As well as van Gogh’s physical state, his psychological well-being was just as unpredictable: van Gogh suffered through seasons of mental health problems that were most likely attributed to severe depression. Aside from art, van Gogh found some respite through writing to his brother, Théo. Otherwise, though, van Gogh had poor resources to help him overcome his mental instability, and he took his life.
Browsing through van Gogh’s works, I was consistently honored that he revealed to me places and emotions that held significance to him. While I took his paintings’ subjects and locations at face value, I knew that he was also communicating the complexities of his psychological state. For my exhibition, I wanted to feature some van Gogh works which I believe portray ordinary settings with an unordinary emotional tension. Next, I wanted to extend the dialogue of place and tension from only van Gogh to other artists from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I relied on works whose colors and shapes successfully portrayed the discomfort between place and state of mind. Finally, I ensured that there was variety in the works’ textures and the degree of minimalism involved.
Vincent van Gogh, Corridor in the Asylum, September 1889, oil color and essence over black chalk on pink laid ("Ingres") paper, 48.190.2
Color contrasts are the breadcrumbs we follow down Van Gogh’s endless hallway. First, van Gogh demands attention with the corridor’s arches. Varying ratios of gray to blue hues on the individual arches keep the eyes drawn upward. The shift in tones of red flooring give consistent motion down the aisle of the Asylum. Between these two factors, our gaze is compelled to continue down the corridor. A gray figure walks towards an open door on the left and deeper into the field of the painting. The end of the corridor appears to have a door. Van Gogh presents viewers with a constricted, tight environment to explore. Uncertainty lingers throughout: viewers don’t know how much van Gogh is isolated in this Asylum. The hall is devoid of large quantities of light. Loneliness is louder the longer I linger here.
Vincent van Gogh, Portrait de l’artiste, 1889, oil on canvas, RF 1949 17. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.
This exhibition contains portraits whose figures, if any, are typically at a distance. It is only fitting to include this Portrait, which dedicates its space to depicting van Gogh, the primary inspiration for the curation. The background, despite its humble purpose, delivers the most insight about the figure. Van Gogh painted himself among cool tones of blue and green, wispy lines. Where the lines of his blue suit should distinctly separate him from the background, van Gogh begins to blend into the background of curls. Perhaps van Gogh is letting viewers into his mind: so much of his history is wrapped among both vivid creativity, but also significant mental health crises.
Andy Warhol, Red Disaster, 1963, silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 1986.161a-b. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Every so often, we stumble upon a place composed of so little of a physical environment, but quite an emotionally heavy space. So Warhol presents viewers with one electric chair, copied twelve times. Taken away from the red environment, the chair itself looks relatively ordinary. Paired with an ominous color scheme and the knowledge of what happens to occupants of the chair, though, the definition of the chair changes. What should be a domestic object for people to rest on becomes a death sentence and torture. Wherever this chair travels, its home will become identified with despair.
Mark Rothko, No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, oil on canvas, 84.9. The Museum of
Unlike the previous pieces, which have a clear setting through location or curved lines for a background, Rust and Blue is the bringing of three rectangles together in one frame. While the painting itself is located in a particular museum, the location of viewers holds the most importance. Rothko insists that the farther one steps away from the portrait, the closer of an emotional response viewers will have. These purple, deeper blue, and blue gray rectangles are capable of evoking melancholy or arresting viewers in their emotions: because the rectangles are
a non-negotiable subject matter, viewers have the opportunity to put their unique emotional experiences inside of a universal shape.
Vincent van Gogh, The Night Café, 1888, oil on canvas, 1961.18.34. Yale University
‘Café,’ a gentle word with a graceful accent, is typically associated with a quaint place to sit down in others’ company and have a delightfully warm beverage. Van Gogh’s Night Café destroys any fantasyviewers may have of a peaceful locale to take life slowly. While there appears to be a curtain opening to a friendly back room, the rest of the Café traps viewers inside a shadowy room. The paint on the walls have a metallic-like bite, but the dingy yellow lights won't brighten the room or the mood much. No matter how long viewers choose to stay among the cluttered tables and misplaced chairs of van Gogh’s Café , the environment will hardly be a respite from troubles waiting for viewers outside, in the ‘real world.’
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, tempera and crayon on cardboard, NG.M.00939. The National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design, Oslo, Norway.
Munch’s work shares red and yellow hues similar to the ceiling and lights in van Gogh’s
Night Café. The curvature of the waves and sky resembles other van Gogh works, such as Starry Night and Portrait de L’artiste. Staring towards viewers, the titular screamer’s body is also composed of curves. His face is almost shaped like a lightbulb, but the yellow and green skin tone eliminates the possibility of an illuminated light. Noodle arms are all the figure has to attempt to drown out whatever triggered his scream. The elongated deck not only alienates the
screamer from two strangers, but also creates tension between the gangly, smoke-colored figures and the screaming one. The Scream sends ripples of panic through the wavy lines which don’t appear to have any stopping points. Viewers are just as stifled in a physically eerie and emotionally unstable place as the title figure is.