Vincent van Gogh, "Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat" (1886–87), oil on canvas, 41 cm x 32 cm (all photos by the author)

LONDON — Vincent van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear” (1889) is one of the jewels of the Courtauld Gallery collection, which has been closed to the public for three years to facilitate a total refurbishment and rehang costing £57 million. In an extraordinarily canny curatorial gesture, the painting is placed among 12 of van Gogh’s 35 self-portraits, all made during a brief but prolific period between his arrival in Paris in 1886 and his death in 1890, in the remodeled Courtauld’s first special exhibition, Van Gogh: Self Portraits. Popular perceptions of van Gogh are too often preoccupied with heart-wrenching accounts of mental illness, but curator Karen Serres takes pains to avoid speculative psychoanalytic readings of one tortured face after another. Instead, she maintains a studious art historical focus on technical analysis, calling the portraits “vital testing grounds for [his] abilities.” The psychological component, however, is nonetheless ineluctable, making this a show that works powerfully on both an art historical and emotional level.

The art historical scope is comparatively narrow, both chronologically and thematically: Van Gogh was seemingly unconcerned with any external sociopolitical or other contemporaneous themes, and was additionally constrained by cost — many of the earliest pieces are on a standardized “artist board” size and or on reused grounds from other works. Most depict head and shoulders only; this allows for close stylistic and technical study to a degree that may not be afforded in an exhibition with a broader thematic scope. Thus in an unexpectedly dark early piece, “Self-Portrait with Felt Hat” (December 1886–January 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), wholly uncharacteristic of the color suffusing the majority of his oeuvre, the caption draws our attention to the technique of peinture à l’essence, in which oil paint is thinned with turpentine, insinuating that van Gogh absorbed the technique from acquaintances Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas.

Vincent van Gogh, “Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear” (January 1889), oil on canvas, 60 cm × 49 cm
Vincent van Gogh, “Self-Portrait” (1889), oil on canvas, 57.79 × 44.5 cm

Similarly, the scope allows us to observe the gradual influence of pointillism over several distinct experimental examples. For “Self-Portrait” (Spring 1887, the Art Institute of Chicago), the wall text explains how van Gogh modified the color principles of pointillism: where contemporaries such as Georges Seurat juxtaposed opposites on the color wheel to create a representational illusion as per strict color theory, here van Gogh adapts the principle to his own muted brown tones. His application of the opposing colors evolves from “points” to dashes, to the distinctive long strokes that characterize his work; by the late “Self-Portrait,” painted in a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy in the first week September 1889 (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.), the dashes strikingly form the contours of his blue jacket, and in the background begin to crisscross each other in a manner resembling a woven textile more than paint. In “Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat (September–October 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), the hatching radiates outward, vertically from van Gogh’s nose, and then horizontally, rippling from the outline of his hat, nimbus like. It makes for a curious dichotomy between surface pattern and pictorial representation.

So far, so technical, and free from psycho-speculation. There is however one haunting instance in which van Gogh’s mental illness definitively overwhelms the portrait, in “Self-Portrait” (late August 1889, National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo), also painted at Saint-Rémy — and reunited here with the other Saint-Rémy piece for the first time since they were painted in the asylum workroom. In this work it appears that mental anguish has actually impeded physical capability; sickly swamp-green hues are plastered onto the canvas with none of the flowing contours and clearly defined hatching abundant elsewhere. Van Gogh consistently used variations of unadulterated pink tones to delineate the eye sockets in his paintings; here that pink is a blood red. There is no escaping psychological interpretation, as he specifically describes the piece in a letter to his brother, Theo, as one attempted during illness.

Vincent van Gogh, “Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat” (September-October 1887), oil on cotton, 44.5 cm x 37.2 cm

So straightforward, free from subjectivity — as promised — and simple are the supporting captions that one can forgive an indulgence at the end in which “Van Gogh’s Chair” (1888, National Gallery) is described as a self-portrait in itself, its humble straw seat expressing his “long affinity with peasant life.” 

Despite the art historically informative presentation, intended to “dispel the notion that the self-portraits were simply raw outpourings of emotion,” it is nearly impossible to deny their emotional resonance, nor should we discount the importance of such. Serres achieves a balance by neither overworking the technical or art historical cues in the captions nor making radical — and unsupportable — claims. The show is spread over two rooms, and the intimate feel suits the portraits’ quiet yet intense content, the unshowy but intriguing technical analysis, and the overall role of the Courtauld as a smaller, yet significant, London collection. This is a rare exhibition where the admiration should go to the very concept of the show itself first, then secondarily the curation: Choosing van Gogh’s self-portraits was an exceptionally clever way to promote the new galleries using the Courtauld’s star attraction, to show off its new space post refurb, and to mount an exhibition that is deftly curated and informative and yet emotionally compelling and affecting.

Vincent van Gogh, “Self-Portrait” (September 1889), oil on canvas, 51.5 x 45cm

Addendum: After I had visited the exhibition I learned that the Courtauld was selling some rather tasteless gifts in conjunction with this show, including erasers in the shape of severed ears and sunflower soap labelled “for the tortured artist who enjoys fluffy bubbles.” Certainly galleries often stretch the limits of relevance when tying in products with special exhibitions, and why not, as they are a major source of revenue. One can forgive the Courtauld cynically peddling, for example, this Little Sun Light, presumably because it is vaguely evocative of van Gogh’s sunflowers, when every purchase supports the gallery. Yet after curator Serres has handled the issue of mental health so delicately throughout her show, much of her hard work is undone with this massive blunder by the merchandising department. The Courtauld shop’s website states that its “whole range has been carefully curated to complement both The Courtauld’s collection and its aims.” It clearly hasn’t.

Van Gogh: Self Portraits continues at the Courtauld Gallery (Somerset House, Strand, London, England) through May 8. The exhibition was curated by Karen Serres.

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Olivia McEwan

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...