Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Van Gogh and the Problem of "Integrity"

In the Van Gogh Museum I came across a famous image, "The Bedroom," (1888) which shows the artist's bedroom in Arles.  The label notes that due to Van Gogh's use of unstable paints, the colors have dramatically faded.  Here's what it looks like today:

Van Gogh, "The Bedroom,"  1888

And here is a computer reconstruction, as it might have looked, before the colors faded:

And, just for fun, here is a physical recreation of the original bedroom:

One of the most important principles of historic preservation is that a building must have "integrity," that is, it must have sufficient original materials and have sufficient original appearance to convey the building in its "era of significance." Buildings that have been altered in dramatic ways -- additions, subtractions, coverings -- can be deemed to have insufficient integrity to be historic and therefore deserve the protections (limited as they are) of the National Register status.  Our system acknowledges and celebrates architecture which can substantially reveal what the architect intended.

I wonder, then, how we think about a painting like "The Bedroom."  For a man best known for his colors, can we truly call this a Van Gogh if the colors have faded so far from what the artist intended? Should this be displayed in a Van Gogh Museum, or should it be taken down and labeled as a "compromised" Van Gogh.  Doesn't this kind of debate only highlight the fundamental problem with the notions of "integrity" and its spouse, "authenticity"?

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