Van Gogh’s Shoes

Everybody seems to know about Van Gogh’s ear.  Tragic. Bloody.  Slightly comic.  And a shame.

It’s not something he would have liked.  That story isn’t a true portrait of the man.  Deeply ill, struggling in the morass of a mind that refused at times to rein itself in, his act of disfigurement and the world’s continuous harping on it is as unfair a picture of him as if you, the reader, were caught on film, vomiting, the last time you were seriously ill.  It’s not fair.  You were sick.  That’s not YOU.

What images, after all, best describe a person.  Not THAT. No. But surely, a portrait.  Van Gogh had many: his own face, a favorite flower, the house where he lived, the room where he slept.   But of all the paintings that he brought so eagerly into the world, it’s the shoes that affect me the most.

Beautiful brown beleagured boots. “A Pair of Boots, 1887”, “A Pair of Shoes, 1885”and “Three Pairs of Shoes, 1886” . Painted as if they’d just been taken off and tossed into a corner.  Every crack in the leather earned from tramping through the streets or the fields.  His last painting of shoes and the only one at Arles was “Shoes, 1888”.  The painting rests now at The Met.  They probably weren’t his shoes  (most likely there were those of the peasant Patience Escalier) but they sit on the tiles of the yellow house at Arles where Van Gogh lived and first began struggling with the outer manifestations of his illness.  These homey cracked shoes are an especially poignant portrait of an artist who was, beneath it all, a good, kind man.

We bring our own associations to the painting we see.  No painting can ever be seen in isolation.  The artist can tweak and change that vision, but we can not escape from our humanity and we view each piece through our own lens distorted by our past. 

Those shoes . . . they resemble the ones my uncle wore.  He, too, was mentally ill.  He lived into his sixties, but he struggled his whole life with schizophrenia.  He, too, was a gentle, unworldly, intellectual person who would not have liked to be remembered for his moments of confusion, but instead, perhaps, for a picture I have of him on a boat as a young man, long before he had gotten sick. 

He and a buddy had gone on an extensive and hazardous sailing trip into the Caribbean.  They returned intact.  Someone on the shore had snapped a picture.  And there they stand, two young men who look as if they had gathered the world, held it, and released it again.

“If you love something, let it . . . ”

There are, after all, landscapes to be painted while wearing worn and weathered shoes.

And if living outside the boundaries of a photograph or a painting is a little uglier than the pictures may imply, at least there remain portraits unsullied by the pain and confusion that will come later . . .

1 Comment »

  1. Paige Said:

    Greetings from the Pipsquek! I love Mama Squek! We mice, who lived in those particular shoes, are pleased to hear about their fame! Because if it’s in Mama Squek’s blog than, and only than are they TRUELY famous. This Met place has NOTHING on you, Mama! Thundersquek, my brother used to eat all the crumbs when we lived there! How did you let him do that! If I didn’t know better I would say he was a… a guinea pig! Oh well, bygones be bygones and all! But geesh!

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