...the artist and his letters.
I've been looking forward to this ever since the hype started to trickle over to me a few months ago.
A new, complete, illustrated and annotated edition of the artist's letters was released in 2009 and one of the translators cropped up on an interview on R3 during the autumn.
His message was clear. This art is not the product of a disordered and troubled mind...for during the periods he worked, the man who produced it was generally lucid and the letters he wrote (predominantly to his brother Theo) show him discerningly addressing the issues surrounding his chosen profession and the multifarious difficulties of his situation. They also demonstrate that he had a flair for expressing himself with the pen as well as the brush.
This exhibition of 65 paintings, 30 drawings and a sampling of the letters was first opened to the public in Amsterdam last year. Now it has arrived in London and I attended the final day of previews with Surfer on Friday. Waldemar Januszczak calls it the "most complete Van Gogh exhibition to be held in Britain for half a century."
My own adult relationship with the works of this particular Dutch artist got off to something of a poor start when I was taken (...dragged) around the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam at the age of 17 — it being the third such well stocked gallery I'd been to that same day — and so I guess I was a little less receptive than usual that afternoon to the genius on display there.
Whatever the preconceptions one takes along to this exhibition, I can report that it has the potential to re-organise one's views not only about one suffering Dutch artist, but about the power of painting in general.
There are seven rooms, organised in a partially chronological and partially thematic fashion. My personal favourite was Room 6: 'Cycles of Nature' which covered the period when this former missionary repeatedly turned to the image of a reaper in southern French fields, emblematic of the pantheistic apprehensions which had filled the void left by formal religious dogma.
The RA did me for a catalogue as I left (one can't complain really when one has seen the show free of charge), and as I flicked through it looking for the works which had most impressed me 'in the flesh', it was immediately clear why there can be no substitute for the personal encounter. It's not just that the textural effects are so important; several of the landscapes appear to shimmer with incipient animation. You really have to stand right in front of them to appreciate this.
It's not always so easy though...thanks to the slow moving clusters of (often quite aggressive) little old ladies that appear to be indigenous to exhibitions at the Royal Academy. Then there are the individuals Surfer refers to as "robots", the slow-moving, rather clumsy lumps of flesh whose passage around the exhbits is determined by the voice in their headsets. Fortunately we got in early before the real scrum started, and made the decision to run on ahead of the robots, thereby dispensing with the formal sequence intended by the curators.
The letters, whilst not as central to the experience as I had anticipated, often contain little sketches or "croquis", which in some cases at least as wonderful as the larger works they underpin. (Such as the reed pen version of The Zouave, kept at the New York Guggenheim.)
It's hard to pick one stand-out work from the exhibition. "There isn't a painting here I don't like," Surfer commented, and I had to agree. Maybe Wheat Field With White Cloud, but I couldn't find a decent jpeg of it on Google, so here are The Olive Trees, painted in 1889 at Saint-Rémy, outside the walls of the asylum. It's mesmerising, and you have to see it if you can. (It's usually found at the MOMA in NYC.)