I did a dozen landscapes too, frankly green frankly blue.

It is a sensation I have had a few times in museums while looking at van Gogh’s paintings—“Haven’t I seen this one somewhere else before?” Now, at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the sensation is unpacked in an exhibit exploring the artist’s complex practices of duplication across subjects and works. Van Gogh calls these his “repetitions.” Here are paired drawings, etchings, oils. Here are X-radiographic images, provided by curators in an attempt to decipher the artist’s evolving methods of reproduction. It turns out that the singular is multiple. That it is possible to stand in front of “La Berceuse”—the well-known portrait of Augustine Roulin, with her pumpkin-colored hair, rocking her off-stage cradle—in Chicago, New York, Boston, Amsterdam, and Otterlo. Here, in Cleveland, are two of them side by side, a marvel of likeness and difference. It is hard not to do a continuous cross-check, moving back and forth along the nearly identical lines of the sitter’s dress, her pensive face, the bluish interior of her cuff. The affinities between the two paintings weigh heavily against their distinctions, making a kind of quarry of the latter: “Oh, the stone in her ring is gone. The dahlias are less dahlia-like.” The play between alternating tones of green—olive to jade, loden to aqua—gives a little of the flickering consciousness of a two-way lamp switched back and forth between its settings. 

 

He kept himself too stiff when posing, which is why I painted him twice, the second time at a single sitting.

One after another hang four of six existing oil portraits of the Postman Joseph Roulin, Augustine’s husband and van Gogh’s friend and drinking companion in Arles. How odd to feel the strain of varied sameness normally associated with printmaking: Warhol’s Marilyns come to mind, or Chuck Close’s serial self-portraits. The four paintings are unnervingly consistent bust-level views of the man in his official blue cap and double-breasted coat with brass buttons. The canvases are similar in size. Much of the variation lies in the nature and hue of brushstrokes, in the handling of backgrounds—some solid, some crowded with floral motifs—and in the “broken tones in the face,” as van Gogh put it. Is there another case in the history of art in which the subject of a man’s beard becomes as thoroughly involving? Why is it so thrilling to see the artist’s several attempts to capture the precise texture, color, and otherwise unnamable “feeling” produced by his subject’s abundant facial hair? Why does it matter? Somehow it mattered to him. It seems to arrive, in its graphic thickets and coils, from the specific business of a quest to represent a beard, but like what? A clipped hedge? No, a storm-rent hedge. A glossy scrolling pelt. A galactic reverie. 

Ultimately, the ostensible reasons that van Gogh produced many versions of the same work—to perfect a composition, to give copies to his models and close friends, to rectify the problem of a too-self-conscious sitter—seem to give way to the potency of their very closeness, the fact that they both match and do not match along so many observable, sometimes barely observable, coordinates. In writing of the work of sixteenth century court painter, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Roland Barthes describes the proximate shapes that mark the artist’s famous composite heads—faces made of vegetables, game birds, flowers—as the source of their uncanny power, the wily substitution of fish teeth for human teeth, for example, in his “Water” allegory—recognizing that “this slight imbalance produces the strongest of alienations.” Is there something similar going on in van Gogh’s postmen? The shock they produce, at a lower wattage perhaps than Arcimboldo’s concatenations, bears traces of the grotesque, of the wild reassembly of parts isolated, studied, troubled over—that strangely reddened ear, that azure infiltration through the beard. Their joint mystery seems to lie in what the artist chose, consciously or not, to track closely—and what to veer off from, slight shifts of the sitter’s gaze, of the angle or depth of the shadow of the cap’s brim, of the cast of the uniform’s fabric or the size and direction of the flocked brush-marks that compose it. Perhaps we are confronted with the essential hiddenness of portraiture itself, its duplicity, what it purports to be in its bid to be “lifelike” and what it ultimately becomes, a wonder, a disturbance, “off-handedly,” to borrow Barthes’s term, despite this. Will the real Joseph Roulin please come forward? 

 

It is color not locally true from the point of view of the delusive realist, but color suggesting some emotion of an ardent temperament.

A “delusive realism.” Van Gogh chooses this contradictory term no doubt as a foil for another kind of realism he is trying to arrive at in his paintings, one that can describe and capture the “actual radiance” of people and things, of stars and harvesters. In a way, there is no boundary for him between pigment and feeling, emotion and contour, “matters” of spirit and of molecules. To think that there is, is to be delusional, divided against oneself, broken. Though there is yet no consensus on how he accomplished them (using a perspective frame? charcoal tracing? nothing at all?), the organizers of the Cleveland show hope that these repetitions, their expressionistic subtleties and technically brilliant alignments, speak to the artist’s mastery, his deliberateness and control, and will thus offset the received image of his painting in the grip of despondence or else in a manic fervor at the easel. The assembled works support the curatorial argument; but they also chart, once and again, the fertile pathways among the forces and obduracies of “ardent temperament.”

 
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