Van Gogh Self-Portraits, Courtauld Gallery
No one needs an excuse to go to the renovated Courtauld Gallery; for us, its reopening was the highlight of 2021. Their jaw-dropping world-class collection looks even more astounding in the sensitively revamped spaces. However, 'Van Gogh Self-Portraits' on until 8 May is a major bonus that should not be missed.
This is the first exhibition ever devoted to Van Gogh's self-portraits. Two of the portraits have not been seen together since they were painted in the French asylum in which he was an inpatient in1889 (the year before his death in1890). The springboard for this intimate show is Van Gogh's renowned Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) – painted soon after he cut off his ear, following a violent argument with Paul Gaugin – from the Courtauld's own collection. In total, there are sixteen self-portraits (nearly half the number he painted) and two other important works, one of which is Vincent's famous chair which clearly stands in for the artist.
Van Gogh didn't take up portrait painting until he arrived in Paris in 1886, only four years before he died. The exhibition starts with the earliest self-portraits including Self-Portrait with Dark Felt Hat (1986-7) painted in his first year in Paris in which the artist looks a glum and respectable figure. Although the overall image looks dark there is a surprising amount of colour in his blue cravat (the paint also noticeably unblended) and his red beard. Here we are looking at a traditional man teetering on the edge of the modernist innovation which is apparent in the self-portraits that follow. An x-ray of this early portrait has shown that it was painted on top of another painting of a nude. Interestingly, in the early days Van Gogh would often reuse his old art.
In between this early picture and the last gaunt self-portrait painted in the assylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence in 1889, we can follow through the two rooms a stylistic journey of experimentation and a personal record of a man which, alongside his letters (often helpfully quoted on the title labels), throws a light on the inner soul of this tortured artist.
In Paris Van Gogh came into contact with the Impressionists. The influence of their style and bright colours is startling in Portrait with Straw Hat (1887) and many of the paintings in these two rooms. That this gem of an exhibition is in the rooms at the back of the top floor in the Courtauld is genius. By the time you have made your way to its start, you have been stopped in your tracks by the outstanding Gaugins, Monets and Cezannes and they are already forefront in your mind when you come face to face with these evocative self-portraits.
Van Gogh Self-Portraits
Students and U18s free
until 8 May
Anya Waddington 3 February 2022