The Yellow House, September 1888 • Oil on canvas • 72 x 91.5 cm • Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Sunlight & Shadow

5th February 2010

The Royal Academy’s exhibition on Van Gogh is the first in this country to focus on the artist for forty years. Paintings sit side by side with his vividly descriptive letters, and provide revealing insights into his thought processes and character.

Jack Watkins elaborates…

There was a point halfway through walking round the Royal Academy’s Burlington Galleries, during the press view of the new Van Gogh exhibition, when I was overcome by a rising melancholy. You can always tell the fashionability and newsworthy significance – if not the ultimate commercial success, or the curatorial quality – of an exhibition by the numbers of hacks, camera crews and assorted other invitees that roll up to these press junkets.

I went to one (for what was actually a superb exhibition, and whose curator has happily gone on to present his own quirkily fascinating documentaries on BBC4) where I was the only scribe to show up. Velazquez at the National Gallery in 2006, by contrast, had huge support, and the more recent British Museum blockbusters on Hadrian and the First Chinese Emperor, by dint of their international contexts, fairly hummed with members of the Fourth Estate from all over the world.

But the attendances at those paled into insignificance compared to this. So large was the assembled throng that I forsook the usually insightful, curator-led tour to try to grab a little private, unjostled scribble time in front of the pictures for myself. It made scant difference. There were almost as many people, it seemed, deploying the same tactic. Van Gogh’s canvases are quite small, and so too, obviously, are the letters. Parts are translated on the walls, but they take time to read… and it induced a number of huffy moments.

And then, as I say, this oppressive sadness at the horrible unjustness of it all hit me. When Van Gogh was working in the south of France, his ambition was to set up an art school at Arles (there is a striking painting of the intended location, The Yellow House, pictured under a cobalt sky, in one of the later rooms of the exhibition), but the only painter who ever went was Gauguin, and he found he could only endure Van Gogh’s company for two months. When Van Gogh died in 1890, he was scarcely recognised in the art world beyond the Parisian avant-garde, and his pictures seemed un-saleable because they were too ‘modern’. It was only through the foresight of his sister-in-law Johanna that his paintings and much of his correspondence were saved. Yet here we all were, venerating his works, and poring over the letters, even the most trivial of which – such as requests to his brother Theo to send him some new brushes – we were studying with the utmost, brow-furrowed intensity. Van Gogh, who spent so much of his life adrift from society, now seemed the most wanted, revered individual in the world. How cruel can the fates be?

It’s possible at most exhibitions of deceased artists to experience thoughts of the ‘if only they could be here to see this now’ variety, but Vincent Van Gogh really is the ultimate cliché of the Romantic painter, the man who starved in the garret for his art, went mad in the cause, died from self-inflicted wounds, and was only later ‘discovered’ to be a genius. It makes for a dramatic story, and even Hollywood, not known for its happy treatment of arty subjects, made a decent stab at it in Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas. But in all this fictionalising, it’s too easy to forget that the mental and physical pain Van Gogh suffered was horribly real, and that the circumstances in which he died, aged 37, in 1890 were so disturbing that they precipitated an immediate collapse in the health of Theo, his loyal, long-suffering brother, so that he followed Vincent to the grave a year later.

Van Gogh’s letters have long been studied, and are intrinsic to the personality cult that has grown up around him: the painter and his works are, these days, a little industry in their own right. Although most of his correspondence was addressed to Theo, notable other recipients were Gauguin and Emile Bernard, an important participant in the Pont-Aven school in Brittany, with which Van Gogh had tried to compete. What may surprise, however, is the literary quality of the letters, and the originality and clarity of his thinking on art, nature and books.

Van Gogh’s artistic output was prodigious – over 800 paintings and 1200 drawings. In his last fifteen months, even as his mental state worsened, he was especially prolific. But the popular image of him barking at the moon on starry nights while dashing off his work in a lunatic frenzy is completely wrong. Yes, Van Gogh was mentally unstable and, yes, he was probably impossible to live with – garrulous, argumentative, likely to drive acquaintances to distraction if subjected to his opinionated personality for any length of time. But his art, for all its apparent spontaneity, its restless, swirling brushstrokes and furious colour, was hard won, as much about craft as genius.

He turned to art as a career at the relatively late age of 27, after being sacked as a lay preacher, but he set about teaching himself with all the dedication and graft expected of one from his Dutch Protestant background. Drawing did not, it’s said, come easy, and he struggled to convey movement. Yet look at those early pieces and you find that hard to believe. A pen and ink rendering of a boggy countryside near Etten, with its spindly trees and lowering skies, perfectly conveys the gloomy lyricism that the sensitive mind can find in the murky wetness of marshy landscapes. Soon he was rendering such settings in watercolour. A letter accompanying a painting of an old pollarded willow, produced in 1882, amply conveys his sympathy with nature. ‘A sombre landscape, that dead tree beside a stagnant pond, a cinder road and a sky in which the clouds are racing, grey with an occasional white gleaming edge, and a depth of blue where the clouds tear apart for a moment.’

His palette brightened when he went to live in Paris in 1886, though it was when he arrived in Arles two years later that the canvases truly burst aflame. His work in portraiture, though, should not be forgotten. Showing no interest in capturing exact physical likeness or individual psychology, he hated, too, the ‘dead realism’ of a photograph. He wanted to render subjects as he ‘felt’ them. His own self-portrait, he wrote, ‘is something like the face of death’. His ‘portrait’ of Gauguin, partly a sad memento to their abruptly ended liaison, was merely an empty chair with a candle. Some of his finest paintings came around the time of his stay in the asylum at Saint-Rémy. An excellent picture of the twisting pines and red earth, in front the hospital building, prefigured his outstanding Cypresses of 1889. ‘The Cypress,’ he wrote, ‘is beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a distinguished quality. It’s the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape.’ No nature writer could have put it better. How did such bright, breezy, pleasure-giving works come out of such torment? Poor old Van Gogh.

The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters,
sponsored by BNY Mellon, runs until 18 April.

See www.royalacademy.org.uk for more information.

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