Van Gogh. Self-Portraits at The Courtauld Gallery was a fabulous assembly of nearly half of the artist’s surviving autobiographical likenesses, specifically 16 from at least 35 in total. They even threw in Van Gogh’s Chair (National Gallery, London) and his portrait of Eugène Boch (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) for good measure.
Every encounter was a personal snapshot of Van Gogh from different periods of his life…except these were all executed mere months away from each other in a three-year period, in Paris (1886), Arles (1888) and Saint-Remy-de-Provence (1889). He died in July 1890.
From the heavy chiaroscuro of his brooding Self-Portrait With Felt Hat (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) to the recognisably lighter palette of Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (Detroit Institute of Art), Van Gogh’s self-portraits can be approached in myriad ways: as public (curated) expressions of the artist’s private thoughts, or as canvases bearing the material product of Van Gogh’s stylistic developments.
Reading these portraits through the lens of his biography is quite limiting, however. This exhibition encourages us to consider them visually and materially. It makes note of his experiments in chromatic harmony and colour contrasts, of different supports like reused canvases and card, and the artists that influenced specific forms of mark-making used to animate his features and composition.
My personal approach is looking at them from below, simulating the effect of raking light. It was fascinating to see the shapes of the stretchers pushing against the canvas, but also some of the diagonal incisions on the surface of Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat (Van Gogh Museum), one of his most expressively radiant likenesses, perhaps intended as guidelines for his brushstrokes. His early drawn sheet of self-portraits reveals much about the effect of different types of mark-making for a singular medium.
This was not an academically intense exhibition – and I’m glad it wasn’t – because it enabled visitors to consider and re-evaluate their own perceptions of this most famous of artists head on, whose eyes are always fixated on the viewer.
It’s as if Van Gogh came back from the grave and asked of us:
‘What do you think of me?’
Van Gogh. Self-Portraits was at The Courtauld Gallery, London from 3 February – 8 May 2022, https://courtauld.ac.uk/