Great, my favourite painter is in the spotlight in Britain. I have never come across another artist who could depict reality in such a striking and sparkling way.
Seeing his original sunflower paintings in real life has left a lasting impression on me. Don’t die before you’ve seen some of his famous work in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum!
And here’s some insider’s knowledge: the largest Van Gogh collection is actually in the Kröller-Müller Museum in the East of the Netherlands situated in a beautiful National Park called the Veluwe. It boasts 1700 white bicycles to use for free to roam the extensive grounds. Don’t miss it!
When Vincent van Gogh had his last major showing in this country – at the Hayward Gallery in 1968 – he was merely one of the greatest artists the world had ever known. His influence on 20th-century art was widely understood, his tragic story universally known. The film Lust for Life, with its eye-rolling, paint-chomping performance from Kirk Douglas, had been consigned to history, while having had a decisive effect on the way we view the artist. Yet van Gogh was just one huge artistic figure among many.
Since then, he has become something no other artist has ever quite been, “the world’s favourite artist”. Van Gogh, even more than the Impressionists, is seen as the artist who blew open the studio door, blasting away centuries of fusty academic painting, to let in the light of real experience.
Vincent’s eye-popping colour combinations – so bizarre to his contemporaries – have come to be seen as more expressive of reality than reality itself. Vincent ran through blazing Provençal cornfields shouting about the power of the sun (or so we tend to think) and we feel he was doing it on our behalf. He’s become the artist par excellence of the Mediterranean – never mind that he was Dutch and that many of his paintings are of flat, dark, rain-drenched Netherlandish fields.
Such is the power of the package – life-enhancing pictures plus tragic history – that his paintings are no longer simply works of art but relics of one of the great transcendent human stories.
Yet our sense of van Gogh as a kind of martyr, who died not only for his art but to open the eyes of the rest of the world, can, paradoxically, blind us to the real qualities of his work. While most of us can see past the cliché of the colour-crazed madman, there is the sense that he applied his singular vision in an almost indiscriminate way. Old boots, corners of uninteresting gardens, copies of Old Masters, van Gogh seems to turn everything into yet more van Gogh imagery in paintings it’s difficult to comment on, except to say that they are obviously by van Gogh.
Beyond the fact that van Gogh’s early works, painted in Holland, tend to be on the dark side, how many of us could put a pile of van Gogh paintings into any sort of chronological order?
Bringing together 60 works from all over the world, the Royal Academy’s The Real van Gogh: the Artist and his
Letters will throw the artist into a new light. By looking at the paintings alongside the letters that reveal the thought processes behind them, we will see his images not just as illustrations to a legend or spontaneous expressions of genius but as points in a line of creative development that continually confounds our expectations. While we think of van Gogh as the master of swirling forms, there are drawings here, done directly on to the letters, that are composed entirely of straight lines.
There are paintings you would never think were by him. Indeed, while he had probably the most powerful personal style of any artist ever – he was doing drawings with angular, “Japanese” lines long before he saw Japanese art – he reacts to other artists in a way that can feel almost chameleon-like.
Here he is writing to his brother Theo in a letter of July 31 1882, discussing a watercolour of which he has done a superbly vivid pen and ink sketch on the opposite page, describing “the gloomy landscape – that dead tree near a stagnant pool covered with reeds. Dingy, black buildings”. And of a lone figure walking away in the middle distance: “I wanted to make it the way the signalman must see and feel it when he thinks ‘It’s gloomy weather today’.”
While Vincent was painfully isolated for much of his life, and was to a large degree self-absorbed, what emerges from the letters is his desire to empathise with and reach out to others, not only through his art but on a simple human level. Describing his dark masterpiece The Potato Eaters, he writes of wanting to convey “that these people, eating their potatoes in the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish, of how they have honestly earned their food.”
Vincent wants us to feel the life of these people whose peat hovels he has shared, but from the perspective of “us civilised people”, as he makes clear in the next paragraph. He wants to be a peasant painter, making art for “labourers, peasants, fishermen and prostitutes”, while enjoying the finest subtleties of the great masters. He wants to take on the techniques and ideas of all the artists he writes about so compellingly – from geniuses to utter hacks. He wants to get everything he’s gleaned from his impassioned, omnivorous reading into the frame. The pathos of van Gogh is that he wants to do everything at once. His triumph is that to a large extent he succeeded.
Van Gogh’s career as an artist lasted only 10 years. And while we tend of think of his dark, Dutch phase with its lowering skies and severe perspectives as a mere blip before he discovered colour, it took up the greater part of that vital decade, and is represented at the RA in a magnificent array of early drawings. Even when he arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1886, his palette was still dominated by thick, dark browns. When he finally saw the works of the Impressionists, he was bitterly disappointed. “Their work is careless, ugly, badly painted, badly drawn, bad in colour – everything that’s miserable.”
But having seen the light – literally – he hoovered up the influences of the major Parisian painters in quick succession: Monet, Pissarro, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec, whom he met while studying in the studio of Fernand Cormon. While I’ve always assumed that Lautrec must have been influenced by van Gogh, it was the other way round. Vincent’s portrait of Agostina Segatori is in all essentials a Lautrec painting. When van Gogh writes to Emile Bernard, an artist he met through Gauguin, his drawing in the letter takes on the tremulous quality of Bernard’s own lines. While van Gogh, a Protestant pastor’s son, had become disillusioned with conventional religion by the time he became an artist, this desire to accommodate the other artist almost to the point of becoming them is rooted in a deeply ingrained idea of Christian humility.
In Gaugin he felt he’d found his artistic soulmate, into whose personality he wanted to sublimate his own – with the disastrous consequences that are so well known.
There was a history of insanity in van Gogh’s family. By this point he was drinking heavily, sleeping little, and bouts of derangement experienced earlier in his life were beginning to recur. Yet far from appearing confused, his drawings and paintings are startlingly lucid. A drawing in a letter to Theo, indicating the composition of the famous Bedroom in Arles, is at once fantastically economical and imbued with an almost Art Nouveau decorativeness, while the accompanying notes – “fresh butter yellow, very bright lemon green: coloured in flat plain tints like a Japanese print” – make it a kind of cribsheet on how to do a van Gogh.
As his attacks of insanity became more frequent, Vincent, now in the sanatorium at Saint-Remy, near Arles, created visionary works such as Starry Night and Landscape with Cypress Trees, that have come to be seen as the ultimate of the van Gogh ideal. Yet he also created a much less well-known group of paintings, which are in their way at least as powerful: wintery views of the grounds of the institution with leaves falling on its grey pathways and shattered tree-trunks, all painted in a similar and unusual colour palette.
“You will realise,” van Gogh wrote to Emile Bernard, “that this combination of red-ochre, of green gloomed over by grey, the black streaks surrounding the contours, produce something of the sensation of anguish called ‘rouge-noir’, from which certain of my companions in misfortunes suffer.” With their quiet mixture of desperation and exaltation, these paintings that seem simultaneously inside and outside the condition of derangement looks forward to so much of what art has since been about, from Expressionism to Pollock’s gestural abstraction.
Indeed, for all that van Gogh has gone from being dangerous and edgy to the most widely accepted of all artists, has the rest of the world quite caught up with everything he achieved in that terrible final year? He kept on painting – “even when my illness was at its height”, as he wrote in April 1890 – convinced he had failed utterly, yet providing us with a moment-by-moment account of what he saw and felt as he moved from Saint-Remy to Auvers-sur-Oise in northern France, putting himself under the care of a Dr Gachet, before shooting himself at the age of 37. Yet far from dragging us to the brink of derangement, what he gives us are the moments of clarity and hope. What we have here is not the abjectness he felt at so many moments, but the determination to continue as a creative being, right up to the last moment. It might seem ridiculous to talk of feeling “grateful” to an artist, who is after all doing nothing more than expressing himself. But for what it tells us about the possibilities of the human spirit that is how this exhibition leaves you feeling.
‘The Real Van Gogh: the Artist and His Letters’ is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, W1 (020 7300 8000) from Jan 23
Mark Hudson’s book ’Titian: The Last Days’ is published by Bloomsbury