I didn’t expect to be moved the Van Gogh’s Bedrooms exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. Perhaps like many contemporary artists, I have an elitist aversion to the thing that “everyone” is excited about. I might even roll my eyes at the long line of people —whom I could easily label as sheep—waiting to see the latest money-making blockbuster exhibit at the Art Institute.
But during Monday morning office chatter, I learned that my co-worker Taylor had seen the exhibit over the weekend, and that my co-worker Mary really wanted to see it before it closed, and suddenly I was offering to meet Mary at 11am at the Art Institute, where we could flash my member card and breeze through the express line on the exhibit’s closing day.
Early for our meeting, I waited for Mary on a hyper-modern quadrangle sofa in the Modern Wing. Hundreds of people were pouring through the glass doors and make a beeline for the Van Gogh exhibit. Mary and I had a long wait ahead of us. I imagined myself ditching the line. Let the tourists have their Van Gogh; I’ve got to get to work on time, my imagined future-self snapped.
And yet my inner skepticism was answered by another, quieter voice: Could there be something inside those exhibit doors for me?
I could only find out by crossing the threshold. Mary arrived, and my heart lifted as she told me how much the exhibit meant to her. The line was shorter than I’d anticipated, and suddenly we had made it through the doors. I read the opening text, painted in giant sapphire letters on a golden wall:
Vincent Van Gogh was an artist who spent his life in a constant search for home.
Instantly, a wave of emotion rolled through me, for one of the most important moments in my spiritual life centers on this very question of home-seeking, of homelessness.
At the end of a meditation retreat in 2015, I approached one of the teachers for an interview. After having spent just a few minutes with me, the teacher seemed to look right through me as he said: “You look as though you long to go home somewhere.”
And so as I walked through the exhibit on Vincent Van Gogh, I was no longer looking at the works of a stranger, but the work of a kindred spirit, separated from me only by time and distance. I was no longer simply looking at “famous paintings.” I was in the midst of an intimate, tender, empathetic portrait of a human being who shared my longing for home.
Van Gogh wanted the things that all artists want: space, time, fellowship, and the inner stability that allows us to work. Like us, he sometimes felt depressed and cooped up; he took walks in the park in an attempt to lift his spirits. Like us, he longed for artistic companionship to pierce his isolation; he campaigned vigorously for Gauguin to come stay with him at his Yellow House. (Poor Van Gogh wasn’t the easiest roommate, though, with his intensity and his brokenness.) He felt homeless and untethered and restless and like a failure. He wanted to start over, and start over, and start over again.
Van Gogh “worked from home.” He painted his chair, his bedside table, his blue pitcher. These objects were filled with energy and aliveness for him. A room of one’s own. He tried to work, to live, to stay grounded and sane in spite of his poverty and his fragile mental health.
And there I was, 126 years after his death, standing in a replica of his bedroom. An artist's room. The space that is sometimes sacred, sometimes banal, often both.
Among the throngs of tourists, the hundreds of iPhones and iPads taking shitty photographs of his self-portrait, the self-guided audio tour murmuring into the ears of strangers all around me, I wept for him. In my mind, I composed a note to Vincent Van Gogh:
I am sorry it was so hard.
You’re all right now.
And by the way, you weren't crazy. You really WERE onto something.
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