Oil on canvas, 1887 by Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)
Would the mighty Roman empire have risen if it were not for the fact that Roman soldiers were so well shod in comparison to those they conquered? Nowadays in the world of active virtue-signalling and political correctness, the word ‘empire’ connotes a malignant entity, born of patriarchal enterprise, drenched in power and subjugation. From the concept of ‘empire’ arises a dichotomous truism: where power is exerted, suppression results. Empire effects the polarity evident when intention breeds consequence. Without a marching army, however, without a band of troops actively on the move, the imperial project immediately flounders. This, one might argue, is a positive, except that without the capital of empire to extoll status, art has virtually no currency. Empire funds art and the empowered feed artists. It is largely a romantic myth that great art arises from hardship and the aimless despair which is the attitude of the listlessly unambitious: witness the Dark Ages. A soldier’s boots are consequently more militant than the weaponry clasped in hand, and yet also the vital catalyst in the genesis of most artistic expression. Hence a set of paradoxes emerge: from violence, beauty originates; from wanton destruction comes profundity, transience, a coalescence of the sublime. So cognisant is the military mind of the power vested in the boot, a soldier in the muddied wastelands of WWI who was found to be neglectful of the state of his footwear was court-marshalled long before any infringement concerning his munitions or uniform. A lack of proper footwear equalled Trench Foot. Soldiers with rotting feet were not advancing anywhere any time soon: a military campaign stripped of forward mobility is possibly the very definition of nonsensical.
Within the strictures of the imperial paradigm, commerce proliferates which results in the industrial state. Industriousness generates revenue and income. But how effective is labour in conducting trade if the feet are not amply protected or padded? What becomes of productivity? The humble labourer who toils the fields, who trails the roughcast floor of the factory, who commutes from home to work and back again is eventually rendered virtually paralysed without a good pair of shoes to aid his work. Shoes are the human’s wheels of industry. Shoes are also emblematic of man’s fragility; the need for their existence signals his comparative weakness in the hierarchy of his animal brethren, while at the same time serving to buffer his vanity. We take shoes for granted, but are quite possibly nothing or would be no one without them. Our best inventions only camouflage our limitations. The most dependable shoes are made from animal leather. We skin hardier animals than ourselves and wrap their dried hides around our thin-skinned, nerve-clotted feet just so we can get by, in itself a confession that our animal status is ultimately negligible. For the sake of cementing irony, our feet are, aptly, our Achilles’ heel too.
Philosophers Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida wrote comprehensively about the philosophy of footwear, but they also cited van Gogh’s series of still life paintings of shoes (five separate depictions in total) as evidence of the centrality they play in our lives. Derrida, in his 1978 essay, Restitutions of the Truth in Pointure, dissected van Gogh’s obsession with shoes and hit upon the observation that choosing to paint a pair (or pairs as is the case here) of shoes without a pair of feet wearing them was in itself the basis of a neat philosophical dictum. He wrote, “From then on, if these shoes are no longer useful, it is of course because they are detached from naked feet and from their subject of reattachment (their owner, usual holder, the one who wears them and whom they bear) …” His point relates to the nature of the agency of an object which one would assume to be absent when not being deployed, but which actually resonates regardless, as Jean-Paul Sartre established earlier in his arguments in positing existentialism, because they contain a fundamental essence. The essence of a shoe is that it carries, it transports, it bears load to; it is an enabling device within the constituency of a lived-life and therefore is never wholly absent of that essence, even when, as depicted here, they are lying unworn and idle. A knife is fundamentally never simply an object; it is an object in the service of, and therefore an extension of, a life.
Van Gogh, we sense, needed no theoretical philosophy to know this, rather he understood it in innate artistic terms. The genius of Three Pairs of Shoes lies in the realisation that it functions as both still life (a depiction of an object) and portraiture (a depiction of a person). This duality present in the painting results in a third perspective: that of a fluid narratology far more cogent than the separate sums of either two more simplistic elements. We feel we are being made aware of the presence of the person who owns and wears these shoes, that we are being shown and told their life story, of who they are, even though their absence is wholly quantifiable. Derrida would note the added complication of the omnipresence of Van Gogh himself as the ‘God-force’ of this ‘person’, while Heidegger would argue that the shoes are of themselves the conjurer of their absent owner in the same way we sit in a well-worn chair and somehow, through the textural characteristics of its material components, its very tangibility, begin to form an impression of its regular incumbent.
The arrangement of the shoes in a diagonal line pervades the scene with a sense of balance: there is some compulsion at play here to set out the shoes thus. There is a degree of obsessiveness in their order, and yet the third shoe is inverted which, on reflection, starts to grate with the compositional compulsiveness of their stowage more acutely than we may think. The third shoe certainly arrests the eye and creates a feel of playful individuality to the other five: there is a sense of rhythmic movement which animates and invigorates the meaning we grant to shoes as an aid or instrument in our pursuit of interplay with the wider world. Van Gogh characteristically used the impasto method of painting to accentuate certain elements and invest them with a heightened sense of attention: in this case it is the nails on the sole of the third upturned shoe which we fixate on. Seen three-dimensionally, the nails appear to rise outwards from the canvas in a way which adds a layer of textuality to the picture and makes the shoes seem somehow very genuine; they are very figural, very much a force of some materiality which sit in muscular contrast to the passivity of the cloth they are arranged on and which foreshadow downcast overtones onto the work as a whole; Van Gogh’s palette here is psychologically intense and melancholic. The browns, blacks, off-whites, the darkness of the background evoke the more pragmatic aspects of the subject they accompany. The shoes are not emblems of status or aesthetic design, but are made for graft and toil. There is something durable about their stolid leathery opaqueness which denotes them as being enduring of the trudge and grind which is so manifest in their owner’s life.
Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.