Variations on a theme

Fifteen portraits by Van Gogh are in London for a unique exhibition, as John Evans reports

Thursday, 17th February — By John Evans

Van Gogh

Left: Self-Portrait with Felt Hat, December 1886 – January 1887, oil paint on canvas, 41.5 x 32.4cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Right: Self-Portrait, First week of September 1889, oil paint on canvas, 57.8 x 44.5cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

IT was the spring of 1889 and Vincent Van Gogh told his brother Theo that he had been reminded of the cherry trees of Mount Fuji in the Japanese prints that he admired so much.

He was referring to his landscape near Arles, Peach Trees in Blossom, now hanging prominently in the new-look Courtauld Gallery, open once again with impressively redesigned exhibition spaces. The evocative peach trees, though, are not in its first blockbuster since the reopening in November.

For Van Gogh: Self-Portraits is showing on the other side of the wall upon which it hangs. A small but powerful show.

The Courtauld’s own, famous, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear features, of course, but is seen in a unique context which puts it alongside works brought together from far and wide: Paris, Amsterdam, Otterlo, Zürich, Detroit, Chicago, Washington, Oslo.

As with the peach trees, the self-portraits are works from an artist who, while famed now and particularly prolific in his late output, painted full-time for just about 10 years until his death in 1890 at the age of 37.

This exhibition has 15 self-portraits by him, all from 1886 to 1889, from both Paris and from after his move to Provence.

Comprising some half of all Van Gogh’s self-portraits, the variations are remarkable considering that tight time frame. And, as Courtauld’s head Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen says, the show “also reunites works that have not been together since leaving Van Gogh’s studio, most notably the remarkable canvases from Oslo and Washington, painted a week apart in Saint-Rémy”.

These two works are from Van Gogh’s time in the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, late August and early September 1889; and in that September, he had again written to Theo: “People say – and I’m quite willing to believe it –that it’s difficult to know oneself, but it’s not easy to paint oneself either.”

Curator Karen Serres writes, in a show catalogue, that the self-portraits “take on new meaning when brought together”, from the highly finished to quick sketches.

Viewing them reveals what Van Gogh himself told his sister Willemien, “to my mind the same person supplies material for very diverse portraits”.

Most of the 35 self-portraits were from Paris, just eight from after he arrived in Arles in early 1888. Letters make it easier to date the latter.

But, says Dr Serres, these later works are “more complex and ambitious”.

The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Van Gogh. Self-Portraits is at the Denise Coates Exhibition Galleries, Courtauld Gallery, Strand, WC2 0RN until May 8. Details www.courtauld.ac.uk

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