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Van Gogh’s bedroom and Sara Berman’s closet

by Jenna Weissman Joselit on April 3rd, 2016

Two of the most fascinating, enriching exhibitions I’ve encountered of late have to do with the appurtenances of domesticity. One, a blockbuster at the grand Art Institute of Chicago, focuses on the three paintings Van Gogh made of his bedroom in the yellow house at Arles. The other, a decidedly modest affair at the post-modern Tribeca-based cultural institution known as Mmuseumm, is a recreation by artist Maira Kalman of her late mother’s closet.

Van Gogh's bedroom. Source/Art Institute of Chicago

Van Gogh’s bedroom. Source/Art Institute of Chicago

Though they share a common theme — domestic, private space — the two exhibitions couldn’t be more different from one another. The Chicago show, which leisurely unfolds over the course of one high-ceilinged gallery after another, brings to bear all of the museum’s interpretive muscle, chronicling and interpreting the three versions of the sparely furnished, narrow little room where Van Gogh laid his head. The Mmuseumm’s teeny, 5 foot by 4 foot installation is tucked away in a grungy, downtown New York City alley. It’s filled with an array of neatly folded sweaters, carefully arranged shoes and other personal objects that once belonged to Sara Berman, Ms. Kalman’s mother.

Scale isn’t the only thing that distinguishes one exhibition from another. So, too, does color. In “Sarah Berman’s Closet,” everything is in white, the color that its eponymous owner fancied to the exclusion of all else. The Van Gogh show, in contrast, is awash in color: in various shades of green and yellows, reds and blues. What’s more, a brief film in which the museum’s conservation staff enthusiastically discusses how it researched the pigments Van Gogh used is among the exhibition’s highlights.

There’s more. The Van Gogh show draws on all the latest bells and whistles to deepen its visitors’ understanding of the artistic process. I’m not a fan of digital interventions or mediations, but I found downright thrilling, even inspiring, the artful and sophisticated ways in which the Art Institute of Chicago made use of the latest technology to reveal the differences in palette and brush stroke among the three paintings, differences not readily apparent to the naked eye.

Sarah Berman’s “Closet,” in striking contrast, is an immediate and as unmediated an experience as can be: What you see is what you see. The other evening, at a talk at the Jewish Museum, Alex Kalman, Maira’s son and the co-founder and director of Mmuseumm, put it this way: In a world where virtually everything is a simulacrum of something else, an encounter with real objects and real people in real time is a necessary corrective.

For all their manifest and considerable differences, both exhibitions are bound by a shared fidelity to the little things in life. Each in its own way makes clear why people as diverse as Van Gogh and Sarah Berman found meaning in the mundane.

And so should we.

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