Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat

The art of introspection

This gathering of Van Gogh’s self-portraits is as unsettling as it is impressive

Artillery Row On Art

I am not very good at Instagram. I was beguiled into setting up an account by one of my students a couple of years ago; it has become little more than a photographic stream of consciousness consisting of buildings that I enjoy, paintings that I love, causes of which I approve, and people whom I like. Other accounts, I have discovered, are full of pouting nymphs and muscular Adonises; the same faces frozen in the same poses, over and over again. Some are more appealing than others, but chacun à son gout. Many of them have hundreds of thousands of followers; at the last count I had 148.

I mention this because there are shades of Instagram about Van Gogh: Self Portraits, which essentially amounts to a series of high-end selfies. To philistines it presumably may seem ludicrous that a whole exhibition at one of our leading galleries should consist of one version of the same painting after another; to the luvvies it screams sophisticated chic. Either way it is a coup for the post-facelift Courtauld, which has gathered around its own Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear fifteen others by Van Gogh, all painted in the last four years of his life. One subject; sixteen paintings; thirty-one ears.

None of the self-portraits, as striking as they are, tell us what Van Gogh actually looked like

The show fits neatly into the new Denise Coates Exhibition Galleries on the top floor; it is small, but the achievement of Karen Serres in bringing so many of the self-portraits together is enormous. The first room contains Van Gogh’s early efforts; his experiments with brushwork and palette, and a conservative, if flexible, style. The second opens up his later work, where the influence of Monet, Seurat and the other artists whom he encountered in Paris looms large. Impressionism, post-Impressionism, pointillism, and vibrant use of stroke and colour all contribute to the paintings’ extraordinary effects; yet none detracts from the uneasiness that grabs the viewer in a silent, frozen gaze.   

The tragic irony of it all is that none of the self-portraits, as striking as they are, tell us what Van Gogh actually looked like. For that we are reliant on two images by others; a photograph taken when he was nineteen in 1873, and a painting done by John Russell in 1886, just before his final illness took hold. In the photograph he is a stocky, fresh-faced youth with a tousled mop of hair; in the painting the boy has become the man. The auburn hair has receded at the sides but is still relatively thick; the face remains full, now framed with a thick red beard; there is a slight cauliflowering of the left ear, to which infamy came later.  

This, then was the Van Gogh that his friends and contemporaries knew; instead the so-called self-portraits are full of pathos, because they tell us about how he saw himself. Sensitive lighting and the solid dovish-grey of the gallery walls brings out the pallor of his emaciated cheeks, even in the paintings where he looks relatively well; the desperate story is that of a man trapped deep inside the mental illness that tortured his final years before overwhelming him entirely. By the end he was so far gone that he shot himself in the chest, rather than the head; he lingered agonisingly, poor soul, before dying two days later.

This is an exhibition of more questions than answers

Van Gogh’s death at the age of 37 leads to the inevitable question of what might have been had he lived. He had only really been painting seriously for about a decade; what would have come from his easel next, and what after that? The last exhibit is Van Gogh’s Chair, from the National Gallery. The chair itself has long been understood as a metaphorical self-portrait, but why should that be? Why should Van Gogh not have chosen for his memory to linger instead in the pipe on its seat, or in the detailed hinge in the background, or in the box in the corner, on which he painted “Vincent” in bold letters? We are left to wonder how many more details of his life and mission would have found their way onto canvas, and to mourn their loss. 

The unsettling truth of all this is that in viewing Van Gogh’s self-portraits we see much more than a series of late paintings by one of the most famous artists who ever lived. The self-portraits grab us in the smaller details — the wonky eye, the sagging jaw, the bandaged head — and show us what Van Gogh wanted us to see. He places us in his shoes, to see him through his chosen lens; through the means by which he tried and failed to heal himself as the darkness fell. It seems voyeuristic, almost indecent, to feel so totally invigorated by such a creative, elongated, and ultimately fatal cry for help.   

This is an exhibition of more questions than answers, and all the better for it. It was packed when I went, however, and it is not an environment in which one can linger in solitary silence. This is on balance a good thing, I suppose, for the world is opening up again and people are supporting the arts. Photography is allowed, which may or may not be a blessing in such an intimate yet crowded setting. As we made our way through the Great Room on the way to the staircase, I turned to make the same points to the putative art lawyer whom I’d taken along. One of the most cultured young people I know, he was already engrossed in his iPhone; updating Instagram, of course. 

Van Gogh: Self Portraits is at the Courtauld until 8 May 2022. 

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