Wallraff-Richartz Museum in Cologne Shows Painting by Vincent van Gogh

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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...

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