In his book, The Hall of Uselessness, Belgian-Australian art historian Simon Leys quotes Arthur Waley, an English orientalist and sinologist who “preferred to read Dickens in Chinese translation.” Similarly, one likes to see Van Gogh’s paintings in Britain more than in Amsterdam or his adopted city, Paris, since the Dutch painter once stated: “My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes.” In 1875, he confessed “How I love London.”
‘Van Gogh and Britain’ at the Tate Britain is, therefore, a significant encounter because it maps the affinity of the painter with a country in which “young Vincent van Gogh spent nearly three years between 1873 and 1876.” He “knew four languages, including English, which he spoke and read well. English books were an inspiration and pleasure to him all his life.”
The exhibition, spread in nine rooms, is divided “in two parts. The first looks at Van Gogh’s experience in London, the art and literature that caught his attention and its role in his journey as an artist. The second explores the impact of Van Gogh’s art and life on British artists up to 1950s”.
The show provides more than a fresh perspective on one of the most celebrated masters who mesmerised millions. According to art historian E H Gombrich, his career “had not lasted more than ten years; the paintings on which his fame rests were all painted during three years.”
The exhibition can be seen as an essay on originality — how originality emerges from multiple and intersecting influences. In particular, the case of Van Gogh, a unique individual, an unprecedented painter who pursued his vision relentlessly notwithstanding unfavourable reaction, lack of recognition, dire conditions, and his own mental illness.
The exhibition also shatters myths weaved around the personality of the painter, being a noble-savage, a mad man who intuitively produced brightly daubed surfaces. The show is a means to understand the development of an artist, his passage into his individual vocabulary often called style, and his link to life in the form of objects around him. The display includes a number of books (by Charles Dickens and George Eliot) that he read, newspaper images, engravings and illustrations from his collection, and letters. Perhaps, the most interesting entry in this section is the Dulwich Picture Gallery visitors’ book which Vincent van Gogh signed on August 4, 1873.
Actually, it is the signature that defines and describes the art of that tormented soul. Gombrich observes that Van Gogh brought his inner self in his art: “Just as the appearance of a handwritten page, the traces left by the pen on the paper, impart something of the gestures of the writer … — so the brushstrokes of Van Gogh tell us something of the state of his mind.”
The show affirms that aspect, as stepping from one gallery space to the next, one starts to recognise how the element of expressiveness became prominent in the works of Van Gogh, especially from his later years. The show encompasses an early work (‘Self-Portrait with Felt Hat’; Dec 1886-Jan 1887), executed in various shades of brown and rather conventional, reminding of Dutch School. When compared to another self-portrait from 1889, one realises that the painter found his vision in the short span of two years. The latter canvases convey the presence of light managed through vivid colours.
A normal misreading of Van Gogh surmounts to his abrupt and spontaneous decisions, implying that his method and aesthetics were not dependent upon prior planning. But any exhibition of the painter, including the present show, informs the artist’s scheme of constructing his compositions into complementary colours. You see yellow and blue in ‘Sorrowing Old Man’ (1890), ‘The Prison Courtyard’ (1890), ‘Trunk of an Old Yew Tree’ (1890, ‘Starry Nights’ (1880), ‘Self-Portrait’ (1887); and green and red in works such as ‘Augustine Roulin’ (La berceuse); 1889. Even the apparently monochromatic ‘Sunflowers’ (1888) is separated into two types of yellow backgrounds — warm and cool shades.
Locating his references as well as painters who were following him, one recognises the distinct vocabulary of Van Gogh — something that sets him apart from his predecessors, contemporaries or successors. It is in the way he moves his brush, puts undulated strokes, and builds layers to capture the essence of outside reality.
Like the small canvas, ‘Wheatfield of Arles’(1888), that brings the viewer into the heart of nature, serene and violent, mute and disturbing, changing and eternal. Variation of yellow marks on a similar background fills the major part of rectangle, leaving a small house in distant horizon and sky covered with clouds. Bright and strong paint (of a wok made 130 years ago) surprises a viewer, and freshness of colour connects with the idea of freshness we associate with nature.
In some works, one gets a sense of minimal and sparse brush marks, yet the imagery is complete and convincing. For instance, ‘Farms near Auvers’ (July, 1890; days before his death on July 29, 1890) is constructed with lines as if scrawled on a paper — either of a sketchbook, diary or letter. It is a well-known fact that Van Gogh wrote extensively, mainly letters to his brother Theo; so there may be a connection between a hand that pushes ink-filled pen on paper and the one that forces paint laden brush across the canvas. At Tate Britain, you gaze at the sheets with narrow lines of text inscribed by Vincent van Gogh, which are not different from the pictorial style of the painter.
The style of the painter is also evident in a number of canvases not made by him. Van Gogh’s influence in England is visible as you pass canvas after canvas echoing his hues. Although Tate Britain is having a major exhibition of the artist with 40 of his works after Tate’s last exhibition of him (10 December 1947-14 January 1948), yet you can detect the painter’s presence in the works of British artists such as Vanessa Bell, Christopher Wood, Spencer Gore, Matthew Smith, David Bomberg, and a few others, all employing strong colours, something not usual in English art. But Van Gogh is distinct from all of them in his least structured, solidified, and stylised pieces.
The openness of his work can only be matched by three large canvases of Francis Bacon, displayed in the last section of the exhibition (‘Study for the Portrait of Van Gogh IV,’ ‘Study for the Portrait of Van Gogh VI,’ and ‘Van Gogh in a Landscape’), all from the year 1957. In these Bacon uses the imagery and figure of Van Gogh that reveals the British painter in conversation with Van Gogh. Reminding Borges’ quote of Poe that genius never hesitates in borrowing, because he can always return it in his own currency.
The exhibition not only confirms the genius of Van Gogh but affirms French dramatist Antonin Artaud’s point: “Only a painter, Van Gogh, and no more, no philosophy, no mysticism, no rite.”
(The exhibition is on from March 27 to August 11, 2019)