Van Gogh self-portraits – a landmark exhibition at the Courtauld

In the late 1880s, an obscure Vincent van Gogh pondered the world of art. “What Claude Monet is in landscape, the same thing in figure painting, who’s going to do that? Like me, you must feel it’s in the air, ”he wrote to his brother Theo, a Paris-based art dealer.

Van Gogh answered his own call, breaking through to a new portraiture based on chromatic daring, loose brushwork and stylized simplification: “I don’t try to do us by photographic resemblance but by our passionate expressions, using as a means of expression and intensification of the character of our science and modern taste for color. ”

In the late 19th century, this was outlandish, and the outcome uncertain. Van Gogh arrived in Paris in 1886 a news, thrilled to learn. He left in 1888, anxious, sick and distraught at the city’s pressures, and almost an alcoholic – but with his artistic vocabulary forged. As the Courtauld’s magnificent, landmark exhibition Van Gogh. Self-portraits recounts, he achieved this substantially by depicting himself.

Van Gogh painted 22 self-portraits in 1887; 12 are here, some never before seen in the UK, others not for half a century. You might expect a descent into illness or insanity, but these dozen are among the most joyful, enthralled coming-of-age pictures of any artist’s career.

Swirling brushwork and myriad warm hues infuse the gaunt, wild-eyed “Self-portrait” from summer 1887 with a frenzied determination; the autumn’s brilliant yellow “Self-portrait with Straw Hat” ventures hope of regeneration. In a further trio of self-depictions from 1889, the year he admitted himself into an asylum in Provence, Van Gogh was forced to confront the relationship between his art and his mental health, but here too are declarations of courage and faith.

‘Self-portrait with Straw Hat’ (September 1887) © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Thanks to the self-portraits, everyone knows what Van Gogh looks like: an awkward, intense redhead with piercing green eyes set deep in their sockets, creases between the eyebrows, a permanent frown – always pensive, if not downright gloomy. The miracle is that these hardly varying aspects yield yields are diverse, unpredictable and experimental.

Van Gogh is still a tonal Dutchman in “Self-portrait with Felt Hat”, finished in January 1887. The face looms out of a dark background, chiaroscuro modeling bathes one cheek in light, the other in shadow, the beard glows ruddily: Rembrandt’s descendant.

‘Self-portrait with Felt Hat’ (January 1887) © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Impressionism, along with Paris’s luminosity, quickly wrought changes: the brightening in the newly conserved “Self-portrait” (spring 1887) from the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, is remarkable. Van Gogh wears a pale lilac suit contrasting with his fiery hair. Red rims around the eyes are echoed in the waistcoat’s dramatic red piping. The figure stands out against lively nuances of lighter to darker greens.

This was a transition. Next come three heads at different angles, looking left, right and staring fully frontal, offset by whirls of animated dots and short strokes. The most refined, from Chicago, employs gleaming dabs of aqua and midnight blue, burgundy and forest green, for the background and jacket, while meticulous, thinner marks define the angular face.

‘Self-portrait with Gray Felt Hat’ (winter / spring 1887) © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

All allow us to imagine 34-year-old Van Gogh hanging out in Montmartre, befriended by Paul Signac, from whom he absorbed Paris’s latest trend, Pointillism. The technique, juxtaposing dots of pure color into shimmering surfaces, was inaugurated in 1886 by Georges Seurat, with the stiff figures on the embankment in “La Grande Jatte”, to howls of mockery. Van Gogh saw beyond the shock, and the painstaking dot-method, to possibilities for his own expressive aims.

In the winter’s “Self-portrait with Gray Felt Hat” from Amsterdam, and the Musée d’Orsay’s “Self-portrait”, Van Gogh swaps the dots for long brushstrokes of pure color radiating outwards, and bold hatching, making every feature fizz with nervous energy. Orange blots laid over rushing streaks of blue form an aureole around the head. “I’d like to paint men or women with that I don’t know what of the eternal, of which the halo used to be the symbol, and which we try to achieve through the radiance itself, through the vibrancy of our colourations, ”he wrote.

‘Self-portrait as a Painter’ (February 1888) © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Theo van Gogh took the religious allusion further: he compared his brother, art’s martyr, to Rodin’s sculpture “Head of Saint John the Baptist”: “the same expression of suffering, that furrowed and contorted brow betraying a life of reflection and asceticism.”

In concluding Paris work, “Self-portrait as a Painter”, beg December 1887, Van Gogh summed up the confidence to depict himself working. He described “a pink-gray face with green eyes, ash-colored hair, wrinkles in forehead and around the mouth, stiffly wooden, a very red beard, quite unkempt and sad, but the lips are full, a blue smock of coarse linen , and a palette with lemon yellow, vermilion, Veronese green, cobalt blue ”- the colors with which he would renew himself in Arles.

He saw in his features “the face of death”, yet the picture is a manifesto: “Instead of trying to render exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcefully”. A year after the inaugural dark self-portrait, the door swings open to the 20th century: “The painter of the future will be a colorist as has never been.”

‘Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear’ (January 1889) © Samuel Courtauld Trust, Courtauld Gallery, London

Theo’s wife Jo thought “Self-portrait as a Painter” the “one most like him. . . I had expected a sick man, but here was a sturdy, broad-shouldered man, with a healthy color, a smile on his face, and a very resolute appearance. ‘He seems perfectly well; he looks much stronger than Theo, “was my first thought.”

The next painting, the Courtauld’s “Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear”, belies the words. Yet at the depths of mental crisis, recuperating after self-mutilation, Van Gogh reached heights of expressiveness. Delicately modeled flesh, flat blocks of strong color and a prominent Japanese print trumpeting non-European influence all assert painterly identity. “If I recover. . . it’ll be because I’ve cured myself by working “, and” the more I become dissipated, ill, a broken pitcher, the more too I become a creative artist. “

‘Self-portrait’ (August 1889) © National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo

No painting is more tied to the inner life, in its making and in our own responses, than Van Gogh’s. We approach the final two self-portraits, from the Saint-Rémy asylum, reunited for the first time since 1890, knowing of the suicide to come. But Van Gogh didn’t. Glimmering in the corner, and juxtaposed with the confident self-portrait-by-proxy “Van Gogh’s Chair”, Oslo’s greenish-brown, downcast 1889 self-depiction is haggard, muddy, matte and violent – Van Gogh used a palette knife to flatten the brushstrokes.

But the Washington National Gallery of Art’s canvas, painted a week later, is crystalline, dynamic, the head aglow within a stylized pattern of eddying, undulating lines, reminiscent of “Starry Night”, and Van Gogh’s expression is calmer – the picture contains tranquility within restlessness. It is an image of struggle, beauty and art’s potential for transcendence: the climax to an enormously inspiring, stirring show.

‘Self-portrait’ (September 1889) © National Gallery of Art, Washington

At the Courtauld Institute, London, until May 8,

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