By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, April 2020
In the images and poem that comprise this evocative little book, noted photographer Ewa Monika Zebrowski and author Anne Michaels conjure up the living spirit of 19th-century Dutch Post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh’s asylum bedroom, and it is a luminous summons felt from stem to stern.
As was the case with the photographer’s earlier meditations on the work of painter Cy Twombly, twombly Italia (2015) and poet Joseph Brodsky, Remembering Brodsky (2004), Van Gogh’s Bed is a most welcome dilation on van Gogh, and the words and images interweave and generate a genuinely auratic presence. It is a book exquisite in design, presented in six parts in a box.
In the winter of 1888, Van Gogh travelled to a town in the south of France called Arles. It was there that he realised his intention of launching a “Studio of the South” where painters could live and create art in communal fashion. He settled on the so-called “Yellow House” and outfitted the room himself with simple furnishings and with examples of his own work on the walls. He notably painted his bedroom in it. He chose bright colours as a way of expressing quiet and sleep. This painting – one of three closely related versions in which only some details and colours differ -- captures the slightly askew architecture of the room (and the house) and bursts with chromatic highlights that hold and captivate a viewer’s gaze. Bedroom in Arles is one of his finest and most popular endeavours. It was also one of his personal favourites.
However, Van Gogh’s Bed refers not to this famous bedroom but one lesser known, if no less significant: his later room at a small asylum, Saint-Paul-Mausole, which is still part of a psychiatric hospital, on the outskirts of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he was admitted as a private patient in 1889, a stay funded by his brother Theo. His brother and friends considered it dangerous for him to live alone after he mutilated himself (cutting off his ear and presenting it gift wrapped to a young woman he liked in a local brothel). It was during this year of feverish activity that he produced 142 paintings.
Zebrowski says: “I first saw Van Gogh's room at the asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence in 2010. It is a room small enough to contain a restless spirit. A bed, a window, a mirror. I photographed the bed. A small iron bed in a corner.”
Eight years later, she revisited this refuge in Provence with her husband and youngest son. The experience once again had a profound effect upon her.
She says: “I was struck again by the scale of the room. A tiny room. The view from the window. The garden, the blue irises, the gnarled apple trees bent by the wind. The world outside, the world inside. Emotion contained.”
Zebrowski’s images of the asylum bedroom are like radiant ephemera that call up memory and its referent to the threshold of sight. They open the parentheses on presence and absence, remembering, forgetting -- and memorialisation.
The images Zebrowski chose seem preternaturally distilled from a wider archive. The compositions focus on the artist’s truncated bed but, more thematically, on the upper registers of the room, and our imagination is akin to a moth beating its wings against those upper casement windows, as in a dream. These are terrifically resonant images. It is as though the imagination rises up from the body and gravitates towards the incoming phantasmal light from the windows like a point of fulcrum. There is an abiding sense not of claustrophobia but of imminent escape and possible transcendence.
To call Van Gogh’s Bed talismanic is no exaggeration. Zebrowski chose with the utmost care the images and how they would work within the book, and her layout allows space for Michael’s poem to achieve full, immanent numinosity.
The smudged luminous rectangles of the windowpanes are the perfect response to Michael’s line: “we don’t know what a soul is/it could be light”. The poem by Michaels is an excavation of the heart and an invocation of love. Her liminal and charged language in this poem entitled We Don’t Know and its cascading lines dovetail beautifully, hauntingly, liminally, with Zebrowski’s dreamlike images.
The pollen-like dirty yellow of the binding invites the optic to sink within it. Yellow – the colour of sunflowers -- was Van Gogh's colour of choice throughout his Arles and Saint-Rémy period, whether en plein air or in the bedroom.
This artist is a noted photographer who has made a number of remarkable and talismanic artist’s books over the last 15 years. She was educated at Occidental College in Los Angeles where she studied English and 20th century poetry. After a 20-year career in film, she attended Concordia University in Montreal where she earned her BFA, and at UQAM where she earned her MA in Visual Arts. She wanted to be able to create her own narratives.
The artist made 20 small edition handmade books since 2001, usually in small editions of 20 copies. They are in over 50 collections worldwide: colleges, universities, museums, libraries and individual collectors.
Her books and photographs can be found in many public and private collections in Canada, the United States and abroad, including the Menil Collection, the National Poetry Library in London, Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal, American Academy in Rome, Art Gallery of Ontario, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the Center for Book Arts, New York, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Tate Britain, Stanford University, Bibliotheque Nationale de Quebec, Yale University and the National Library of Canada, to name but a few.
Her earlier book about the poet Joseph Brodsky took its inspiration from his book about Venice, Watermark, and is an interpretation of Brodsky from the standpoint of a photographer working with the temporal and place memory.
Sea of Lanterns, an earlier collaboration with Michaels, is set in Venice. Her Tenuta di Ricordi, explored Spannocchia, an ancient domain in the heart of Tuscany, a place replete in history and in memory.” These are but a few of the publications that count among worthy precursors to her Van Gogh book.
Anne Michaels is a Canadian novelist and poet of distinction. Her books are translated into more than fifty languages and have won dozens of international awards, including the Orange Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and the Lannan Award for Fiction. Among many other honours she has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, has served as Toronto’s Poet Laureate, and has been shortlisted for the Giller Prize (twice), the Governor-General’s Award, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and longlisted for the IMPAC Award (twice). Her novel Fugitive Pieces was adapted as a feature film. One of her most recent books, Railtracks, was co-written with John Berger).
Van Gogh’s Bed is Zebrowski’s fourth collaboration with Michaels. She says: “Making books brings me joy. Anne Michaels’ words represent a way of transcending the image.”
In Van Gogh’s Bed she brings a similar joy to the act of looking. WM
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.