We are currently living in a time where the “Van Gogh mania” is at its peak: you can find anything Van Gogh themed, from Tiktoks, items of clothing and immersive experiences. Something about the dreamy and nostalgic universe of Van Gogh’s paintings is especially appealing to today’s audience, as they represent a form of escapism and dreaminess that our generation tragically lacks. Yet, the Courtauld Gallery’s new exhibition “Van Gogh Self-Portraits” manages to stand out from the abundance of Van Gogh content and iconography. The impressionist Gallery sheds a light on the persona of the artist through fifteen of his most famous self-portraits and takes a very introspective approach to the artist. Even those who might have seen “The Starry Night” and “Sunflowers” a thousand times will discover something totally new.
As soon as one surpasses the first emotion of seeing so many widely famous paintings hanging one next to the other, the first thing one notices is the interesting diversity within the repetition of the same subject. The man in the frame is never-changing: same sparkly bright eyes, defined and lean lineaments, dashing red hair and concentrated expression of someone analysing his own features in a mirror whilst trying to paint them. And yet every single one of the fifteen canvases exposed is indisputably different from the other. How can such variety be achieved when the subject is always the same, posing in a similar position every time?
Firstly, the painting technique is rarely the same: the animated dashes of paint in one painting can turn into a detailed and conventional brushstroke in the next; the backgrounds can be bare, detailed or abstractly colourful; the colours can be neutral or explosively vibrant. It is the technique of an artist searching for himself and his art, exploring new possibilities and artistic realities in a seemingly impossible and never-ending quest. The second element of change is the subject himself: spanning from 1886 to 1889, the paintings act as a real visual autobiography as they reveal the deep changes in the artists’ last years of life. We witness it all, from physical changes like different outfits, hairstyles and locations to the more nuanced evolution of a man slowly drifting to madness.
The real star of the show is indeed the man himself as he is a subject of observation and representation for Van Gogh the artist. The goal was reportedly to achieve something that portrait photography could not achieve and therefore prove that despite the technological advances, painting remained the superior art. And something is undoubtedly achieved, as each painting studies the relationship of the artist with himself and the interchangeable role of artists and subjects in art.
Get your tickets for the exhibition, as well as the Courtauld Gallery’s wonderful permanent gallery of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works at https://courtauld.ac.uk/whats-on/van-gogh-self-portraits-22/.
Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portait with a Bandaged ear, 1889, The Courtauld, London (Saluel Courtauld Trust) © The Courtauld
Reviewed by Céline Galletti- Celine is a volunteer writer for Abundant Art. Originally from France and Italy, she follows her passion for writing and art by studying Comparative Literature at UCL, London. As an international student living in London, she is determined to fully experience and understand the city’s vibrant arts scene, and be a part of its creative storm.