Vincent van Gogh painted three versions of his bedroom at Arles between 1888 and 1889. The first painting was done in 1888 and now hangs in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The second was painted in early September, 1889, and is now owned by the Art Institute. The third dates from late September ,1889, and is in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The Art Institute’s latest exhibition, Van Gogh’s Bedrooms, centers around this trio of paintings that have not been seen together since a show at the Van Gogh Museum in 1990.
But just three paintings in an exhibition would be too academic to appeal to the broader museum audience. So, they have been augmented by a biographical presentation of Van Gogh’s life with a representative selection of his other works, enhanced by objects and artworks that influenced his aesthetic. Presented in chronological order in a series of galleries, the show attempts to place the “Bedrooms” in psychological as well as biographical context.
Each gallery is devoted to a place where Van Gogh lived and worked, starting with Nuenen, his parents’ home town in the Netherlands. Here we see the early works— dark, somber, and monochromatic. Next is a gallery devoted to his time in Paris, where Van Gogh became influenced by post-Impressionism, especially Pointillism, here represented by his Self-Portrait of 1887.
It is in the Arles room that we see his three famous chair paintings. They are presented as a triptych on one wall with Van Gogh’s Chair on the left, Gauguin’s Chair on the right, and Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle (Madame Roulin pictured seated in Gauguin’s chair) in the center. The Madame Roulin painting stands out with its Gauguin-like rendering style. One is left wondering what symbolism is at play in these three paintings.
The next gallery is devoted to the little yellow house at Arles that contains Van Gogh’s bedroom. One first encounters a projected video of quotes from Van Gogh’s writing about his longing for a simple, cozy place to call home. Across the gallery is a partial reconstruction of the bedroom in the yellow house with two more video projections on the same theme—very poignant, but overdone. One video would have sufficed.
The next gallery houses the three versions of The Bedroom. Like the chair paintings, they are presented on a wall by themselves. In chronological order, the Amsterdam version is on the left, the Chicago version in the center, and the Paris version on the right. A video presentation highlights the differences between the three, while two interactive kiosks allow viewers to explore these differences on their own. Another video presentation documents the scientific analysis and recent conservation work done on the paintings by the three museums, including the highly significant digital recolorization of the Amsterdam version in 2010 and the Chicago version in 2015.
Van Gogh was very fond of two red pigments for their intensity: geranium lake and cochineal lake. Both pigments turn white with extended exposure to light. He used these pigments to create the original lavender colors of the walls and the muted red of the tile floor. The walls are now a light blue and the floors have turned brownish—even gray—in the Chicago version.
Van Gogh’s original intent (as documented in letters to his brother Theo) was to present a quiet, peaceful room by emphasizing the purple-yellow complimentary color pair (lavender walls, yellow bed and chairs). As he said to his brother, “the colours have to do the job here.” With this relationship now eradicated, the bedroom paintings look garish and a little “mad,” especially in the Chicago version where Van Gogh used green to suggest shadows on the floor. Now that green dominates and contributes to the chaotic feel of the painting—the opposite of Van Gogh’s documented intention.
The digital recolorization occupied only a few seconds of the conservation video. It would have been helpful to have life-size prints of the digitally recolored paintings included in the exhibition. One could then have compared the original color schemes with those now existing in the paintings. Viewers would have been better able to understand the artist’s original intent. (How many of Van Gogh’s paintings are being misinterpreted because of dramatic color shifts with time?).
One of the exhibition’s goals was to place the bedroom paintings in psychological context. However, downplaying the color shifts hampers that goal by inviting continued misinterpretation of the artist’s intent. To paraphrase Van Gogh, the colors should have been allowed to do their job.
Volume 30 number 4 March / April 2016 p 39-40