Prisoners Exercising by Van Gogh an Analysis
Vincent Van Gogh: A Prisoner In His Own Mind
A Captive’s Painting of Prisoners
Dark brick walls rise out of the shadows, reaching toward a sky and sun that lie far out of frame in Vincent Van Gogh’s, Prisoners Exercising. Set in a small angular courtyard, the painting seems to center around a blond headed prisoner at the fore of the line. On three sides the yard is walled in, small arched windows sit high up, above the reach of any on the ground; the viewer presumably observes from a vantage point near the fourth wall. At the bottom of the endlessly high walls marches a seemingly slow and morose circle of prisoners; out for their daily activity. It is the prisoner who faces the viewer in the center of the frame upon which the eye immediately focuses. While all other characters in the painting where hats, the blonde man walks bear headed, and his gate seems to angle away from the path of the circle as though he intends to leave it. Watching the ragged procession are three gentlemen, two in top hats who appear to be speaking to one another, and another whose demeanor suggests he is reading or looking at something of interest. While the man standing off to himself is likely a guard, he seems to be wearing the uniform of one anyway; the two others in top hats likely are not. Their top hats suggest they must be of at least the upper middle class around the turn of the century. While the prisoners march, continuing on in their abysmal circle, the three observers look away with indifference. One of the men in top hats even has his back turned to part of the circle. There are two mentalities, two ways of life, juxtaposed on top of each other. On the one hand the prisoner’s grim reality immediately consists of the confined paving stones of the courtyard and one must suppose beyond this the dark interior of the prison visible through the barred windows high on the walls. On the other, the onlookers are just visiting the courtyard; they appear uninterested in the lonely walk of the men in front of them, ready to return to the larger, and for them opulent, world outside the walls holding the prisoners in. All the while, far overhead, two winged creatures flutter about. The viewer cannot tell exactly what they are, though it is likely they are butterflies or some small type of bird. They fly close together trapped like the prisoners but able to escape if only they can fly high over the walls and out of the courtyard. On the first observation of the painting, these little winged animals are easily missed but on second glance their white coloring stands out, and helps lighten the mood of the painting. The silent never ending march of the prisoners, is a sad sight layered in meaning.
What meaning is conveyed in the painting? We cannot look at the painting and take it at face value. Were we to do that, we would first see the painting in the frame and recognize it as a painting; then the question, “a painting of what,” comes to mind and simple observation gives us the answer, “prisoners marching in a courtyard watched by three other men.” This is the thingly nature of the work as Heidegger would say. Heidegger would suggest that there was a deeper, or perhaps higher, truth about the painting that was built upon simple observations of the thingliness of the work. In his essay, The Origin Of The Work Of Art, Heidegger argues that we must throw away our preconceived notions about the reality presented to us in works of art. One of his examples centers on a painting of shoes, also by Van Gogh, he says, “As long as we only imagine a pair of shoes in general, or simply look at the empty, unused shoes as they merely stand there in the picture, we shall never discover what the equipmental being of the equipment in truth is.” For Heidegger, this equipmental being is the true nature of the shoes, their daily use without notice, their reliability, the defining quality they have over the life of the wearer, these are aspects of the equipmental being of shoes and are thus the true nature of shoes as only Van Gogh’s painting could have revealed. Heidegger concludes, “The nature of art would then be this: the truth of beings setting itself to work.” So what truth can be revealed to us by observation of the Prisoners Exercising? The prisoners reluctantly march in a never ending circle, both enlivened by being outside the confines of their prison cells and melancholy, for they must march in a circle not freely about the world. The blonde man without a hat looks away from the circle, to the wider world outside the frame of the painting beyond the watchful eyes of the three observers, his step falters and he contemplates walking away. He cannot run, his thoughts are too slow for that, he can only walk because he has been marching in the circle for a long time and the life he lives in the prison doesn’t fill him with the energy he needs to run. The men in top hats are unaware of the dreary lives of those in front of them. Instead they are deep in conversation, maybe they speak of the need for a new prison, or the desire for more guards, or perhaps they think nothing of the prison at all and instead talk about the latest opera or symphony they’ve seen. The guard watches over the prisoners, disinterested in their plight; instead he looks to his hands reading or viewing something he no doubt finds far more pleasurable than watching the prisoners. And high overhead, nearly forgotten, flutter two butterflies close together maybe for safety sake. To the men below who might see them they could bring hope, life from the world beyond the walls, however most look down and none seem to notice the butterflies. Yet they remain a small symbol of hope in a bleak world. This may be the truth of the reality set before the observer in Van Gogh’s, Prisoners Exercising. But it is like Heidegger says, “It would be the worst self-deception to think that our description, as a subjective action, had first depicted everything thus and then projected it into the painting. If anything is questionable here, it is rather that we experienced too little in the neighborhood of the work and that we expressed the experience too crudely and too literally.” It is the work of art then that hold the truth and by being in proximity to it we discover that truth.
How did this revelation come to the observer though? It might be best to look here to Kant for an answer. Kant creates a system for making aesthetic judgments; this system requires the observer to become disinterested in the piece they are viewing. By disinterested Kant means that prior assumptions or impressions are left behind and the mind can wander, as it were, through the various meanings or truths put forward in a work of art. Without delving too deeply within the work of Kant, we can surmise that he requires something to engage one’s cognitive faculties as fully as possible to be aesthetically pleasing. When we look at Van Gogh’s painting and the true nature of its reality become revealed to us, necessary for it to serve Heidegger’s definition of art, this is because it is engaging our cognitive faculties. The thing itself shows us none of the afore mentioned details, these are revealed to us by the painting as it engages our minds.
The true nature of the work, sounds an awfully lot like Arthur Danto’s idea of embodied meaning. Danto says that works of art have been moving in a new direction since the advent of photography in the late nineteenth century. Before this time, the prevailing theory in art was that art should be an imitation of the reality around us, and idea based on the Platonic view of art as a shadow of doubly removed from its source. Since photography came onto the art scene however, Danto argues that works of art are created using a new theory. By this concept works are in and of themselves distinct realities, and are therefore the embodiment of that reality which they are. Would Danto’s embodied meaning be the same as Heidegger’s truth? While the two concepts are very similar there do exist differences. Danto’s idea of embodied meaning is more restricted in its interpretation than Heidegger’s truth. In his essay, The Artworld, Danto says, “There are, of course, senseless identifications.” Danto’s artistic identifications, the embodied meaning, are linked concretely to the thingly nature of the work. Heidegger’s notion of the truth that appears in works of art is less concretely bound to external reality. Rather the truth that appears in the work relies on an engagement with Kant’s cognitive faculties. At this point the truth revealed to the observer becomes much more subjective than Danto’s identifications can be. How can truth be subjective though?
In fact the observer see’s only on portion of the whole truth of the thing. Like Heidegger says, “It is rather that we experienced too little in the neighborhood of the work.” Multiple interpretations of the work reveal more and more of the work’s true nature. This concept is in line with Umberto Eco’s idea of the open work. Eco posits three theories about open works, “ (1) “open” works, insofar as they are in movement , are characterized by the invitation to make the work together with the author and that (2) on a wider level…there exist works which,….are “open” to a continuous generation of internal relations which the addressee must uncover and select in his act of perceiving the totality of incoming stimuli. (3) Every work of art, even though it is produced by following an explicit or implicit poetics of necessity, is effectively open to a virtually unlimited range of possible readings.” In other words as an observer, or group of observers, views the painting, Prisoners Exercising, multiple times, they will interpret its meaning, its truth, what it says about reality or what reality it creates for itself differently time and time again. The interpretation of the painting is in constant movement as the culture of those viewing it changes and their understanding of the context in which it was painted varies. By this train of thought we may postulate that the blonde man without a hat is Van Gogh himself. And that the narrow walls of the courtyard hold him in, indicative of a claustrophobic fear of life itself. He wishes to be free of the madness in his own mind that eventually led him to cut off one ear; for this reason he tries to break from the self-destructive circle of thoughts in his mind and looks out of the yard to a life without depression. All the while, the rich and bourgeois gentlemen stand to the side watching his plight, happy in their own existence and indifferent to the suffering of others a common attitude of the upper class during Vincent’s time. None of this can be derived from the painting itself, not the thing, only from a greater acquaintance and understanding of it can we understand the truth it conveys.
Our understanding of art and taste are in constant motion, just as Eco’s open work. We know this much, art is more than just the picture in its frame, the words on their page, or the notes on the sheet music. It lies on top of those things, and relies on us to see it. We must seek to find the meaning or truth in art by engaging it with our minds as fully as possible. Only through multiple observations and communication with others can we combine our subjective interpretations into a universally true understanding of the work of art.
1. Heidegger, Martin: “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1936) (photocopy)
2. Kant, Immanuel: A Critique of Judgment (1790)
3. Danto, Arthur, “The Artworld” (1964)
4. ECO, Umberto, “The Poetics of the Open Work,” from The Open Work (1962) (photocopy)
5. Van Gogh, Vincent. Prisoners Exercising. (1890)