Saturday, May 17, 2014

Affinities,Vincent van Gogh and Antonin Artaud

The Musée d'Orsay presents an exhibition inspired by a short essay from Antonin Artaud published in 1947, a few months before his death: Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society. A walk through a dark cave filled with demented shrieking (female) voices, failed attempt to bring the visitor into the world of madness, is followed by a more conventional display of Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo, photographs of Artaud by Man Ray, a copy of his book, documents in glass cases and paintings on the walls. Van Gogh's late works are arranged in a somewhat organized fashion, like four self-portraits aligned in chronological order, the earliest with a sharp gaze, bathing in bright blue swirls followed by a disheveled, emaciated, haggard madman surrounded by a somber blue background, illustrating the artist's rapid decline. Across, Dr. Gachet his physician, who according to Artaud destroyed the painter and the genius within him by jealousy, looks quite harmless and worn out in a melancholic portrait. Close by, Paul Gauguin's Armchair, 1888, refers to another protagonist in the last chapter of Van Gogh's life. The succession of famous paintings describing benign subjects, landscapes, gardens, forests, flowers,Van Gogh's surroundings including his bedroom, made me wonder: what makes the paintings so riveting? Artaud offers an answer in his book in which he describes Van Gogh's search for the myth behind everyday objects.
The poet, writer, actor, was also drawing and painting. The second part of the exhibition is an occasion to discover his works which leave a lasting impression summarized in one word: possessed. The "Théâtre de  la Cruauté", 1946, depicts the four persons he was the most fond of lying in an opened coffin decorated with garlands of words and "La Projection du Véritable Corps", 1946, an idol encircled by incantations. "Les Corps de Terre", a gift to his physician's wife at the psychiatric hospital, represents stick-like bodies, skulls and a life-size red hand with the lines in the palm obviously predicting a tragic future. Two self-portraits, one defaced by angry dots made with a pencil shows an artist with a wild gaze and floating hairs, the other, an appeased  but sad Artaud, complete a display of mainly drawings. His art is all about torments, fears, obsessions, anger, repression, ultimately death and could be qualified as Raw Art. Artaud himself appears in seven black and white films projected for the occasion.
Wheatfield with Crows, allegedly Van Gogh's last painting with the crows as omen of the artist's near demise, is splashed on a giant screen and brings the visitor to the third part of the exhibition, a gathering of landscapes around Arles, the hospital, forests, flowers, and the famous hypnotic Starry Night, all coming alive around the room. This is a fecund period for the artist who produced paintings with a maniacal tempo during the last months of his life, almost seventy oils in seventy days after he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise where the landscapes take a Northern flavor. A side room filled with watercolors and drawings completes the exhibition.
How can one add to the description of the works made by Van Gogh himself in his letters to his brother or by Artaud in his book?
With his exacerbated sensibility, Artaud provides an in-depth analysis of Van Gogh's work, sometimes emotional due to his affinity with the painter. Their common history of mental disorder and subsequent internment, their alienation from a world that did not understand them created a bond between the two artists, at least according to Artaud.
An exhibition inspired the book in 1946, the book inspires an exhibition in 2014, combining the power of words and images.

No photographs allowed at the exhibition
Photograph by the author at the Musée d'Orsay

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