Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 17)

In the last weeks of his stay at the hospital in Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh changed doctors.  Dr. Paul Gachet took charge of his care, and the artist chose him to be the subject matter of his next painting.  The Portrait of Dr. Gachet is still today one of the highest selling artworks in history, having been bought by a private collector in 1990 for just over $80 million.
Typical to Van Gogh's style, we see a lot of energetic brushwork here, conveying liveliness, intensity, and passion.  The world around this doctor is busy, with fluttering lines of light and color buzzing all around him.  (No clear background is distinguishable behind the sitter).  The doctor's uniform is a part of the external chaos, with its own vibrant colorization and form.  He's leaning on a table with two books and a vase of flowers.  The books indicate the doctor's breadth of knowledge and training.  The flowers are a species which were often used as medicinal herbs for treating unstable heart conditions.  They are extremely poisonous to ingest alone.  As to the doctor himself, he slumps, leaning on the table and resting his cheek on his hand.  He looks as if he were in a thoughtful pose, but the man's face betrays more than just deep contemplation.  Deep emotion appears to be "infecting" this doctor, turning his face an almost sickly green color and causing his eyelids to languidly droop.  He is anxious, sad, uncertain, and wholly despondent.  Van Gogh famously identified the look of the man with his generation and the commonly pervading sentiments of doubt and despair in the early Modern Age.  The artist has literally put a face to the gloom and hopelessness of the post-Victorian generation; and it is the face of a doctor who works in an asylum treating others' illnesses when he has no one to treat his own.
Here the patient is diagnosing the doctor.  Do you see?  Vincent Van Gogh was the mentally unstable patient under this learned and experienced doctor, but he commented in a letter to his brother in July, 1890, that he thought Dr. Gachet "sicker than I am."  And the artist has once again infused his own feelings and artistic style into the work; this poor doctor is crudely fashioned into a wobbling form, thin and crooked, as pitiable as one of his suffering patients to whom he so loyally attends.  Van Gogh paints him the way he feels the man really is, kind of like his own diagnosis of his doctor.  And it's quite a sad revelation; apparently both doctors and patients alike are unhappy.  The melancholy of Modernity infects all: doctor and patient, sane man and sick, student and teacher, artist and layman.  Although painted roughly enough, the themes of such a painting penetrate deep to the intricate recesses of the heart and mind.  The face of Dr. Gachet in the portrait conveys so much symbolic meaning which extends toward not just Van Gogh's own generation, but all of Modern society, all of humanity; and that this alleged healer of men's diseases should be himself more diseased than the worst of them is a statement on the human condition.  It's a profound work of art.

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