IN THE PICTURE at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889, oil on canvas, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London. Courtesy Van Gogh Museum:

MUSEUM CLOSED UNTIL 31st MARCH. After that, check for updates.

This exhibition is a first for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It focuses on artists’ portraits. As usual, it is to be found in the museum’s exhibition wing, using two floors. On the third floor, visitors find a smaller, related exhibition: Artists’ Portraits on Paper showing drawings, prints, photos.

Most of the nearly eighty works are from the museum’s own collection. The majority date from 1850 – 1920. On the second floor, are works by artists inspired by van Gogh’s self-portraits. These include modern works by for instance Francis Bacon, Julian Schnabel, Guillaume Bruère. Visitors can also watch excerpts from films based on van Gogh’s life, with stars looking very much – or not at all – like van Gogh’s self-portraits.

This exhibition groups works thematically. Works by Mina Carlson-Bredberg, Jan Toorop, Elin Danielson-Gambogi and others are grouped together for “The Artist at Work”. All paint themselves in front of a canvas with palette and brushes ready – but the museum points out, none have dirty hands.

Why focus on self-portraits or paintings of other artists and this this specific period? Curators Nienke Bakker and Lisa Smit explain, the popularity of this genre increased. Artists used self-portraits to promote themselves, their success, being part of the establishment – or not. This changed with an increased interest in the real person behind great art.

Of course, much attention is paid to self-portraits of van Gogh. About thirty years after his death, it was presumed there were nearly 50. Due to increasing knowledge and understanding, backed by new research techniques, the number has dropped to about 25.

The recently re-attributed work from the Norwegian Nasjonalmuseet is exhibited here. But also the important loan from the London Courtauld Gallery, currently closed. In fact, it was its loan of “Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear”, which inspired this exhibition.

These two works were painted shortly after each. Yet the majority of van Gogh’s self-portraits were painted in Paris. Van Gogh considered portraits important, but could not afford to pay models. Even from Arles he wrote to Theo: “… I purposely bought a good enough mirror to work from myself, for want of a model, … ” (Letters, 681)

Poverty is also shown by the many small-size self-portraits, as well as material van Gogh used. Like other artists, he reused canvasss by painting over works he no longer liked. He also used cheap ingredients. One of the exhibited self-portraits (1887) seems to have a fairly empty background? As the text next it explains, this is not what it looked like when finished. Research hints, van Gogh used cheap ingredients to mix colours. To get violet, he mixed blue with a cheap red. This red ingredient faded. To try stop such fading, the museum no longer uses bright lights.

Perhaps van Gogh may not have minded. For unlike many contemporaries, he used his self-portraits as studies. On the ground floor, there is a spot where one can see several of his self-portraits. They were painted within a short time-span and him experimenting with colours and styles is obvious.

“In the Picture” not only exhibits self-portraits. It also contains wonderful portraits of artists painted by their friends, colleagues, rivals. Among these are portraits of van Gogh. There were two I especially liked.

Both portraits are displayed near van Gogh’s self-portrait with felt from winter 1886 – 1887. One is by Australian artist John Russell. It captures van Gogh turning towards the viewer. The other one is a quick chalk drawing. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec drew van Gogh, sitting at Café Le Tambourin with a drink in front of him.

But there are many other interesting works here. There is the sympathetic portrait of Claude Monet, now attributed to Charles Giron. There is the story of Arntzenius’ “Art Viewing”, the reason behind Schwartze’s stance, Paul Baignères and Emily Childers showing off how to wear red – and many more. This is an exhibition to visit and revisit!

I sincerely recommend you start planning your visit. However: this museum only sells tickets on-line and for a specific date and time-slot! Visit the museum’s website for all information.   Kate   27th February 2020

In the Picture: Portraying the Artist runs until 24th May 2020.