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The Ultimate Selfie: A Face-off with Vincent van Gogh

20 Apr 2024 6 minute read
Portrait of the Artist, 1887, Vincent van Gogh, image by Tori Chamberlain

Tori Chamberlain

My creativity, my ability to write, has been a little blocked lately, so earlier in the week I went on an artist’s date with myself.

I do this anyway from time to time in the spirit of self-care, and healing, ever since a challenging time of life a few years ago.

I have learnt that I need to enjoy dating myself, wholly, before dating anyone else — it is an ongoing project, it seems. Perhaps one of avoidance, but that’s another story!

After a work meeting on a mid-week rainy day, I took myself to the city museum in Cardiff, and I paid £1 (bargain) to see the ultimate selfie — one of about twenty self-portraits Van Gogh painted between 1886 and 1888.

It’s on tour as part of an exhibition called Art of the Selfie. It’s said Van Gogh painted himself because he couldn’t afford to pay for models — cheaper, of course, to look in the mirror.

While being destitute is, of course, a good enough reason alone to have made this choice, surely an artist (this man) with the emotional complexities we are told of, had plenty of other reasons for wanting to study himself, and his identity, in this most intricate way.


After paying my dues, I pushed the heavy door into a surprisingly dark and quiet space. I had expected more people, and a few tight corners to navigate around other artworks, before we came face-to-face.

But no! There was no-one present, but me and the man himself positioned immediately in front of my eye-line as I walked into the room. It was like he was waiting. For who? For me?

There he was — tiny, ever so tiny, but brightly lit on an infinite black wall.

Looking Van Gogh in the eye was not dissimilar to how I imagine looking into the eye of a dolphin would be. I’ve seen dolphins in the wild a few times, but never quite close enough to share the intimate moment that so many seafarers talk of.

Strange comparison maybe, but it seems to me that both Van Gogh and dolphins hold a universe within, and here I was in front of that universe in my local museum on a wet and dreary afternoon. I had not properly prepared myself for this.

Having a few traumas under my belt means that I’ve developed the superpower of an acute sensitivity. Some people with this trait call themselves empaths, some say they are a Highly Sensitive People (HSPs).

I’m not convinced by either of those lofty titles. I have other ideas around sensitivity, which I will explore on here another time.

In this context, though, being super-sensitive is a gift I have learnt to value; and one thing us sensitive folk often do is act as a sponge for any surplus emotions littered about the place.

Obviously, this is not always healthy, and can be quite draining, but when one is around beautiful things, like works of fine art, then it can be like a psychedelic trip of sorts — not that I really know, actually — so perhaps like I imagine a psychedelic trip to be!

World of chaos

I do always find that art, nature, music, poetry, stories — especially novels, and moving my body in yoga and running can, in special moments, touch the core of me, the truth of who I am.

I can get deeply moved in the right circumstance, even though sometimes it’s a little random.

But since I was in my teens in the late 80s, walking amongst art in a gallery became a powerful emotional experience that became essential to me: my peace, my meditation, my harmony within a world of chaos that I struggled to understand.

I have explored galleries in cities all over, from London to Liverpool to many cities in the United States.

Rothko’s squares have dwarfed me. I have drowned in O’Keefe’s colours, harshly pointed at by cubist-style Picassos, and scared shitless by the horrors of Francis Bacon; and . . . and this is true — honestly — I have fallen in love with many men in front of the Pre-Raphaelites at The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.

There’s something about Pre-Raphaelite paintings that always makes me fall in love!

Today, though, when I visited Art of the Selfie at Cardiff Museum, it tore me open. I felt completely and utterly seen — a kind of nurturing, of being witnessed from the inside out.

As he looked at me and caught my eye, I felt unnerved, exposed, disarmed . . . but most of all, I felt an understanding, and I felt a compassion. I knew what he was doing, and he had caught me off-guard.

The sensations from the middle of my being rose to the surface, and I felt compelled to swear at him for making me cry in public.

Thankfully, though, I didn’t do this — I’m not sure what the security guard would have made of that display. Instead, I cried silently, and unobtrusively, and as it was half-dark in the room, the guard did not see my tears.

Blue spaghetti

I am no art historian or expert. I just know how art makes me feel when I am in the presence of extraordinary talent — the kind that evokes feeling from deep inside the colours and shapes.

I like to think I live through my senses, and I swear I could feel the sharp lines of blue around Van Gogh’s eyes hurting my eyes too. My head throbbed with the pain of the blue shards, as though glass were stuck in my right temple.

All along, I knew my time with the artist would not last, and his pain/my pain would be erased quickly, and sure enough a woman came by with her companion and expressed how the lines of the painting were just like long threads of blue spaghetti, and that was that — the moment was broken, and it was time to move on.

I soon left the museum through the revolving door in the foyer that, since I was a child, has seemed to go round, and round, and round.

I wonder if it has ever stopped. It didn’t appear to today, and when I took my turn about the door, I carried a little piece of that tragic and complicated man with me, and I added him to my inner, most sacred, collection.

Art of the Selfie is at the National Museum Cardiff, 16 March 2024 – 26 January 2025, 10am-5pm. 

Tori Chamberlain

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