Van Gogh: Self-Portraits – a ‘magical’ show of ‘electrifying intimacy’
Courtauld gallery has brought together ‘outstanding group’ of artist’s self-portraits
Vincent van Gogh’s face is one of the most recognisable in the entire art historical canon, said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. Only a single photograph of him is known to exist, depicting the artist as “a formally-suited 19-year-old” rather than the casually dressed bohemian who might more readily spring to mind.
Instead, it is through his paintings that van Gogh (1853-1890) cemented his own image into our collective memory: in the last years of his tragically short life, “too strapped for cash to pay for a model”, the artist turned to painting himself.
Between his arrival in Paris in 1886 and his suicide at Auvers-sur-Oise four years later, he realised some 35 “vibrant” self-portraits, a body of works now acknowledged to be among “the most vividly evocative” studies of the self ever realised.
Now the Courtauld gallery has brought together “an outstanding group” of almost half of these portraits in an “unprecedented” show, including many that “have not been in the same room together since the days when they leant, still wet, against studio walls”. This is an exhibition that “proffers moment after moment of profound revelation”. Do not miss it.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these self-portraits is “how different they all are”, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. In one of the earlier pictures here, the artist “looks like a murderer from a melodrama”, while another sees his head “covered with strange, tattoo-like markings, as if he were a Maori warrior”. In a painting produced two years later, meanwhile, he appears as “a lugubrious, yellow-skinned spectre”; “if you encountered such a brooding, volatile fellow on the Tube, you’d switch carriage”.
While it’s impossible to deny that much “psychological introspection” is on display, the show is at pains to dispense with the myth that van Gogh’s self-portraits were the product of a “mad” painter “splurging” his emotions onto canvas. Instead, we learn, they were the fruit of “conscious artistic decisions” – and that van Gogh painted despite, not because of, his “inner torment”.
Van Gogh’s self-portraits provide a kind of “index of his physical well-being, self-image and psychological state”, said Adrian Searle in The Guardian. His changing appearance from canvas to canvas – “bearded or not, hair clipped short, shaved, unkempt, ill, better fed, on the mend, confident, nervous, withdrawn, sunken-cheeked” – is a clue to his circumstances at the time, whether he was short of money, sick or healthy, “on or off the drink”.
Perhaps the finest self-portraits here are among the last he created. Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, painted in January 1889, has him clean-shaven, “pale and introspective” with a “hunted” look in his eyes; just a few weeks before, he had mutilated his left ear following an argument with Paul Gauguin.
Another, painted in the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence later that year, sees the artist looking “haggard, ruined”. His doctors were reluctant to let him use paint, fearing he would once again try to poison himself by eating it. The final portrait here, created about a week later, could depict a different man entirely: the brushwork is “lively, confident and assured”, the colour “singing and luminous”, van Gogh himself neat and “alert”. It is an astonishing climax to a “magical” show of “electrifying intimacy”.
The Courtauld, London WC2 (020-3947 7777, courtauld.ac.uk). Until 8 May