The Real Van Gogh
Royal Academy, London
Wednesday 27 January 2010
In the only article about Vincent Van Gogh to be published in his lifetime the Symbolist Albert Aurier attributed the artist’s poetic sensitivity to colour to his “exalted temperament … his feverish brain-spewing lav … he is a terrible maddened genius, often sublime, sometimes grotesque, always verging on the pathological.”
In his response, Van Gogh drily commented that he saw his social role as closer to that of an honest cobbler than to a poet in colour.
But Aurier‘s definition – combined with the dramatic events of the last two years of Van Gogh‘s life – led populist books and films to perpetuate the former’s skewered description throughout the next century.
The Royal Academy’s exhibition rectifies this simplistic account of Van Gogh as an insane genius.
There are over 650 surviving letters by Van Gogh, the majority of which were to his brother Theo, who supported him for many years from his modest salary as an art dealer’s employee.
To justify these payments Vincent reported on his progress by describing his current intentions, often including sketches of these paintings in his letters. These are displayed alongside finished drawings and paintings together with translations of extracts from the letters.
They reveal an articulate, thoughtful and well-informed person who engaged with the cultural debates of his day.
His ideas were shaped by a profound knowledge of past and contemporary artists including Rembrandt, Delacroix, Millet, Hokusai, Pissarro and Gauguin as well as by extensive reading including the Bible, Voltaire, Balzac, George Eliot, Dickens and Zola.
Born to the wife of a Protestant pastor in 1853, Van Gogh was apprenticed to a Hague art dealer at age 16. Four years later the firm sent him to their London branch and the desperate condition of the working classes there touched his social conscience.
From then on he devoted his life to trying to improve the lives of the exploited and marginalised be they the Whitechapel poor, Borinage miners or Dutch and French peasants.
His early attempt to become a missionary worker was unsuccessful but in 1880 he discovered his true vocation as an artist.
Yet the intention was the same. Speaking of a “consoling” art, he wanted his paintings to help his fellow beings – and they did. Since the mid-20th century umpteen reproductions of his works have energised and comforted people world-wide.
Van Gogh was a realist who tried out Gauguin’s aesthetic of working from the imagination to convey broad ideas but concluded that he needed to work from direct observation.
He saw universal truths in the particular but rather than vying with photography to make vapid illusions of the tangible, three-dimensional world – as did most late-19th-century painters – he made equivalents for his emotional and intellectual responses to his subjects.
Ignoring inessential details he simplified forms and heightened colours to describe their essence.
In doing so he exposed and celebrated the materials and tools of his trade. With brush and paint on canvas or pen, quill and ink or chalk on paper he delighted in the sheer variety of marks he could make – staccato dots, speedy dashes and elegant or awkward lines.
Sensuous squiggles suggested growing corn, the setting sun, gnarled tree trunks or scurrying clouds, the ample sweep of a mother’s breast or the earnest gaze of a baby’s eyes. No surface remained dead.
But this exuberant and inventive mark-making and colour rested on an armature of disciplined drawing and an intelligent control over composition which came from years of drawing from life and studying previous artists.
Responding with consummate sincerity to his subject-matter, Van Gogh conveyed his empathy for, and love of, nature and humanity. That is why his works are so well loved and why they still look as fresh and full of meaning today.
Yet like those of many visionaries, his works proved to be inaccessible to all but a tiny minority in his own lifetime. And this exhibition ignores Van Gogh’s desire to make art of the people, for the people.
We see none of the social realist woodcuts from the English illustrated magazines which he so admired and collected, nor his 1882 lithographs of The Hague‘s poor which they inspired.
Excited at the possibility of creating a cheaply accessible art he wrote: “No result of my work could please me better than that ordinary working people would hang such prints in their room or workshop.”
Striking the right balance between scholarship and accessibility, this show gives us much to see and learn without overloading us with information.
The canvases have been selected around key aesthetic ideas explored in Van Gogh’s letters, so we see familiar paintings in a fresh context and also discover many infrequently reproduced ones.
An exhibition not to be missed.
The Real Van Gogh: The Artist And His Letters runs until April 18 at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London. Telephone: (0207) 300 8000.
A new exhibition highlights the democratic spirit of Van Gogh’s art, argues John Molyneux: here.