Friday, September 25, 2009
When is an old pair of shoes, an old pair of shoes? Ask van Gogh
In 1886, Vincent van Gogh moved to Paris to become part of the avant-garde art scene there he studied under Fernand Cormon. During this time van Gogh painted a small oil painting of old worn shoes. When he showed the canvas to his peers this met with open derision with most critical of the absurdity of painting such dull everyday objects. No one is quite sure why these old shoes held such fascination for the artist especially since he was known to rarely wear shoes himself. The painting attests the brilliance of colour and light and the artist was experimenting with coloured accents, tonal elements and shadows so the muse would be intriguing. The painting was constructed quickly using thick impasto, with clearly visible brush stokes. Long after the painter died a controversy broke out among the cognoscenti which centred on the painting and its meaning and set in motion a debate concerning the function of art and the nature of being which rages to this day. Philosopher, Martin Heidegger became fascinated with the painting when he saw it in an Amsterdam exhibition in 1930. As an academic he pondered long on the conundrum of "Sein und Zeit” (Being and Time) and would often refer to van Gogh‘s shoes in his lectures. To Heidegger the painting depicted more than a technical reproduction of a pair of old shoes surreptitiously found in the artists studio instead it had a deeper meaning which encapsulated the essence of the subject, i.e. the shoes of a peasant woman of that time and period. He later wrote an essay in 1936 entitled “The origin of the work of art” in which he detailed his ideas concerning van Gogh's Shoes and art. This view point was not a consensus and American art historian Meyer Schapiro among others took issue with many of Heideggers points. Her thesis was to understand the significance of the painting it was first necessary to establishing what van Gogh's intentions were in painting it. Schapiro argued the artist chose the subject to represent an abstract of senescence. According to her shoes had particular significance to the artist who chose the subject carefully to symbolise the idea of life as a pilgrimage. Schapiro was convinced the artists signature which appears in red at the top left of the painting is the title of the work: "Vincent“. In this way she believed the painting was a symbolic self portrait. The intrigue for most is whose shoes were they? Did they indeed belong to a nameless, female peasant or were they men’s boots, in which case could have been the artist’s own footwear. A contemporary of van Gogh did report he bought himself a pair of second hand peddler’s shoe at a local flea market. The artist wore them once to walk the city streets and when they got wet and were spotted with mud he discarded them to become a muse? The painter was obviously moved by shoes and paint a number of still lives with old shoes.