Sunday, March 14, 2010
Renovating "The Bedroom"
Visitors to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam between now and August will be looking in vain for one of the VGM's most beloved paintings, "Vincent's Bedroom in Arles" from October 1888 (click image to enlarge). That's because "The Bedroom" is receiving much-needed conservation work, the last major campaign of restoration on the painting having taken place in the 1930s. But leave it to the very plugged-in Van Gogh Museum to bring virtual visitors into the process: the museum has launched a blog wittily titled Bedroom Secrets, in which head of conservation Ella Hendriks will post week-by-week progress on the project. Presumably the team will not only be restoring the "The Bedroom" but doing some research on its pigments, canvas, etc., continuing ongoing study of Vincent's painting materials.
Some of the damage to "The Bedroom" that the current conservation will seek to stabilize dates back to Vincent's own day. In a letter to Theo before leaving for the hospital of Saint-Rémy in spring 1889, Vincent explains that during his most recent stay in the hospital at Arles, flooding from the Rhône River and the spring rains had created a damp atmosphere in his house and "The Bedroom" was particularly affected. "There's one which is flaking onto which I've stuck newspapers," he says, and at another point tells Theo he believes "The Bedroom" will need to be relined or recanvassed completely. Vincent must have been distressed at the damage to this painting, for his letters to both Theo and Paul Gauguin from mid-October show he was very proud of it. "Looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination," he says in a letter to his brother and crows about the effect of simplicity he had sought to attain. After Vincent's initial breakdown in late 1888 and his first return to his house, he wrote to Theo (January 1889): "When I saw my canvases again after my illness, the one that seemed the best to me was my bedroom." Once Theo received the painting in Paris in May 1889, he was concerned enough himself about the damage that he sent it back to Vincent in Saint-Rémy to copy (this copy is today in the Art Institute of Chicago and dates from Sept 1889). Still proud of "The Bedroom," Vincent of his own accord made a second, smaller copy as a gift for his mother and sister; this version hangs today in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
Vincent created the Amsterdam version of "The Bedroom" during a period of hard work, when he says to Theo he had been exhausted and in need of deep rest. For him, the bedroom scene evoked calm and tranquillity; he also used the composition as an opportunity to explore complementary color pairs and a flatness of tone that he felt was Japanese influenced. It is interesting to note in all three versions the peculiar shape of the room: it would be easy to think Vincent was "off" in his perspective or that the distortion was somehow due to his mental state (yes, this has been claimed)...except that his room really was shaped that way. The so-called yellow house no longer exists, having been damaged by Allied bombing in World War II and later torn down, but surviving ground plans make the trapezoidal shape of the bedroom very clear. Some have also noted the dual chairs and dual pillows in the room, as if Vincent imagined a second occupant (i.e. the wife he always wanted); however, he does not explain that detail in his letters. There is no doubt that "The Bedroom" and the pride Vincent felt in this painting echo the love and pride he felt for his little yellow house. He had moved all his possessions into the house in September, and judging from the detailed letters he sent his brother, put much thought, care, and money into the house's decoration and upkeep. Even though rented, the yellow house was the first home Vincent had that was completely his--it was his refuge, the locus for all his hopes and dreams. It's no surprise he immortalized one of its rooms on canvas.