In February, members of Chicago’s upper crust were invited to visit the sleeping quarters of one of the least successful painters in the history of art. Some were even granted the opportunity to spend a night there. For “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms,” now showing through May 10 at the Art Institute, the museum partnered with Airbnb to offer visitors the chance to rent an actual re-creation of the famous painting Bedroom in Arles (1888) in an apartment in River North for a night. “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” attempts to take the museumgoer inside an artist’s experience, but this seems a bit extreme. What next? Will the Art Institute contract a body-modification studio to sever a die-hard fan’s ear? At this point, I wouldn’t be taken aback. But would many of us have chosen to live the kind of life Vincent van Gogh led if we were given the chance?
By all accounts, van Gogh was an unpredictable, taciturn man with little regard for social niceties and even less care for hygiene. When I attended “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms,” looking around at my fellow art appreciators, some carefully reading each label on the wall, others snapping pictures with their cell phones instead of using their own eyes, I could imagine few who’d actually want to share a glass of absinthe with van Gogh if they were offered the chance. Like LARPers we’re invited to pretend to sit in his chair, smoke his pipe, or rearrange the pictures above his bed. But this is nothing like actually living a life, whether it’s van Gogh’s or anyone else’s.
“Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” marks the latest repackaging of a miserable man’s work. The current show marshals diagrams and video and installations of various types. Yet after countless blockbuster exhibitions and images reproduced on place mats, umbrellas, clothing, wallpaper, and any other surface that might yield a few bucks, it’s become increasingly difficult to judge these paintings divorced of their cultural domination. Van Gogh is the art world’s version of the Beatles, ubiquitous to the point of being common.
Further complicating one’s ability to critically engage with van Gogh’s work is the myth that has been made of his biography. Most people know van Gogh as a crazy guy who cut off his ear and shot himself out in a wheat field. Such narrow readings have also perpetuated many dilettantes’ idea of what an artist is: alone, tortured, dying penniless and unappreciated. It’s a romantic picture, one best enjoyed in the comfort of a well-appointed home, or, better yet, in the galleries of a world-class museum.
Painting students confront van Gogh’s legend early on. When I was studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 90s, there was an older classmate who stalked the hallways in a paint-spattered smock, cursing painting under his breath. There was a slight superficial likeness, but it wasn’t his looks that made many call him van Gogh behind his back—it was the caricature he embodied, a symbol of single-minded obsession. The fact that a man who only managed to sell one painting during his life is now as reliable a cash cow as the art world has got is of little comfort to those of us who still toil with brush and paint. A little worldly success goes a lot further than any promise of immortality to the person doing the actual work. How much longer would van Gogh have wanted to live if he’d just sold a few more paintings?
Ignoring much of the supplementary material, there are of course beautiful things to see in this show. The three painted versions of the bedroom at Arles are worth the trip, as is a small sketch of the same composition, which accompanied one of van Gogh’s letters to his younger brother, Theo. But the most affecting painting for me was A Pair of Shoes, displayed in one of the first rooms. It is of shoes rendered in black and beige. There’s little of the bright color or exuberance of van Gogh’s best-loved work, but this picture evokes in the simplest way what it is to make one’s way through the world and the toll that the journey takes. We can never walk in van Gogh’s shoes, and if we’re honest with ourselves we wouldn’t want to, but as with all the best art, this humble painting transcends its maker and shows us what it is to be alive. v