I find it hard to write about art due to my sheer ignorance (although I found An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay a great book on art techniques). But, art in various forms makes me happy so I decided to stick my neck out and write about the RA’s Van Gogh exhibition. (If I sound pretentious, I don’t mean to – my notes from the exhibition include things like “not a tortured mentalist” and “large splotches of colour“. )
My prior knowledge of Van Gogh could be summarised thus: he was Dutch and ginger; went mad and cut his ear off; painted some wonderful impressionist sunflowers in a vase; Don McLean wrote a song about him (note to self: must look into History of Art courses at City Lit). But I was intrigued enough to accompany El G and El G Madre to the exhibition at the Royal Academy that’s running until 18 April – The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters.
First thing first – Van Gogh didn’t look the same intense, wizened man at 19 – in fact he looked like a young dandy Henry Conway.
Second, he was a wonderful artist and painter. The exhibition contains his drawings and paintings from young novice to emboldened artist, categorising them chronologically by pen, chalk and watercolour drawings of Dutch rural life; oil on canvas still life and colour; portraits; and finally landscapes of wheat fields and trees from his final days in Provence.
As well as seeing his development as an artist, you are shown his letters, mostly to his brother Theo, where he discusses his ideas about art and techniques, considers criticism and improvements. He got so excited and enthusiastic he scribbled words out, and made tiny sketches of his planned paintings. These show him not to be some crazy tortured man but a dedicated, experimental, if eccentric and slightly obsessive, artist.
El G’s Madre – herself a budding artist – loved his initial pen drawings which even to my unlearned eye looked remarkably skillful. But for me, I was blown away by the iconic still life paintings he did during his wild days in Paris – walking into the room you are met with a shock of colour, the canvases thick with impressionist oil paint strokes. Below are some lovely ones – a lot of the kids in the exhibition loved the crabs, I loved the still life flowers.
I also liked his portraits – in which he recorded his impression of a person, how he “feels” them, rather than a realist view – including Dr Gachet who he painted in the two months before his death and the haunting self-portrait above which shows him older, intense, a “face of death“.
It was after Paris that Van Gogh moved to Provence and although my grasp of the facts is sketchy, he suffered a series of mental breakdowns, may have drank a bit too much absinthe, severed off his ear and entered an asylum. We don’t find out much about these issues, but see his constant letters to Theo, including one that was with him when he died, which touch on his despair and feeling of failure but more, show his continued obsession with his painting, always improving and perfecting.
Rather than deteriorating as an artist (like many artists dealing with mental health problems (and alcoholism) like Hemingway or Modigliani), he ended his days with possibly his best work – he painted 70 works in his last 70 days. Although not as iconic as the sunflowers, and more muted, these are wonderful oil paintings of wheat fields and the rolling hills of Provence. My favourite were these cypresses below – painted with thick circular swirls of oil paint, filled with beautiful summer colours. Very sad to think someone who painted that would so shortly after kill himself. In 1890, he committed suicide – a gunshot to the chest.
On a practical note about queuing – if you plan to go along on Saturday, expect to queue at least 1 hour to get in. If you want to skip the queue, become a Friend of the RA or book your tickets online. I’ve also seen they are doing special one-off Sunday evening showings and free gallery talks.
The one annoyance about going on a Saturday is that the exhibition was very full – so if you want to see everything you’ll need to shuffle along maddeningly in slow footsteps with the crowd, or develop a sneeky dip-in and dip-out strategy which also works.
Starry, starry night.
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze,
Swirling clouds in violet haze,
Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue.
Colors changing hue, morning field of amber grain,
Weathered faces lined in pain,
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand.