What made Van Gogh famous? Was it his boldness with colours? His self-tutelage? His portraiture of the European rural scene and the agrarian? The myth of his madness?
The current exhibition – The Real Van Gogh and His Letters – is the first major exhibition of the renowned painter’s work and his writings in London since the last 40 years. It is touching to see the way these letters – often a letter each day – to his brother Theo, complete with sketches of his paintings to share, shed light on the painter’s contemplation, his life values, his indestructible perseverance in pursuing the craft, and above all, his loneliness. There is something immensely sad to look back at the artist’s life, at the glimpse of this loneliness, from his (now) height of fame. One finds a strange expressiveness in his bold contrast of colours, at the same time a curious wistfulness in each curl of flower or leaf, or even clouds in his later and most celebrated paintings. My mother said that one should not look at his paintings for too long: they unsettle you. It’s true. Some of them, especially Starry Night, Nocturne, can be quite disturbing (but all the more revealing).
I found myself looking at the exhibit of Van Gogh’s self portrait for long. The harsh outlines of his ginger hair, his resolute face and stony stare at the world outside his canvas, even the painstaking details of the red blood vessels in the corner of his eyes, echo well with the portrait of the artist through his letters. Both point to a man of hard uncompromising self-discipline, full of bold vision and inquisitiveness about the outside world.
Setting up a coherent dialogue of the artist’s paintings (landscapes and portraits), sketches and letters, the exhibition brings to light the steady labour and perpetual self-discoveries in Van Gogh’s craft. There are few models available for the painter at the time, and he made use of everything he saw: peasants, fields, birds, The Red Vineyard was the only painting sold in his lifetime. But the relative lack of contemporary criticisms about his work back then might have helped him in staying true to his own intuition and self-learnt artistic approach. I like the way he paints the peasants: the muteness in their faces, the honest and down-to-earth landscapes and some slight awkwardness in their postures, as if they are larger than life and too real for the canvas.
The letters are there as part of the artist’s life and legacy, and they shed light on the artist’s self-awareness and record his inspirations for many of his paintings. “You must imagine me sitting at my attic window,” he tells Theo from The Hague at four o’clock one summer morning in 1882. “Over the red tiled roofs comes a flock of white pigeons flying between the black smoking chimneys. But behind this is an infinity of delicate gentle greens, miles and miles of flat meadow, and a grey sky as still, as peaceful as Corot.” This is poetry. FT’s Art critic Jackie Wullschlager pointed out the complete and inter-laced volume of his letters serve as an unfiltered source of biography (article). On the other hand, Adrian Searle of The Guardian considers his sketches as the most fascinating, and are as sweeping and unmeditated outlines of his thoughts as his letters to his brother (article).
Nowadays I find it sometimes almost painstaking to read or look at an artist’s work without imagining the process or efforts involved. Van Gogh had continued to paint even when he was living in the mental home in Saint-Remy-en-Provence. The world-famous painter’s insistence to continue with his art is touching. How often did we say that we are too busy and cannot afford time for (making or appreciating) art? That our minds are too preoccupied with the daily foibles and cannot pursue what we really want? True, life has its many worries, but it is also a matter of priorities. Van Gogh, far away from the crowd and afflicted with depression, who can hardly sell a painting throughout his lifetime, has chosen to continue with what he finds important, right to his very last breath.
It is a shame that some of his masterpieces including The Sunflowers, The Artist’s Room and Wheat Field with Crows, so much known for their symbolic significance in his later work, are kept at the Amersterdam museum and not shown alongside his other paintings at the exhibition.
For more, see chronology