The Curious Case of Dr. Gachet


At the astute recommendation of Tom Sparrow, I've been reading "Everyday Aesthetics", by Yuriko Saito. Here's how the book begins: "Often defined as the philosophy of art, aesthetics, at least in its Modern Western formulation, is predominated by examinations of art." Contra this aesthetic tradition, Saito attempts to develop an appreciation of art in which emphasis is placed outside the museum, outside the frame of representation. From Henri Cartier Bresson to Robert Smithson, Saito tries to ground aesthetics in the everyday.

In a discussion of the "permissibility of modification", or rather, in our willingness to engage with perceived non-art objects, while maintaining a distance and respect of the artist's intentions for "art" proper, Saito elucidates the curious case of Dr. Gachet.

The Portrait of Dr. Gachet was completed in June of 1890, in Auvers-sur-Oise, outside of Paris. Two copies of the painting, which depict Dr. Gachet in thoughtful repose, resting his wavering head upon his clenched fist, are known to have been in existence.


Worthy of pursuit, each of these paintings has a rich and interesting story and lineage, both of which would make marvelous stories. Here, however, we'll focus on the first portrait, which Cynthia Saltzman wrote a full length account of. As an important aside, the second portrait was reportedly painted by Dr. Gachet himself, and now sits in the d'Orsay. Note the wilted flowers...

Continuing on, Saito notes, "We normally respect the integrity of a work of art and give it precedence over possible aesthetic improvement. And this respect often seems to override the legality of the case because we seem to restrict even what the legitmate creator or owner of a work of art can do with his/her creation or property."

Then, she cites Ryoei Saito, the Japanese industrialist who wished to be cremated with The Portrait of Dr. Gachet. The rightful owner of the piece, Saito purchased it for $82.5 million at Christie's, in 1990 - making it, at the time, the most expensive painting ever sold. Keep in mind, this is the first portrait, the one 'authenticated' as a Van Gogh.

Of course, international outrage ensued upon the announcement of his wishes to burn the painting, which he later decried was merely spoken in jest. And yet, since his death in 1996, the painting has disappeared from public view. Some claim The Portrait of Dr. Gachet wound up in the hands of an art collector in Switzerland. Others say it's in New York.

For all intention purposes, there is no official record of the whereabouts of the painting, nor a confirmation of its actual existence, which leads to a number of curious lines of inquiry, and a plethora of historical, and 'aesthetic' references, not least of which is the recent work of Jake and Dinos Chapman, wherein they "deface" Goya paintings.


What is our responsibility to these pieces? What are the "aesthetic" conditions in which we think through our relationship towards and with "art"? What are our limitations in engaging with "art works": handling, modifying, and ultimately changing the work? Take, for instance, the second portrait of Dr. Gachet. What exactly is at work here?

Yuriko Saito explores these, and other questions with rigor, candor and beauty. A perfect conclusion to this post could only be inscribed by Robert Rauschenberg, with his Erased De Kooning Drawings. Here's Rauschenberg. "I figured it out, it had to begin as art..."