Visiting Chicago? Don’t miss ‘Van Gogh’s Bedrooms’

In Photo: Van Gogh’s The Bedroom is on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for the exhibition Van Gogh’s Bedrooms at the Art Institute in Chicago.

By Steve Johnson / Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO—Van Gogh’s Bedrooms, the intensely focused new exhibition at Chicago’s Art Institute, contains many unusual things.

‘Van Gogh’s Bedrooms’ at Art Institute show artist’s quest for homeThere are 19th-century wren’s nests, borrowed from the Field Museum to evoke the largely self-taught artist’s first studio. There are four large video screens, displaying such materials as the words of Vincent Van Gogh, the trail the Dutch artists blazed through popular culture, and extreme close-up studies of the paintings that give the show its title.

And there is, inside the museum’s Regenstein Hall, a replica of a house, the famous “Yellow House” in Arles, in the south of France, where Van Gogh went in a quixotic bid to find the serenity Paris had denied him and foster a community of artists.

In that structure, curators have reproduced the bedroom in question, working with a craftsman in England who made versions of the room’s furniture. An open space in one wall lets you take the perspective Van Gogh had when he translated his chambre onto canvas in a work he considered one of his finest.

But the most unusual aspect of the exhibition, which is on view until May 10, is the revered set of paintings that gives the show its title. Only twice before have the three Van Gogh canvases, each called The Bedroom, been together, and never in North America. Given the rarity of Van Gogh loans—his works are signature pieces for museums worldwide—they may never be together again, curators said.

The paintings’ first gathering was when the artist, in a mental-health asylum after his dream of home collapsed, used his initial Bedroom painting to make two new versions of it almost a year later. They may look at first like copies, but one of this exhibit’s strengths is how exactingly it demonstrates that “copy” is the wrong word.

The second time was for the blockbuster exhibition in 1990, the centenary of the artist’s death, at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

But that show, seen by 1.2 million people according to contemporary news accounts, was about the whole of Van Gogh’s creative output; little was made of the Bedroom reunion. Indeed, the Art Institute had to dig through its records to confirm that their Bedroom had traveled to Holland then. “They were with this huge exhibition at Amsterdam,” said Gloria Groom, chairman of the European painting and sculpture department, who organized the new exhibition. “Even the curator didn’t remember. We had to find the shipping order to make sure.”

The Art Institute exhibition is all about The Bedroom: the first version, borrowed from the Van Gogh Museum; the second, part of the Art Institute’s collection since 1926; and the smaller, third, from the galleries of the Musee d’Orsay, in Paris.

“It’s sort of a self-portrait. It’s so intimate and it’s so revealing,” Groom said, standing earlier this week in the entryway to the exhibit, a map of France behind her, details from the paintings blown up on the opposite wall in front of her. “I mean, it’s not just the bedroom, it’s the empty bedroom with him all over it. It’s his stuff on the walls. It’s his friend that he painted and put on the wall, or his self-portrait.

“We decided this was a story that hasn’t been told. These are paintings people recognize but don’t really know about. They assume it’s normal that somebody paints an empty room. It’s not.”

The exhibition arose from the intense scholarship that has been done on the paintings in recent decades. “Suddenly it dawned on me that we need to get these together,” Groom said. “They haven’t really been studied together.”

What emerged from their assemblage, she said, from putting them side by side by side on a gently curved wall, was not just new revelations about the paintings but a bringing together of the scholars—restoration specialists and experts in 19th-century pigments and other art historians—who had been studying the paintings mostly independently.

More to the public interest, what emerged was the story of a talented and troubled man in search of a home. Van Gogh lived in 37 places in his 37 years, often in a room above a public space such as a café or as the guest of a friend or relative. That almost frenetic itinerary is detailed in an exhaustive—and exhausting—chart on the exhibition’s wall. Where the rest of Van Gogh’s Bedrooms gives visitors, and the artwork, plenty of space to breathe, the lifeline suggests some of the pressures of such a peripatetic existence. “We needed to tell the story that doesn’t often get told about Van Gogh, which is the human story,” Groom said. “We know the sensationalist story, but we don’t know the fact that he had troubles with his parents, that he went back and forth to his parents’ house just like our twentysomethings do, and that he had such a short career and he moved so many times.”

Groom moved into the first full gallery, representing Van Gogh’s parents’ home. “These are the early paintings he did and the artists he admired,” she said. “He said he wanted to paint as if they were paintings of the soil, and with soil”—a far cry from the effusions of color in the later works.

In that room are the nests, like the ones historians know Van Gogh painted, encased in plastic. (“These are the most fragile items in the entire exhibition, and we’re all holding our breath,” Groom said.)

The next gallery represents Paris, “really the transformative two years of his life and one of the places he lived longer than a nanosecond,” Groom said, in Montmartre, with his younger brother and unflagging supporter Theo.

The Paris room is adorned with Van Gogh paintings: a study of books on a table from a private collection, the Art Institute’s pointillist self-portrait Van Gogh made after visiting Georges Suerat. But there are also editions of the novels of Parisian life the artist absorbed, the Japanese prints that decorated his walls and his favorite print, an illustration of Charles Dickens’s study, fronted by an empty chair, after the author died.

“He tried to find copies to give to his friends,” Groom said of the Dickens print. Nearby sits a replica of the lacquer box in which Van Gogh kept yarn so that he could experiment with color combinations.

But Paris was enervating and unhealthy, and the artist, in 1888, took a train to the south. The subsequent Arles gallery is where the story of a search for home culminates. Van Gogh wanted to establish a “Studio of the South,” and he invited Paul Gauguin to join him there and lead a group of artists.

The Arles room displays two of Van Gogh’s famous chair paintings, on loan for the exhibition, including the ornately detailed Gauguin’s Chair (which reminds Groom of the empty Dickens chair, she said). Also on display is a delicate rarity from the Art Institute’s collection, a nature scene from Arles called The Poet’s Garden. “There is so much paint just clinging by a prayer,” Groom said. “For many people this is going to be a revelation.”

The Yellow House reproduction not only shows the famous room, but it shows you, in outline, that Gauguin’s bedroom was immediately next door to Van Gogh’s. Such close quarters, and the intensity of the Dutch artist’s hope for his home, surely contributed to the breakdown, including the infamous ear incident, just two months after Gauguin arrived.

Van Gogh would spend much of the next year in an asylum at nearby Saint-Remy, where he sent for his first Bedroom painting, which he had told his brother he considered his best work from Arles.

The exhibition room with The Bedroom paintings melds art, scholarship and biography in a manner that is entrancing. The three canvases can speak for themselves, of course, but a wall opposite them explains why different paintings decorated the walls in the different versions.

Some of those paintings themselves, of course, are right there. “With this exhibition you can’t just have any painting, you have to have the portrait that was on the wall,” Groom said.

Touchscreen digital kiosks take viewers as deep into the paintings as they want to go, showing, for instance, the water damage that affected the first Bedroom or the paint that hadn’t completely dried on the second canvas. A video explains the research into the canvases, including the revelation that the bedroom walls, now a sort of cornflower blue, were originally purple.

“What is wonderful about Van Gogh is we have all these letters,” said Francesca Casadio, the museum’s senior conservation scientist. “In these letters he describes the colors of the bedroom. He wanted to make the picture beautiful but also to express his emotional landscape. He says he wants to paint simplicity with bright color.”

His materials, however, partially let him down. “Three quarters of the pigments that you see in the bedroom did not exist 80 years before,” Casadio said. “They were all new inventions of the chemical industry of the time. Artists embraced them, the yellows, the reds, the pinks. Unfortunately many of them, we’re finding, are changing colors.”

That video contains a (too-) brief rendering of what The Bedroom might have looked like when originally painted, with purple walls intact.

But all of the auxiliary material keeps pointing you back to the Bedroom paintings themselves and, wisely, there is plenty of standing space around them.

It’s a space Groom said she has found productive.

“I learned a lot,” she said of pulling the exhibition together. “The physical construction of these paintings looks so similar, yet is so very, very differently painted. And then just the meaning of it. I’ve always looked at this as kind of a picture of angst. I’ve always thought, ‘This bedroom’s alive—and scary.’” However, she said, “What he meant for this bedroom, it had such significance as a painting that was going to almost advertise the house of an artist: ‘Come visit me.’ So it was exactly the opposite of what I’d always read just by looking at it…. He had so many goals for this room.”

Van Gogh’s Bedrooms concludes with his final years. He was a painter who had “lost confidence,” Groom said, but still made some beautiful works. Van Gogh’s partially chalk drawing, Corridor in the Asylum, is haunting. So is the black-and-white photograph of the artist’s final, austere bedroom, above a café in a town north of Paris.

Visitors will come away with “a more nuanced picture of this artist,” Groom said.

“He wasn’t just a mad genius. And he wasn’t just someone who was, you know, ‘disturbed.’ He only painted when he was completely calm. And the reason he did the Bedrooms was because he’d been in bed for two days, relaxing, reposing. And then he paints this picture which he says should express utter repose. People look at that Bedroom, and they think it’s the bedroom of a crazy man.

“It wasn’t. Not when it was first painted.”

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