Image Credit: Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1989, Vincent van Gogh.
What we know about Vincent Van Gogh, especially from his discovered letters, reveals that he was perhaps the most lonely and tortured painter of all time. We remember him as a sunken, jaundiced face holding blue-green eyes, a non-smile locked into his tight jaws, and flaming red hair. This description doesn't seem particularly jarring or ghastly from our own perspectives in isolation, yet the artist was horrified by his self-image. He believed he had the face of a man who believed himself a prisoner of some horrible cage – this is a personal image he developed in a letter to his brother Theo in 1880, where he expresses "profound disillusionment" with his appearance and present state.
Despite choosing to be 'actively melancholy' after a deep descent into despair, frustration, and feelings of inadequacy, Van Gogh finds that his passions very much stem from the creative value of his very own suffering. After writing several letters, it was Theo who urged him to turn art into a career, an unsung sidekick who reignited his brother's sense of purpose – that which without would have left our present and future creative culture vastly impoverished. "Everyone who works with love and with intelligence finds in the very sincerity of his love for nature and art a kind of armour against the opinions of other people," the Dutch painter notes in one of his letters.
As we have these letters as references for the inner workings of his artistic impulses, how come we never remember Van Gogh like this? As a figure of avenging both anguish and resilience through art? As the starved artist who only waited nine years to sell a single painting, but adored the process of creation that he could only choose to be driven by his singular coping mechanism?
One of the staple sources of remembering Van Gogh has induced anxieties surrounding the image of pre-loved and praised artists becoming ‘pop culture cliches’. Loving Vincent (2017) is a film that somewhat follows the trajectory of Van Gogh's life, with every frame being developed by 115 professional oil-painters who mimicked the artist's stock, recognisable 'style'. This, Jones argues, is an insulting means of recording and remembering Van Gogh's ever-evolving approach to painting, as it did not "flow in animated sequences [...] but being reborn every time the artist stood in front of an empty canvas."
This would not be as problematic as Jones puts it if it weren't for these diluted versions of Van Gogh's life-long masterpieces to have not been limited in their applications and exploitations to this singular film. They have been the subjects of excessive evolution, of an ever-expansion that lets us literally crawl inside of them in an 'immersive experience.' Within these 'experiences,' the turbulent swirls and curling winds become so much a part of the artist's trace that he is no longer remembered as a man, but as a series of “charged monuments to artistic struggle [turned] into a cliched style rendered by hack painters and animated for our amusement,” which leads us to "lose all contact with the true power of his art." (Jones)
However, these audiovisual mediums are not the first nor the last to let us walk inside his paintings. Perhaps the wildest, most intrusive aspect of our dissatisfaction with merely gazing at Van Gogh's artwork, is the lengths we will go to actually put ourselves in them. Van Gogh’s Bedrooms is the most-visited special exhibition the Art Institute has run in 15 years, with an average visitor count of almost 5,000 people per day. “I felt that if we were going to make an exhibition around the bedroom, and what it meant to him, we had to have the [real] bedroom. To not show the physical space and yet have all this information about it from his letters [...] would miss the point,” says Gloria Groom, curator of Van Gogh’s Bedrooms. “I just felt like you need the physical reality of it to bring it home.”
Just by looking at images of the exhibition, the room, the furnishings, and the space all seem warped in his paintings – drained of life, of Van Gogh's vibrant, artistic filter. Van Gogh's artistic appeal, as described by Groom, could not be accurately extracted by his own words, but through a heightened reality in and of itself, separate from our world and the source paintings. Perhaps Fowlie is right in stating that "[t]he religious attitude of a painter toward his art is revealed not in the subject matter of his paintings but in his capacity to transform all things into a coherent universe which he has seen by means of the slow solitary conquest himself. All great art is one man's secret vision, and hence triumph, of the world." In this sense, it could be that by simulating a Disney-esque experience, we are allowed access into the mind of an artist that we, perhaps, would not be able to understand in any other way. Or are we simply refusing to understand him in the way that he intended, that is, through his paintings as they stand alone?
After attending an immersive experience myself, I couldn't help but feel slightly uneasy afterwards. It didn't seem like I was learning or seeing anything differently – I was just being projected the same relentless images over and over again, enclosed by walls, flaring lights, and blindly plucked quotes in cursive font. The enlarged paintings did magnify those slurred streaks of paint that became electric in the light, yet I couldn't hold back the pang of guilt I felt when I saw the animatronic Vincent staring at us with those piercing ridges of blue. When it finished, I was almost charged even more to strap on a VR headset for a freakishly high price and another experience (like no other, of course.) I left feeling very conflicted. I didn't know whether to conclude that we had made an incredible advancement in preserving and popularising art, or if we'd truly lost the meaning of seeing through his own eyes, the way he had intended it to be.