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Wallraff-Richartz Museum in Cologne Shows Painting by Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh, Ein Paar Schuhe, 1886, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

COLOGNE.- Battered, shapeless, down-at-the-heel – that’s the appearance of the most hotly discussed shoes in art history: a pair of black boots that Vincent van Gogh painted in 1886 in Paris – without ever suspecting the heat of the philosophical debate he was about to trigger. To this day, philosophers and art historians look at this painting and argue over the function of art, the value of interpretation and the nature of existence. It all began in 1936 when Martin Heidegger saw the painting in Amsterdam and wrote an essay entitled “The Origin of the Artwork”. Over the following years, scholars and thinkers such as Meyer Schapiro, Jacques Derrida, Ian Shaw and Stephen Melville have expressed their views on van Gogh’s shoes. The Wallraf brings the painting from the Van Gogh Museum to Cologne to open up this fascinating scholarly inquiry to all and everyone.

1886, Paris. Vincent van Gogh had just moved to the French capital city. He is 33 years old, hoping to become part of the avant-garde art scene. To begin with, he studied at the studio of Fernand Cormon, a well-known painter at that time. However, van Gogh painted the work you can see at home, in his own studio in Montmartre. It shows (kleine Spannungspause) – a pair of old, worn shoes.

When Vincent showed his fellow students the picture, their comment was "bizarre“. Was this something to decorate the wall of a dining room? Absurd!

Why did van Gogh decide to paint this earthy everyday subject? He never explained it himself. For many art historians, this work is just a study. That would certainly be feasible. After all, Van Gogh was experimenting with colours. Taking the shoes as his subject certainly allowed him to work with brown colour tones. In this painting, he has interspersed the brown with green and crème coloured accents. The oil paint was applied quickly and in thick impasto, almost coarsely, with clearly visible brush stokes.

But the small painting seems to have a far deeper meaning. Nearly 50 years after it was painted – when van Gogh was long dead – a dispute broke out between philosophers and art historians that still continues today and is all about the really big issues for example, what is the function of art and the nature of being. And we'd like to give you an outline of this dispute.

The first to enter the arena was no lesser figure than the philosopher MARTIN HEIDEGGER. He saw the painting in an exhibition of van Gogh's works in 1930 in Amsterdam. It made a deep impression on him. Five years later, he gave a lecture at the University of Freiburg on art, building on the ideas in his main work "Sein und Zeit“ – Being and Time. In the lecture, he took van Gogh's painting Shoes as an example to explain what the essence or an art work is and also what it isn't:

" […] But then is it out opinion that this painting by Van Gogh depicts a pair of peasant shoes somewhere at hand, and is a work of art because it does so successfully? Is it our opinion that the painting draws a likeness from something actual and transposes it into a product of artistic .... production? By no means.

The work, therefore, is not the reproduction of some particular entity that happens to be at hand at any given time; it is, on the contrary, the reproduction of the things' general essence.“

When we use objects in everyday life, we can recognise their serviceability, but their essence, which Heidegger also referred to as the "thingness of things“, remains hidden to us. However, it is revealed in an art work. A work of art may be a thing among other things, yet is it also a thing of use – a Gebrauchsding – and not just "equipment“ or "Zeug", in Heidegger's terms. Instead, it is precisely the functionlessness of a work of art that reveals the hidden essence of truth. At least, Heidegger believed that by looking at van Gogh's Shoes, he experienced the essence of the shoes of a peasant woman. Heidegger wrote:

"From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the […] ever-uniform furrows of the field […] This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death.[…]

But perhaps it is only in the picture that we notice all this about the shoes. The peasant woman, on the other hand, simply wears them. . […]

The equipment quality of equipment was discovered […], but only by bringing ourselves before van Gogh’s painting. This painting spoke. In the vicinity of the work we were suddenly somewhere else than we usually tend to be.“

Heidegger published his ideas on van Gogh's Shoes and art in an essay entitled "The Origin of the Work of Art“. In 1964, that essay appeared in an English translation – and prompted the American art historian MEYER SCHAPIRO to question Heiddeger's reading of the painting.

Schapiro put forward the thesis that we can only understand the significance of the painting by establishing what van Gogh's intentions were in painting it. Heidegger's approach was certainly emotional and moving, but otherwise it is an "error", a "fanciful description" that is "not sustained by the picture itself “. Heidegger has projected into the work his own ideas of "the primordial and earthy“. According to Schapiro, the problem begins when Heidegger claims these are the shoes of a peasant woman – a claim Schapiro rejects:

"They are the shoes of the artist, by that time a man of the town and city. “

According to Schapiro, van Gogh was attracted by the personal nature of the shoes, the individual form they had acquired from being worn:

"His own shoes he has isolated on the floor and he has rendered them as if facing us, and so individual and wrinkled in appearance that we can speak of them as veridical portraits of aging shoes.“

For van Gogh, who went barefoot for most of his life, shoes had a particular significance. They symbolised the idea of life as a pilgrimage. In Schapiro's view, in panting this portrait of his shoes van Gogh has simultaneously created a symbolic portrait of himself. For Schapiro, the signature at the top left of the painting, clearly standing out in red paint, is also the title of the work: "Vincent“.

The fact that van Gogh may not have actually walked that much in these shoes cannot shake Schapiro's interpretation. After all, They may be the shoes reported by François Gauzi, a fellow student, who noted:

"At the flea market, [ Vincent…] had bought an old pair of clumsy, bulky shoes-peddler’s shoes- but clean and freshly shined. They were fine old clonkers, but unexceptional. He put them on one afternoon when it rained and went for a walk along the old city walls. Spotted with mud, they had become interesting. […] Vincent faithfully copied his pair of shoes.“

Let's just take a moment to review. As far as Heidegger is concerned, the painting expresses a special truth normally hidden to us in everyday life; Schapiro, however, reads the work as a symbolic self-portrait of the artist. But they both agree on one thing – both think it's important to know who the shoes originally belonged to. A peasant woman – says Heidegger. No, says, art historian Meyer Schapiro the shoes belonged to a man in the city, namely van Gogh himself.

And now, enter the third figure in this dispute – the French philosopher JACQUES DERRIDA. He takes issue with both positions, rejecting the dichotomy of city or countryside, man or woman. Instead, Derrida argues that such pairs of opposites form the structure in all western thought. His aim is bring down that structure – or as he terms it, to deconstruct it. He responds to the dialogue between Heidegger and Schapiro with a polylogue, an interlacing mode of discussion with many voices. The voices discuss the texts by Heidegger und Schapiro and, while they do, they carefully observe the painting. In this process, certainties seem to disappear, doubts arise: Is it really a pair of shoes at all? Is it a pair and not just a couple of shoes? Is it really a right and a left shoe? Derrida notes:

"- I find this pair, if I may say so, gauche. Through and through. Look at the details, the inside lateral surface; you'd think it was two left feet. Of different shoes. And the more I look at them, the more they look at me, the less they look like an old pair. More like an old couple. Is that the same?“

One shoe appears to be longer and has a raised heel, while the other is flat. And then there are the laces –on one shoe, the lace appears to be threaded through parallel eyelets, while the other lace winds back and forth around studs on the outside of the shoe, as if it was a boot. In every detail, it seems as if van Gogh has presented us with an unresolved puzzle. It's amazing, Derrida says, that Heidegger and Schapiro could erect such grand edifices of interpretation on such obviously shaky ground. Both have projected themselves into the painting and taken contrary positions. For Derrida, the reason why Schapiro takes issue with Heidegger's position so vehemently can best be understood by Schapiro's own background – as a European Jewish immigrant to New York, he was reacting to a recognized German philosopher who had been publicly criticised for his pre-war membership of the Nazi party.

And what do we learn from all this? Wouldn't it be better to stop talking about the picture and only look at it? Later in life, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo: "I almost think that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words.“ And precisely for that reason, we think it's worth while talking about his pictures. The more one talks about a picture, the more it will say.

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