Vincent van Gogh’s Prisoners Exercising: expressionism at its most despondent
The Dutch master depicts his fragile state of mind, trapped and unable to escape routine
Vincent van Gogh’s Prisoners Exercising, 1890 (detail, full image below). Photograph: © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
This 1890 work needs little explanation. Painted while Van Gogh was heavily depressed and in an asylum in Saint-Rémy, it is expressionism at its most downcast.
The circular trudge of the watched-over men so perfectly captures the mental rat runs the artist felt trapped in; you can almost hear the shuffle-thump of those boots.
It is directly inspired by a depiction of Newgate exercise yard by one of Van Gogh’s favourite artists, the London-based print-maker Gustave Doré, who recreated the city with a Dickensian sweep in the collection London: A Pilgrimage.
Doré’s black and white engraving plunges the men into shadow at the bottom of seemingly endless walls, with white sunlight anointing their heads. In Van Gogh’s version, the blues and golds blaze and pulse. Is it redemption or the intense feelings of mental illness?
The central figure with Van Gogh’s red hair raises his head to reveal a sickly, green-tinged face.
Photograph: © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
There is little doubt about the significance of this painting that was done in February 1890, at a particularly troubled time in Van Gogh’s life. He was severely depressed and desperate to leave the stultifying environs of the asylum at Saint-Remy, but it had been decided that he would not be fit to cope alone until the spring. His feelings of being physically trapped, and mentally caught in a perpetual cycle of mental illness beyond his control are clearly evident.
Prisoners Exercising was actually made after a print of Newgate Prison in London by Dore, whose work Van Gogh had admired for some years. Van Gogh had begun to collect graphic illustrations from magazines in the early 1880s, and added prints of Doumier, Paul Gavami (1804-66) and Dore to his collection. He then referred to these works in later years (as well as multiple prints of Millet’s paintings), often making several copies of a single image. The prints were in block and white, so Van Gogh improvised with the color, and gave the paintings his own visual interpretation,
We cannot look at the painting and take it at face value. Were we to do that, we would first see the painting in the frame and recognize it as a painting; then the question, “a painting of what,” comes to mind and simple observation gives us the answer, “prisoners marching in a courtyard watched by three other men.” This is the thingly nature of the work as Heidegger would say. Heidegger would suggest that there was a deeper, or perhaps higher, truth about the painting that was built upon simple observations of the thingliness of the work. In his essay, The Origin Of The Work Of Art, Heidegger argues that we must throw away our preconceived notions about the reality presented to us in works of art. One of his examples centers on a painting of shoes, also by Van Gogh, he says, “As long as we only imagine a pair of shoes in general, or simply look at the empty, unused shoes as they merely stand there in the picture, we shall never discover what the equipmental being of the equipment in truth is.” For Heidegger, this equipmental being is the true nature of the shoes, their daily use without notice, their reliability, the defining quality they have over the life of the wearer, these are aspects of the equipmental being of shoes and are thus the true nature of shoes as only Van Gogh’s painting could have revealed. Heidegger concludes, “The nature of art would then be this: the truth of beings setting itself to work.” So what truth can be revealed to us by observation of the Prisoners Exercising? The prisoners reluctantly march in a never ending circle, both enlivened by being outside the confines of their prison cells and melancholy, for they must march in a circle not freely about the world. The blonde man without a hat looks away from the circle, to the wider world outside the frame of the painting beyond the watchful eyes of the three observers, his step falters and he contemplates walking away. He cannot run, his thoughts are too slow for that, he can only walk because he has been marching in the circle for a long time and the life he lives in the prison doesn’t fill him with the energy he needs to run. The men in top hats are unaware of the dreary lives of those in front of them. Instead they are deep in conversation, maybe they speak of the need for a new prison, or the desire for more guards, or perhaps they think nothing of the prison at all and instead talk about the latest opera or symphony they’ve seen. The guard watches over the prisoners, disinterested in their plight; instead he looks to his hands reading or viewing something he no doubt finds far more pleasurable than watching the prisoners. And high overhead, nearly forgotten, flutter two butterflies close together maybe for safety sake. To the men below who might see them they could bring hope, life from the world beyond the walls, however most look down and none seem to notice the butterflies. Yet they remain a small symbol of hope in a bleak world. This may be the truth of the reality set before the observer in Van Gogh’s, Prisoners Exercising. But it is like Heidegger says, “It would be the worst self-deception to think that our description, as a subjective action, had first depicted everything thus and then projected it into the painting. If anything is questionable here, it is rather that we experienced too little in the neighborhood of the work and that we expressed the experience too crudely and too literally.” It is the work of art then that hold the truth and by being in proximity to it we discover that truth.
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