Judging from the crowds and the advanced ticket sales, the magnetism of Vincent Van Gogh shows no sign of diminishing. It’s hardly a surprise. We come to empathise with the optimism of a man whose dreams of an art colony in the south would come to nothing. We respond to him because he kept on painting, his canvases getting brighter and brighter as his days got darker.
The sense of Van Gogh’s artistic heroism is more than ever tied to a personal heroism, defined by the short tragic life, the intense work rate of the last few years, and the sickness that was becoming evermore manifest. The allure of this dialectic — pain and productivity — has coloured Van Gogh’s life with the hue of folklore, as if we can read from his story a paradigm of creativity itself.
Yet I wouldn’t be the first to point out that Van Gogh’s draughtsmanship and colour techniques are evidence of a deeply methodical turn of mind, and not, as Robert Hughes memorably assessed, “the vulgar image of a madman issuing orgasmic squirts of yellow and blue at the dictation of his lunacy.”
Are we, then, any closer to understanding Vincent Van Gogh after all these years, despite the films, books, paraphernalia and monumental exhibitions?
The premise of this new exhibition at London’s Tate Britain is that there is much more to learn about the man and his art. By tracing Van Gogh’s movements in his younger days, the exhibition seeks to demonstrate that the Dutchman was a subtle and sophisticated collector of influences, especially those — as the exhibition is keen to enlighten us — from the three years he spent in London between 1873 and 1876.
The Van Gogh of the London years had yet to pick up a paintbrush. He was 20 when he first arrived, as an employee of the French art dealers Groupil whom Van Gogh had worked for back in Holland. He was later fired from Groupil, and briefly taught at a school in Ramsgate before a stint as a Methodist lay preacher in Richmond.
As far as artworks went, London was too early in his artistic trajectory to yield anything of note. The emphasis of this exhibition is about tracing his formative influences. Through his work with Groupil and during his long walks he took for recreation, Van Gogh saw huge amounts of art. In his letters home — one of which lists more than 60 artists he admired — it is clear that groundwork was being laid and sensibilities awoken.
It is beyond doubt that the young Van Gogh engaged with the culture he found in Britain at the time. “I love London,” he wrote to his brother Theo. He read Charles Dickens, John Keats and George Eliot, was a fan of Shakespeare, and collected some 2,000 engravings, most from English magazines such as the Illustrated London News. He was developing his social-mindedness too. He adored the prints of Gustave Doré, whose engravings capture the swarming, lamp-lit and often retched conditions of 19th century London. A series of Van Gogh’s own paper-based drawings, made several years later, demonstrate his interest in the down-trodden figures of society: images of poverty, tiredness and old age, all rendered with a keen eye for the details of bodily posture and clothing. Much later in life, he returned to these prints, painting his only image of London, Prisoners Exercising (1890), based on Gustave Doré’s print of Newgate Prison.
There are over 45 works by Van Gogh in the exhibition, accompanied by a wider series of paintings that Van Gogh is known to have seen and admired. This includes Hobbema’s The Avenue at Middelharnis (1689) and Millais’ Chill October (1870), which provide hints as to the source of Van Gogh’s characteristic preference for outdoor, semi-rural scenes.
In fact, the Tate is asking us to make a more direct connection. Motifs first seen during the London years are echoed in Van Gogh’s later works. For example, we are shown paintings of figures walking through autumnal landscapes with rows of trees on either side — as per Hobbema’s avenue — scenes which mirror paintings made a decade later, such as Vincent’s Avenue of Poplars in Autumn (1884).
Whether or not these direct comparisons are persuasive, the overall success of the exhibition lies in the demonstration that Van Gogh was an artist formed and not born. As the rooms move through his career, they reveal a decade or so of charcoal and graphite drawings, to be followed by several years of experiments in muted oil paints. “My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes and these artists draw,” he wrote to his brother. Only later, after moving to Paris and then onto the south of France, did he finally arrive at the style he is most loved for: the flicking brush marks and the vivid colouration. Paintings such as Starry Night Over the Rhône (1888) and Self-portrait (1889) are the real high-points of the exhibition, works that still, face to face, have the power to electrify.
It’s at this point that the story of Van Gogh transforms into a story of the artists he went onto inspire. Now it’s the Dutchman’s turn to influence. Modernist painters, mostly British, are shown alongside Van Gogh’s own works — those of wheat fields, sunflowers, self-portraits and old boots. The ‘dialogue’ is left more or less unmediated. We are left to make our own judgements as to the particular effect Van Gogh had over artists such as Christopher Wood, Vanessa Bell and Francis Bacon. The display is thoughtfully curated and rewards a patient comparison between one artist and the next.
Yet, for such an intricate exhibition, a simple doubt hangs over the entire premise. For was not Van Gogh a changed artist after his stay in Paris, his exposure to the Impressionists and his eventual journey south? Were his experiences of London not ultimately eclipsed by a new set of hopes and preoccupations?
Take this letter he wrote to his friend Émile Bernard in 1888. In it, Van Gogh expresses his new found enthusiasm for the south of France: “I even work right in the middle of the day, in the full sun, with no shade at all, out in the wheat fields, and lo and behold, I am happy as a cicada. My God, if only I had known this country at 25 instead of coming here at 35! At that time I was fascinated by grey, or rather lack of colour. I kept dreaming of Millet…”
What are we to make of this? An artist who was still learning from his time in London, or one who had left all that northern greyness behind him? Was his art not irrefutably different when light and colour were allowed to enter? Well, however much importance you attach to Van Gogh’s time in London, there can be little doubt that he was an artist who looked and saw, and felt, and felt again, as much as anyone might in a lifetime. And this exhibition, above all, is a celebration of that.