Van Gogh’s Famous Self-Portrait as a Photograph, or Why We Would Want to See Such a Thing

Photo Credit: Tadao Cern
Photo Credit: Tadao Cern

A friend on Facebook shared this digitally altered image of Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portrait. You can watch a short video about a part of the recreation process here.

The image is strikingly powerful. We see Van Gogh in color, in the flesh, and looking, well, human.  Art and art history are things out of my intellectual element, so I don’t really have much to say about the process of re-creating Van Gogh’s self-portrait from an artistic standpoint or art historiography, but I still have several questions. Why would we want digitally alter pieces of artwork from the past, and for what purposes? Do such re-creations give us the opportunity to better know people from the past or increase our historical knowledge of the social, economic, or political context in which such pieces of artwork were created? Do our ways of thinking somehow transcend time and space in a way that allows us to truly “know” Van Gogh?

There are no easy answers here, but I would surmise that part of the reason for such digital recreations is that some people are not satisfied with simply seeing and understanding the relics of the past as they are. They want to recreate these relics and make them better, perhaps to establish a stronger connection with the past, even if such connections rest on digital recreations that are most likely not historically accurate. It is more art than science, for sure. Earlier this week I posted a link to an article about Chinese Digital Caves and how such creations hold the possibility of enhancing the historic preservation of these endangered caves by creating a virtual environment for visitors to explore. In the subtext of the article it is stated that these “3D recreations can be even better than the real thing.” That we could digitally recreate the past in such a way to make it “better than the real thing,” whether it be caves or a Van Gogh painting, is exciting, powerful, and happening on a more frequent basis, but it could also prove to be another barrier that keeps us from understanding the past on its own terms. I’m not really sure at this point.

In attempting to find connections with the past, to think “historically,” historians have debated whether they should emphasize the sameness of our world with those of the past or whether they should emphasize our differences. In 1946, historian Robin Collingwood argued that “all history is the history of thought,” and that the possibility of transcending time and space through thought did exist. For example, when studying Julius Caesar, the historian, according to Collingwood, should be “envisioning… the situation in which Caesar stood, and thinking for himself what Caesar thought about the situation and the possible ways of dealing with it.”

Yet Sam Wineburg has pointed out that not all historians, especially those of today, think along the same lines. He references Carlo Ginzburg, who had this to say about emphasizing our differences:

The historian’s task is just the opposite of what most of us were taught to believe. He must destroy our false sense of proximity to people of the past because they come from societies very different from our own. The more we discover about these people’s mental universities, the more we should be shocked by the cultural distance that separates us from them.

Richard White, what do you think?

Any good history begins in strangeness. The past should not be comfortable. The past should not be a familiar echo of the present, for if it is familiar why revisit it? The past should be so strange that you wonder how you and people you know and love could come from such a time.

If historians are to emphasize our differences with the past in educating people about history, then it seems to me that utilizing such digital recreations in the classroom is problematic because they reflect our desires and what we want the past to look like. It is us trying to create a “familiar echo” between the past and present rather than trying to understand the past for what it was. It’s not Vincent Van Gogh in his shoes and ear, it’s Vincent Van Gogh in our shoes and ear(s). (forgive the humor)

For me, much of what I get out of history in terms of my “connectedness” with it comes from the similarities I derive from the past and how they shape our world today, and it seems that most young students are taught to think of history in this manner. If we start off in strangeness, many students will start asking the “so what” and “why should I care about this” type questions, based on my experiences in the classroom. Thinking about history they way Ginzburg and White do is something I’m not completely comfortable with, but it may be a more effective way of thinking “historically.”

Either way, I love this Van Gogh recreation for its artistic beauty. Whether or not I would use it my classroom to teach students about history is another matter entirely.



2 thoughts on “Van Gogh’s Famous Self-Portrait as a Photograph, or Why We Would Want to See Such a Thing

  1. Really interesting thoughts – had never thought about this much. I’ve wondered about this recently with black and white v. color photos too – I think B&W can have a distancing effect. Too tired to think more critically about this at the moment though!

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