A Letter to Van Gogh

The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters
Royal Academy of Arts, London.  23 January to 18 April, 2010

I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen two massive Van Gogh exhibitions in the last 18 months; the first at the Albertina in Vienna, the second, yesterday, at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. Having always wondered what all the fuss was about Van Gogh’s work, the Vienna show represented for me personally, an extraordinary epiphanic event. Rarely do I put myself through the ordeal of struggling past the reverential, head-phoned hordes, who inch along, pausing for far too much time in front of each and every painting, to go around any art exhibition a second time. But, on this ocassion, bowled over, suddenly transformed into an ardent Van Gogh fan, I couldn’t help myself.

The same, or similar hordes – the plague of most large, metropolitan galleries – were in full attendance at The Royal Academy. Dimly-lit, because many of the rarely-shown, fragile originals of Van Gogh’s letters – mostly written to his brother and life-long supporter, Theo – are on display, the tall-ceilinged main gallery space had the air of a compact cathedral: spot-lit, Van Gogh’s bright, colourful paintings substituting for stained-glass windows. When I was able to get near enough to look at the letters – very often by craning my neck to view them through the gloom over someone’s shoulder – I saw that that Van Gogh had added in wonderful, tiny but often detailed pen and ink sketches many of which were scaled-down roughs for the paintings he was working on, which the gallery had hung alongside.

For a man who died aged only 37, Van Gogh produced a prodigeous oeuvre. The Royal Academy show is extensive and even then, I could barely remember many of those images on show being part of the Vienna selection. Half-way round, somehow not as impressed as I had expected to be, I overheard someone say quietly to a companion: “I’m disappointed, one picture is marvellous but the next looks as if it was done by a child.” And that was it; I had exactly the same feeling. The early, very bold drawings of peasants going about their arduous work in the fields are incredible. Van Gogh’s deft flicking in of a few irises at the corner of a field outside Arles demonstratively illustrate the confident hand of a master draughtsman. With natural skill, he uses charicature to emphasize the great mass of a bending, full-skirted woman’s bottom; choosing a low viewpoint, and fish-eye perspective, he draws attention to a man’s enormous wooden clogs. But, almost all of the early paintings on show are poor and do little more than highlight the artist’s struggle with oils. Struggle over, into his stride – a man with a mission – we are shown how Van Gogh goes on to produce the most sublime paintings of vases of flowers, trees and landscape as well as his portraits, including the version included from the famous postman series. But, even amongst these later works, albeit the worsening state of his mental health, I saw more than a few that, if he were around today, I can’t help thinking, Van Gogh would have lopped off the selection list.

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