Royal Academy offers a fresh approach to an old master

When I was unexpectedly bought a ticket to the opening day of the Royal Academy’s new exhibition, ‘The Real Van Gogh: the artist and his letters’, I felt some slight reluctance. Knowing very little about the artist in question, the fact that this exhibition is ostensibly about the man’s correspondences, struck me as a little erudite. While I was right to feel uneasy about the hoards of people making it very difficult to move from one work to the next, the exhibition was otherwise informative, fresh-thinking and accessible. It has been cited as one of the biggest exhibitions of the year and it has certainly set a high standard.

The Royal Academy’s exhibition presents a more literary side to Vincent van Gogh than the ‘tortured genius’ usually depicted. The Academy has displayed almost 40 of the artist’s original rarely-exhibited letters written to his brother Theo (art dealer and financial support to Van Gogh), sister Willemein, and artist friends including Anthon van Rappard, Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. The exhibition is structured thematically and loosely chronologically throughout eight rooms. Each room is devoted to the subjects which pre-occupied Van Gogh in his brief 10 year artistic career from the age of 27, between 1880-1890: perspective; landscape; the human form; colour and nature. The rooms are suitably painted to the tones of Van Gogh’s work at each particular time, so the first few rooms are sombre, later becoming more vibrant as he experimented with colour. The subtle changes in the ambience of each room and the use of quotes on the wall instantly convey Van Gogh’s ever-changing attitude towards the progress of the artist, and make each room easily accessible to the visitor. If you are wondering how 40 letters can fill eight rooms, it is because they are interspersed between some 65 paintings and 30 drawings. These include major works of art such as ‘Self Portrait as an Artist’, ‘Van Gogh’s Chair’ and ‘Cypresses’, as well as earlier sketches and watercolours. Most of the letters contain what Van Gogh dubbed his ‘croquis’ or ‘scratches’, which are sketches of finished works. By juxtaposing these sketches alongside their finished counterparts, we can see how important it was for him to convey his ideas about his work to those closest to him.

Alongside these ‘croquis’ are poetic passages of description with which he colours the sketches, and it is when reading these that you understand there is more to this artist than meets the eye. Van Gogh’s letters are rich in imagery and thought, in his constant need to communicate the direction of his art. There is intensity in his descriptions of how colour and composition work together to arouse feeling but also how it can function to reinvent the rules of painting. The exhibition rarely attempts to interpret his art, but rather offers the visitor the chance to read Van Gogh’s work through his often spiritual and philosophical correspondences. These letters capture a sense that art was all-consuming for Van Gogh, and that it encompasses more than just the oil on the canvas. From the introductory room we are informed of the depth of meaning that words and literature held for Van Gogh, books and the bible being a constant source of influence and comfort to him throughout his life. As he expresses himself in a letter to Theo, ‘Books and reality and art are the same kind of thing for me’ (letter 312). Through these letters he seems to acknowledge the limits of painting and seeks the power of words to fully demonstrate, to others and possibly to himself, his pursuit of becoming the modern artist. Having given up trying to draw peasants working on the land Van Gogh wrote that he was not striving for ‘academic technique’, but rather to portray the ‘harmonic form of the human body’ (letter 515). As his eagerness grew his attention shifted from the strict form of landscape and the human body to an increasingly pantheistic belief in man’s relationship with nature. This cultivation of skills in colour and technique seemed an attempt to capture the essence of humanity and nature.

Although his correspondences are not free from an increasing sense of failure and inner torment, there is a glimpse into how art exercised a calming influence on his despair. The Royal Academy’s exhibition does not give in easily to the idea that this artist can be defined through his mental illness, which is refreshing to see. Unlike most ‘tortured geniuses’ there is no sense here that his art does or should reflect his mental decline; more than anything his art strives for tranquillity. Although Van Gogh wrote to Theo that he had not progressed, as he would have hoped, the exhibition is a lasting testament to quite a different view. The Royal Academy builds up a picture of Van Gogh’s artistic career room by room, as if adding layer upon layer of colour and technique to our deeper understanding of the artist. On leaving the exhibition I was in no doubt that Van Gogh’s short but prolific career (in his last 70 days he produced more than 70 paintings) had been but a constant quest, even obsession, to redefine the modern artist.

The Royal Academy’s exhibition is something of a triumph, offering the viewer a new way in which to read (literally) an artist so devoted to the progress of modern art. It is easy to follow and structurally coherent, beginning with his decision to become an artist in 1880 and following through to his increasing attacks of mental breakdown, hospitalisation and eventual suicide in the last two years of his life, 1888-90. Moreover, the accessibility of this exhibition extends outside of the art gallery. The 40 letters on display are just a small fraction of the 902 rare and fragile texts, yet the comprehensive catalogue can be accessed via the Royal Academy’s website, allowing the visitor to search for letters and read the facsimiles, transcriptions and translations at leisure. This is an exhibit for the Van Gogh enthusiast and the newcomer alike. What is created out of this exhibition is a more complex understanding of the artist figure, an idea that Van Gogh held himself: ‘the duty of the painter is to study nature in depth and to use all his intelligence, to put his feelings into his work so that it becomes comprehensible to others’ (letter 252). The exhibition shows how one man invested so much of himself and his learning into cultivating his techniques and craft in the pursuit of a deeper and spiritual truth. I left with the view that Van Gogh was not just a great painter, but also one with a great poetic and intellectual vision.

The Real Van Gogh: the artist and his letters

The Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadily, London W1J 0BD

23 January – 18 April 2010

Tickets £12 (concessions available)

Check the website for opening times and last admissions

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