Do you know what happened a few months ago that made this man openly weep quietly alone in this room? Do you notice something different about this image? The first thing to note about this picture is that there are not endless people in front of the walls, why? This is the Musee D’Orsay and their post Impressionism gallery mostly filled with Van Gogh. A man I have always been drawn to over the years because of his self portrait work. The man drew over 30 of them over the years and they are amazing to look at. He had a mirror of course to see his reflection for some of them, which one should note is only the opposite way that everyone else sees you, and his own mind to create these representations of the self. Van Gogh had the power to choose to create over and over again this reflection of who he perceived himself to be in each moment of time. It’s powerful to look at, it’s not just a reflection of Van Gogh but the study of himself. More so, his self portraits started as a necessity for him to study how to paint other people’s portraits. The fact was that he was teaching himself to paint other people to make money for survival, while unbeknownst to himself, he was creating a deep and reflective series on self identity. The moment captured in this photograph was not the first time I had seen this painting, that first time was in a different room at this museum, as I cried a small tears as I stood staring at this man whom possessed many eerily similarities to myself. Red hair, a beard, and times visible wear on a mans body are just a few things that I see in myself and Van Gogh. Like all men Van Gogh had his own series of struggles in life. I too am a man filled with my own struggles.
A few years after seeing this self portrait for the first time, I came back to Paris, the city that had won my heart and this same self portrait was traveling to other museums. I was honestly torn that I could not see it again as I had found it profoundly beautiful the first time my eyes gazed upon that old colored canvas. I had never been brought to tears by a piece of canvas before in my life, but this image caused me to. I longed for that feeling again. I came back again a year later, this time with my then two and a half month old son held to my chest, and saw in person not one self portrait but a modern show representing Artaud and his writings on Van Gogh and suicide. I held my son against my chest tightly as tears rolled down my cheek, in awe of the beauty this man created, while endlessly struggling until the end of his life.
The real question though you should be asking is why was I standing alone in this gallery, alone, tears running down my cheeks staring back at a man with a relentless glare. I didn’t see myself reflected but willingly gazed into the Id of an imperfect man. I saw a human being who reflected, at times unknowingly in the beginning of his artist education at a minimum, about all those things that made him imperfect. I saw so much of myself and my own struggles I still have each day staring back at me, not alone in that moment but somehow connected to a man I would never know. I never asked myself what I was looking for, as I knew Van Gogh could not answer, and nor could I in this moment. Instead, overcome by the pure simplicity of the idea that I never will be perfect, and will only continue to have real struggles, I wept. I saw the fact in front of me that I have to look deeper into myself and to grow as an artist requiring me to push learning to the forefront of my everyday.
I wept because I was alone with Van Gogh. I couldn’t just call him Vincent of course, I never had the chance to be on a first name basis. My weeping came from what felt like an almost endless amount of emotion crashing in waves upon the shore of life in front of me. Pain and agony filled the beach.
I thought becoming a museum member to D’Orsay would allow me at least two minutes alone with him hopefully as everyone else would have to line up for tickets while I could quickly walk over to see him near steps ahead of all the tourists pouring into the building. Instead I was blown away and simply overcome with the experience that happened to me. I went over to the members entrance and presented my membership I had purchased two days earlier, yes this was the second time I had been to the museum on this trip, and entered into the building almost 15 minutes before it opened. The security kindly welcomed me into the old train station having me safely pass into this beautifully airy building. I looked on at the door ways to enter the actual museum, surprised it was me, and me alone entering. I then walked to the kind staff awaiting the museum’s opening hour to strike in a mere 10 minutes, and presented them with my membership. It was quickly scanned and faster then I could believe it I was kindly welcomed back to the museum and asked to enjoy my time there. I took that first step in, now 10 minutes before it opened, already overcome with feelings of amazement and wonder, as I was being allowed into a place that held special in my heart. Could I be alone as the only patron at that time? Yes there was plenty of security, and me. Some nobody from California alone in a museum filled with more cultural riches than any man can and should ever posses. I was floating on a cloud that can not be simply described in these words, but more importantly I collected myself and knew that I had to go see the man I was there to be with. I wanted to get to be in a room alone with Van Gogh. I walked up the stairs to the right of the entrance, knowing exactly where he rested, passing the first doorway that contained some of his work, and entered the second doorway. The security guard silently welcomed me in, camera around my side I quietly took it off, and moved to the back of the room. I wanted to see Van Gogh from as far away as I possibly could at first. Quickly overcome I knew I wanted to take a photo, mostly so I could posses a way to recall of this moment, I’ll talk about taking photos of painting some other time, but I wasn’t taking a photo of Van Gogh. I was taking a photo of an empty room, it just so happened he too was there with me. I needed this photo to become my memory palace that I could use to store all of the feeling and emotions that were happening. I put my Fuji Xpro2 up to my eye, looking through the eye cup, I made a couple adjustments and snapped a photo. I then made one more adjustment and took a second photograph. Knowingly, I then put my camera on the ground as it’s job was done I took a single step towards this man staring at me from across the room.
I later found out that as my camera’s shutter had broken three days before and I had my camera set in only jpg and these two photos would not allow me the amazing latitude of a RAW file. Thankfully I was competent enough to create a usable image. That being said after those two clicks, I put down my camera. At this time my stomach in knots as three minutes passed and me in utter shock of being here I took one step forward leaving my camera on the ground. The guard to my left was rotating out of this gallery and here I was now truly alone within this room. I looked deeply into those blue eyes as tears quickly filled my own, my chest tightened as i gasped for a breath of air and I sighed. This was far greater than the experience I was seeking. I figured I could get a minute alone if I was lucky, maybe two. Instead I was offered a solitude that dreams were made of. I could ask this man in front of me, as we were now alone, to tell me about his fears. Here I was, gifted somehow the ability to ask Vincent Van Gogh any question I could ever dream of, as there was not a soul who would think I was the crazy one asking a deadman questions. The caveat is that he refused to give up those secrets I asked for and instead chose to leave me alone with my fears inside my heart and mind. I had to stand there with all those struggles that were making me who I am today, alone with Van Gogh. But, I was alone with Van Gogh.