No need for the Cliché-killer

Late last year I had the good luck to be shown around the exhibition of Van Gogh's letters at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam by Ann Dumas, who is the curator of "The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters," which has just opened at the Royal Academy in London (and continues until 18 April).  So I am in the happy position of being able to tell you what almost no one has noticed - that the Amsterdam show and the London show are almost totally different.  The Amsterdam show was actually a rehanging of its own collection, so as to show the letters in the appropriate places in the gallery. Save for the letters, there is an overlap of only the 12 paintings loaned by the Van Gogh Museum in the RA exhibition, out of a total of 65 major paintings. There are also 30 drawings, plus 35 original letters - and this may well be the last time the letters are shown in a public exhibition, as each exposure to light increases the fading of the ink and its reactivity with the paper.  Amsterdam just does not lend its most iconic pictures (the ones the tourists come to see, after all), such as "Irises," "Starry Night" and "The Potato Eaters." 

            This means that Ms Dumas has had to do a great deal of work to put together a show of this magnitude and brilliance. But what a success it is - the more so as some of the great pictures are unfamiliar, a real and unexpected bonus when the subject is the world's best-known, most popular artist. Given  that we probably shan't see the letters again, this is the Van Gogh show of our lifetimes, for which we owe thanks to BNY Mellon's sponsorship, and to the work of Ms Dumas's co-curators in Amsterdam, Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker, the editors of the spectacular Thames & Hudson five-volume (and weighing 12kg) "Letters." It's free on-line, but nothing beats handling the print edition: every time reference is made to an image, whether it's a picture by Van Gogh or another artist, the image is reproduced in the margins of or on the gorgeous, art-paper page.

            The London show is rich with loans from the other Dutch big Van Gogh collection, the Kröller Müller Museum at Otterloo, who have loaned the 1889 "Still-life" with a Plate of Onions," while "Van Gogh's Chair" (1888) from the National Gallery hangs side by side with Amsterdam's "Gaugin's Chair",  painted about the same time. The hanging of these paintings, on the freshly painted cerulean walls of the RA, is a staggering example of the great installation of this show. As everyone who's ever seen these side-by-side has commented, these are portraits without faces; Van Gogh's luminously yellow, upright wooded  chair, with his pipe and a twist of tobacco and its woven seat, standing on the cool, red quarry -tiled floor contrasts with Gaugin's dark wood, elaborately curved chair,  on its upholstered seat a lit candle and some books, while it stands on a warm, patterned carpet.  The pictures date from the time when the two painters were living together, sharing "The Yellow House" (also in the London show) in Arles, acting out Van Gogh's doomed communal-living fantasy.

            I have to confess that when I went to Amsterdam, it was with a heavy heart and Van Gogh-weary eyes - from over-exposure to the cult of these same iconic pictures, or the ubiquitous reproductions of them, and too many hearings of Don McLean's "Starry, starry night" and "Vincent's eye of china blue."

            Several things won me over.  First, the letters. On their evidence, Van Gogh was a great writer - in three languages. Even in English he is observant, witty, and has a large vocabulary that he puts to striking use. I was bowled over, too, by so many of their illustrations not being sketches of work he was doing, but copies of finished work, to show his brother Theo what he was doing - and in detail. I find him noble as a thinker, too, daring and brave. Having been a religious nut, a born-again evangelical bore for Jesus, he managed to give up his near-narcotic dependence on religion without becoming an atheist bore. When he realized belief is foolish, he had the courage simply to put his foolishness behind him, and not be bothered about it again.

            Seeing a huge body of work all at once reminded me that Van Gogh had (nobly to my mind) decided  to become an artist, and achieved greatness as a painter - in only ten years.  And the clarity of the stages of this is so marvelous. His social sympathies with his peasant subjects culminating in "The Potato Eaters" give way to his interest in colour and the entirely beneficial influence of Japanese prints on his line. Then there is what you can't see properly in reproduction, his handling of paint, of textures and his brushwork. It has all been a re-revelation for me, a rediscovery that what we all adored as adolescents is good enough to appreciate properly and justly as grown-ups. Now I can even look at "Irises" without feeling the need to reach for a spray can of cliché-killer.

January 25, 2010 3:13 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on January 25, 2010 3:13 PM.

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