Over six months, the museum’s staff painstakingly restored the Dutch artist’s famous painting of his room in Arles, France; its effort was broadcast far and wide. The work depicts a small bedroom with closed shutters, containing a bed, a couple of chairs, a table, a mirror and five small paintings.
Thanks to the restoration work, we were once again exposed to the true colours of this “masterpiece.” Let me tell you, it’s hard to believe that this guy was one of the greatest artists of the second-last century -- but couldn’t grasp the concept of a colour chart. By today’s design standards, the room is a disaster.
And yet historians tell us van Gogh was proud of his home fashion sense.
“In a word, looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination,” the artist wrote to his younger brother, Theo, describing how he had painted the walls pale violet, the floor red, the wood yellow, the pillows “greenish-citron,” the coverlet scarlet, the window green, the table orange, the basin blue, and the doors lilac.
I’m sorry -- van Gogh’s Value Village decorating style might have been well and good in the days of chamber pots, but we know better now. It’s obvious that the fastidious, hands-off approach of the Van Gogh Museum must be abandoned and the room immediately brought up to date.
Thus, I decided to ask ABC TV’s Ty Pennington to take his Extreme Makeover: Home Edition team back to 1888 to surprise Mr. van Gogh with a revamp of his accommodations.
First, I had to persuade Pennington, whose show specializes in reversing the hard luck stories of heroic families, to take van Gogh as a client. It was relatively easy to get him onside; I simply guaranteed that 100 percent of the world’s goggle-eyed art historians would tune in to this episode. “I’m interested in whatever boosts the ratings,” he said cheerfully. “Besides, I’ve always wanted to win over those snoot-meisters.”
I then pitched Pennington on the heartstring-tugging attributes of this episode’s homeowner. “Van Gogh has mental health issues, he has bad teeth, he’s lonely -- and he can’t put colours together to save his life,” I said. Pennington, predictably, teared up.
As my coup de grace, I showed the manly carpenter a photo of the fashion “don’t” that was van Gogh’s bedroom. Stifling a disgusted sob, he shook his head – “Too much colour can make a room feel busy,” he said -- and formally accepted the gig.
Several days later, I loaded Pennington and his crew into my time travel hot air balloon. Before they took off, I shouted, “Okay, just to reiterate: It’s the ‘Yellow House’ at 2, Place Lamartine in Arles, Bouches-du-Rhone, France.”
As they drifted up into the sky, I bellowed a warning: “Listen, van Gogh’s not the easiest guy to get along with. He’s nervous, he’s moody, and he has seizures that are worsened by drinking absinthe. By the way, he’s pretty much always drinking absinthe.”
“Roger that,” Pennington yelled.
“He and his brother Theo are off on a weekend getaway to Marseille. Theo is in on this scheme, and he’ll bring back our man in time for the reveal,” I roared, adding hastily as they began to soar, “Oh -- steer clear of lead-based paints…. and try not to disturb the space-time continuum!"
By that time the balloon was disappearing into a blurry, swirling special effect, so Pennington may not have caught that last bit before disappearing. I hoped he would return laden with cheese, petit fours and stories about how van Gogh had cheered up, ordered a supply of doodads from his local craft store, and planned to spend the rest of his career making beer can mobiles.
Suddenly, I realized that Pennington hadn’t given me the slightest idea of what he had in mind for van Gogh’s bedroom. At the very least, I knew, his website suggests that before people decorate, they should “Make a plan: Adding pieces without thinking ahead can result in a cluttered mess. Decide what you need, then measure and buy carefully.”
Thank God we wouldn’t be relying on van Gogh himself for these improvements. Trust him to have a trapezoidal bedroom in the first place.
It occurred to me that there were a few different designers that I could have hired for this gig, but not many had Pennington’s humanitarian impulses. I wasn’t sure how Colin and Justin, of Colin and Justin’s Home Heist, would have gotten along with van Gogh, the Scottish man-couple being so happy, irreverent and funny and van Gogh being so miserable, religious and syphilitic. I pictured C & J joyfully fixing a mirror over van Gogh’s bed, installing Plexiglas furnishings to “lengthen the space,” arranging big, pink, fake carnations, and putting up silver shutters -- and then, van Gogh blowing a gasket and running after them with a razor blade. “It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an ear,” I mused.
A designer with a more tempered personality was required. If Ty hadn’t worked out, I figured, Lynda Reeves of Canadian House & Home might have done the trick, with her beige-on-brown-on-pewter motifs, which always murmur “boutique hotel.” They’d be calming, if nothing else, and old van Gogh definitely needed to chill.
A week went by. On Monday, I was relaxing on the front deck when another swirling special effect appeared in the sky and the hot air balloon crashed onto my driveway. Instead of Pennington’s raucous crew, a weedy, scruffy little man with ginger hair and sunken cheeks clambered out.
“Woody Allen?” I gasped.
“Vincent van Gogh,” he said, doffing his hat.
I was dumbfounded. “Aren’t you supposed to be bursting into your bedroom at the reveal right now, staring, crying, and shouting delightedly ‘Oh my God’?”
“I was not down with that,” he said, gazing in horror at my plastic lawn furniture. “I found out they’d gone with a brown and orange ‘Wild West’ theme. So I said 'No way, hombre' and climbed into the ballon.”
“But I sent Ty Pennington into the past to save you!” I said, aghast.
“And he has sent me into the future to save you,” he said, pulling a small bottle and two glasses out of the pockets of his brown wool jacket. “Absinthe?”