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Van Gogh's 'Self Portrait' comes to Los Angeles

Vincent van Gogh's,
Vincent van Gogh's, "Self-Portrait," part of the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, now now on display at the Norton Simon museum in Pasadena

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As part of an exchange with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Pasadena's Norton Simon Museum will now be showing the work of one of the greatest artists ever, Vincent van Gogh, from today until March 4, 2013.

His hauntingly compelling Self Portrait, was produced in late August 1889, less than a year before his untimely death at age 37, in July 1890.

“The words that one normally thinks of with Van Gogh are rapid movement and electrifying light, and I think that the color is something that also is sort of the calling card for van Gogh, especially at this point, at this juncture in his life,” said Chief Curator Carol Togneri, about Self Portrait.

Self Portrait comes from a time when van Gogh traveled to Paris a second time and ended up in the South of France. He became overwhelmed by the color, light, and rustic nature that encapsulated life in the south and eventually, after much pleading, convinced his friend Paul Gauguin to join him in this new movement in art.

While living and working together, the two artists viciously fought. Their conflict ultimately brought on the infamous event of van Gogh severing off his own ear. The incident led to Van Gogh’s stay in an institution in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where Self Portrait was created.

Though the work shows van Gogh with his ear intact, Togneri says the artist was likely painting himself using a mirror. In a painting prior to this, however, van Gogh painted himself with a bandage on his head. Togneri says it’s unclear as to why he decided to omit it in this instance.

“Is it a way of saying, ‘I’m on the mend?’ Is it a way of saying not only that he is perhaps healing but that he is feeling more confident as an artist himself and thus shows himself as an artist?” Togneri asked.

Throughout his 10-year career, van Gogh painted a total of 36 self portraits, but portrayed himself as an artist only three times. Togneri explained that van Gogh was actually quite obsessed with painting heads and human figures, even begging his brother Theo for money to pay models for practice.

“When he didn’t have recourse to human figures, or when he frightened them away because of his strange periodic attacks or personality, he would revert to painting himself,” said Togneri. “Or he’d paint anybody in a field that he could get to pose for a very limited amount of time. I think he paints himself because he has a certain amount of self introspection. But I also think he paints himself because he needed to have models.”

Ann Hoenigswald, of the National Gallery of Art, will give a lecture at the Norton Simon Museum in March 2013, during which she will speak about how van Gogh built up the layers on his canvas and his use of color, specifically relating to the self portait painting on exhibition.

“That’s what’s so amazing to me,” Togneri added, “is to be able to read through it and see the way his mind was working as he was conceptualizing about this.”