through his painting. The open blue door on the right is the same blue door that appears in the photo of his straw-bottomed yellow chair, which now hangs in the same room in the Courtauld. You can also take the chair as a kind of self-portrait. It’s like he stepped out for a second, leaving his pipe and tobacco pouch on the seat.

Van Gogh: Self-Portraits, the new exhibition at the recently reopened Courtauld Gallery in London, is filled with presences, absences, substitutions and echoes of all kinds. It is a magical and sometimes mysterious spectacle. An exhibition of electrifying intimacy, it shows the most self-aware and vulnerable artist. Each painting is both a kind of analysis and an attempt at rescue. In the three and a half years before his death in 1890, Van Gogh painted around 35 self-portraits: some may have disappeared or been repainted. Fifteen are here (not including this chair), plus a sheet of three graphite, pen, and ink drawings. Some are too fragile to travel, others from private collections could not be borrowed. The curators also wanted to avoid unnecessary repetition. Some others were considered too clumsy or otherwise unsuccessful. As is, all of the above is illustrated in the catalog.

“It may only push the painting, but it is very beautiful” … Self-portrait as a painter (1888). Photography: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation

Van Gogh was variously described by those who knew him as “well-built” and “a rather grassy little man with pinched features”. His appearance in these portraits – bearded or not, hair cropped, shaved, unkempt, sick, better fed, on the mend, confident, nervous, withdrawn, sunken cheeks (he had 10 teeth pulled in Antwerp, the making him look older than a man in his thirties) or wearing his vulcanized rubber dentures – provides a clue to his physical well-being, self-image and psychological state.

The myriad ways in which he paints himself are also complicated by his artistic intentions and development, not to mention his material circumstances. The paints and canvases he could afford, as well as his diet, whether he drank or not, his thoughts on color and touch, the ways he wanted to present himself to others, and his state of mind , everything leaves its mark. . Most of the work was completed in one session. He painted and then moved on.

Head slightly turned to the left, slightly turned to the right, then facing forward – many of his self-portraits, notably the 22 he made in Paris, can be considered studies, experiments in artistic and personal style, the all playing out on a small scale, all derived from looking at your reflection in a small mirror. No chance of stepping back for a bigger view, or seeing yourself in profile, which would have required a second mirror.

The oldest here, painted in the winter of 1886-87, the fact wearing a thick coat and a dark felt hat: red beard, blue and white tie, emerging from the half-light, one side of the face in the dark. ‘shadow. A few months later, he has already increased the color, softened the brushstroke and let the white of the canvas show through. Then the brushstroke becomes more rhythmic and he plays with the patterns and outlines of his jacket, the interplay between brush drawing and tonal modeling.

Self-portrait with a dark felt hat (1886-1887)
Emerging from the darkness… Self-portrait with a dark felt hat (1886-1887). Photography: Vincent van Gogh Foundation

In one, his head is surrounded by a swarm of small blue spots and keys. He used these color hints to transition between the shorthand pattern of his jacket and the dark purplish background, which has since disappeared entirely – the cheap crimson pigment he used contained cochineal and faded. Color and tonality have also gone haywire in other works, over time.

His beard is well trimmed and then it is not. His eyes move back and forth in alignment and he paints himself head-on in a wonky gray felt hat (a little sportier and sleazy than the black number he wore in the winter). He’s both serious and elegant, but something has seriously gone wrong with one side of his face in this one: one eye and one cheekbone are disconcertingly misshapen. Once you see it, you can’t stop watching. He had to constantly turn his head in the mirror to see himself and lose sight of the relationship between himself and the canvas.

Then he is in a painter’s coat and looks at us over his shoulder. So he’s in a peasant straw hat. The stroke of the brush accelerates then takes a gallop, crackling everywhere. In September, he seems to have pulled himself together, before starting to cover everything – jacket, face, hat, background – with bristling arrangements of parallel marks, a sort of rhythmic painted tattoo. He looks as prickly as a hedgehog or a werewolf. The paint ran away with him, as if mapping invisible energies flowing through everything, and he tries to weave a self-portrait out of it all.

All the while, Van Gogh is trying to do more than capture a raw likeness or appearance, something more like a living living presence. “I would love to do portraits that would look like apparitions to people a century later,” he wrote. He first turned to portraiture as a possible means of earning a living, and to counter the rise of portrait photography, which he saw as mechanical. But these paintings were not made with an eye for the market. The painting itself gave Van Gogh far more trouble than portraits of other people. He controls himself, in more ways than one.

Self-portrait, autumn 1887.
Cartography of invisible energies… Self-portrait, autumn 1887. Photography: Patrice Schmidt/© Rmn Grand Palais/Dist Photo Scala, Florence

In early 1888, Van Gogh completed a larger painting in which we see the artist in front of his canvas, holding his palette and a handful of brushes. The clusters of pigment on the palette feed the hatching he uses to describe the weaving of his jacket, the wooden support of the canvas in front of him, his head and his hair. They even fill the background, although the color is almost flat. The light clings to the textured vertical and horizontal lines. It may just be pushing the paint, but it’s very beautiful. By the time he leaves for the south, Van Gogh has assimilated all the experimentation of the previous year and this painting has a special dignity and a sense of solitary concentration, almost a kind of monumentality. He doesn’t look at us. He obviously isn’t looking at anything.

We then jump a year to the artist with a mutilated ear and then to two last portraits, which have not hung since he painted them at the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The first is overworked, the impasto delineating his scraped face and giving his appearance a haggard and ruined look. The shadows are muddy and flat. Doctors had only reluctantly let him paint at that time, fearing he might eat the paint and try to poison himself. He had already done that. The second self-portrait, painted about a week later, sees him holding his palette, his trimmed beard and hair, his alert expression, the brisk, confident and assured brushstroke, the color singing and luminous. It could almost be a different man.

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