Lesley Chamberlain: Walking in Van Gogh’s footsteps

Jana Bohlmann

Lesley Chamberlain

Lesley Chamberlain

Vincent Van Gogh is most famous for his expressionistic visions of natural beauty, like Starry Nights or Sunflowers. However, alongside his portraits of fellow artists and images of bowls of flowers, Van Gogh also liked painting shoes. Boots with Laces was the most controversial of his shoe series – even the eminent philosophers Jacques Derrida and Martin Heidegger have argued the meaning of this humble image.

The painting shows a pair of old, worn out work boots on a light, almost golden background. Van Gogh created the oil on canvas shortly after he arrived in Paris in 1886. Lesley Chamberlain, was taken with the simple image and the British author began to wonder why Van Gogh painted these shoes and why he painted them the way he did. On Thursday, Ms Chamberlain spoke about her book, A Shoe Story, and her search for meaning, on the Curiosity Stage.

“I first saw this painting in London in 2000 when it was lent from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to the National Gallery in London and I knew that there was a lot of controversy behind it, so I thought that I would like to investigate that,” she said.

Her goal was to pursue the meaning of the painting. She boarded a train from London to the Borinage, near Mons in Belgium, which during the 18th Century was a mining area. There Van Gogh had spent several years living with and painting the miners. And there, Ms Chamberlain journey toward understanding Boots with Laces began.

Her research began with the early life of Van Gogh, which was influenced by the Protestant beliefs of his father, which he struggled with. The young painter fought with the contradiction of actual life and the suffering of people; indeed, it was the suffering of the miners in the Borinage that drew him there. Shortly before he arrived, there had been a terrible mining accident, which claimed many lives. “There is a theory, that the kind of yellow light behind the boots reflects that mining accident, because there was a lot of chromium yellow that was exposed by the disaster,” Ms Chamberlain said. “Van Gogh was tremendously influenced by Rembrandt and I think there might be some Rembrandt lightning behind the shoes, but it might also be the light from a miner’s oil lamp.”

The next stop for Van Gogh was Paris. There, his style of painting began to change and mature, and he also became acquainted with the Parisian middle class. However, his painting of the worn out shoes that look as if they just dropped on the floor remained in the earlier style he employed in Belgium and Holland.

There have been different theories about this simple yet enigmatic work. One says that Van Gogh bought the boots at a flea market in Paris; they didn’t fit so he painted them. Ms Chamberlain disagrees with this theory. She believes these boots are a pair of working boots and have been worn by someone who is working on fields in rural surroundings, and that Van Gogh was looking back at his time in the Borinage. To her “it is a painting about the working life”.

Several philosophers have argued about it in the past. During her research, Ms Chamberlain read the varying theories of Heidegger and Derrida as well as American art critic Meyer Schapiro, who all have different ideas about whose shoes are in the painting.

After her travels, Ms Chamberlain decided to see the painting again. “I queued for three hours to get into the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I was queueing in the rain and I read a book by Derrida and very nice people were standing next to me and said: ‘We’ve only got one umbrella, so we put it over the book, shall we?’ ”

The audience laughed at her story, and laughed even harder when she went on: “So I finally got in and I knew the painting was on the second floor and I got there and then there was a gap. It was not there. It had gone to be part of an exhibition in Germany.”

So there in Amsterdam, Ms Chamberlain’s search for the meaning of an old pair of shoes ended. Before she finished her talk though, she made one last point: “Despite all the criticism, the work of art survives. It doesn’t care what people say about it.”