Photos: A Night In The Van Gogh Airbnb, Also Known As The #VanGoghBNB
By Chicagoist_Guest in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 4, 2016 5:18PM
By Corrie Thompson
I spent the night in a painting—or tried to, anyway, in the #VanGoghBNB, as I was encouraged to call it on Instagram. It's a River North Airbnb decorated to look just like Vincent Van Gogh's The Bedroom (1889). It's also the elaborate centerpiece of a viral-marketing campaign for the Art Institute’s Van Gogh's Bedrooms—the first exhibition in North America to show the artist’s three bedroom paintings simultaneously.
Upon entering the apartment, the first thing you see isn’t the richly colored bedroom, but rather a granite and stainless steel kitchen. With an impressive view of the city, the living room is outfitted with mid-century sofas, a small flatscreen and a glass coffee table with fake sunflowers. (Sunflowers were a frequent subject of Van Gogh’s.) Above the couch hangs a neutral-toned painting, a contour of a woman’s body with her back to the viewer. The big reveal is behind a frosted sliding glass door with VAN GOGH printed across it in gigantic letters, the Airbnb logo swapped for the “A.”
I slid the door open and a hallway led into the Van Gogh bedroom, an abrupt departure from the sleek apartment. At first glance, it’s striking. The details of the second painting in Van Gogh’s bedroom series were meticulously transferred into this room: the textured brush strokes coloring nearly every surface, the slant of the furniture and the paintings on the walls.
All three works in the bedroom series depict Van Gogh’s one-time bedroom in Arles, France, in what he called the “Yellow House.” The first painting in the series embodied Van Gogh’s ideal of home, he told his brother Theo in a letter. The second was completed in September of 1889, after his friend, mentor and housemate Paul Gauguin moved out on bad terms—and after Van Gogh had checked into an asylum, having infamously left part of his ear behind. This second painting, recreated in River North, is part of the Art Institute's permanent collection.
In part due to his battle with mental illness, Van Gogh and his art have come to represent the relationship between creativity and struggle. The Art Institute’s current Van Gogh show explores this relationship, giving viewers an in-depth look at how his style, his relationships, and his mental health evolved—all in the context of his short life and search for a home. When I visited the exhibition, I was struck by his quote, “I often feel homesick for the country of paintings”—a country he apparently found in the pastoral setting of the “Yellow House.” His now-famous bedroom there provided solace at the end of his transient life.
Exploring the bedroom in person is engaging because of the attention and care that went into its creation, but does not feel, as the Airbnb page says, like “living in a painting.” And it doesn’t feel like a supplement to the show, either, though I had hoped it would. Instead, it feels like I’m solving the puzzle of what this place is. I climbed on the headboard to investigate the wall materials: painted canvas panels were nested inside of the existing room such that you could see the edges of the original walls and the whole original ceiling. A texturizing medium probably gives the paint its extra volume—the art equivalent of putting mousse in your hair. I can only guess at how many people were involved in assembling the room, painting the walls, making replica paintings to hang, designing and painting the furniture. I would have loved to be the one combing Village Thrift for the denim shirts and elastic-waisted pants fastened to hooks above the bed.
The bottles and pitchers on the table, though, look like they were a challenge. Rather than painting each detail exactly as it appears in real life, Van Gogh and his contemporaries used blurred, expressive marks—hence Impressionism. From a distance, we see the The Bedroom's gestural brush strokes as a realistic picture—and amazingly, the furniture in the Airbnb looks like it was built out of these brush strokes. Not so for the smaller objects on the bedside table, though. The paint looks superimposed on the pitchers, bottles, soap, and brush. The room still photographs magically—making perfect sense as a two-dimensional image—but it feels uncanny to walk through.
Speaking of photos, a little note is fixed to the floor in the corner of the room, at that one perfect vantage point where all the brush strokes make sense. In it, “Vincent” advises guests that this is the best place to take a selfie; he qualifies this by adding that he’s kind of a selfie expert. Touché, Art Institute marketing team.
When night falls, I lie down on the bed. It’s comfortable and smells of fresh laundry. However, surrounded by brush strokes, lying under the single yellow light bulb that competes with light spilling in from the apartment, I feel unsettled and self-conscious, like being in the bed is part of an act. Only furthering my sense of unease is the composition of the original painting—everything is askew, and lying down in it is not relaxing. I decide to sleep on the couch.
Slightly disappointed, I think of the selfie note reminding me to use #VanGoghBNB on social media, and I remember that I’m in an ad, not an extension of an art exhibition. Staying here doesn’t enrich the wealth of visual and historical information I can access at Van Gogh’s Bedrooms. And the disconnect between the overwhelming detail of the colorful bedroom and the minimalist, modern apartment keep it from feeling like anyone’s home, least of all Van Gogh’s. But these complaints are a bit beside the point of staying here.
The Airbnb is a chance to explore Van Gogh’s room as it was depicted by him. For avid fans, it’s even a chance to pretend you live there, and sleep there, and watch TV there (wild!). Though I find the idea a little funny, and a little creepy, I can't deny that the room's craftsmanship and attention to detail is truly impressive, right down to the handwritten note from my "host.” Even from the couch, I’m glad I had the chance to be here. But if you’re not lucky enough to book the $10-a-night room, don’t worry—you can understand the Van Gogh bedrooms just fine without it.
The Van Gogh Airbnb is booked through April 15; the remaining dates in the room will be made available Wednesday, and can be booked through Airbnb.
Corrie Thompson is a visual artist figuring out the post-grad life in Humboldt Park with her husband and toddler.