April 2010, Van Gogh @ Royal Academy of Arts

Vincent Van Gogh, Mountains at Saint-Remy, 1889

Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters
Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House
London W1J 0BD
January 23 through April 18, 2010

When Van Gogh was pushing his wheelbarrow up the roads of Provence, trying and failing to hawk the paintings that his art-dealer brother was never able to sell to Parisians hell-bent on impressionism, did he ever dream that crowds in London would be climbing over each others’ backs, 120 years later, for a mere glimpse at his masterpieces? 

The masterpieces in question are his paintings, drawings and letters on display in Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters at London’s Royal Academy of Art until April 18. The exhibition’s 60 paintings, 30 drawings and 35 letters bring to dazzling light the iron discipline and unbridled enthusiasm that Van Gogh brought to his visionary, decade-long career as an artist. Dazzling, that is, if you’re willing to stand in line for hours and then elbow your way through the six-deep hordes surrounding each image.

Van Gogh’s letters were mostly addressed to his younger brother Theo, although he also had some correspondence with his sister Willemien and, later, fellow artists Anthon von Rappard, Emile Bernard, and Paul Gauguin. Prior to 1880, Van Gogh’s rigid handwriting betrayed a man of passion forcing himself into the mold of a cleric. At this point of his life, his letters were filled with Bible verses and turgid theological pronouncements. By 1880, though, Van Gogh would abandon his missionary aspirations and would study briefly at London’s Royal Academy of Art, where he’d learn anatomy and the basics of modeling and perspective. Leaving formal study behind forever at age 27 to begin drawing scenes from the lives of ordinary people in the Dutch countryside, Van Gogh would devote the last ten years of his life to the practice of art. By the time he left Holland to live in Provence (after a brief stint in Paris), he would focus less on toiling peasants and more on the hypnotic landscapes of southern France. From this point forward, his cursive hand would wind feverishly across and around his stationary paper with ecstatic descriptions of nature and the colors he planned to apply to his newest pieces. After moving from drawing to painting, he’d write with almost equal fervor to ask Theo for the funds and supplies necessary to stay fed and keep up with his nonstop visions.  

Drawings were often embedded in these letters, which were written in Dutch, French and sprinklings of English. At times, the sketches were slapdash, as in one where Van Gogh breaks in the middle of a sentence to draw for Theo the kind of brushes he’ll need in order to execute one of the 200 canvasses that he’d paint over the course of his 15 months in Arles. But there are also tiny sketches in these letters that would serve as outstanding rough drafts for lithographs and paintings like The Potato Eaters (1885), A Peasant Woman Digging (1885), and Portrait of a Peasant Girl in a Straw Hat (1890). Despite their accomplished nature, Van Gogh regarded the sketches as nothing more than croques (“scratches”). Currently available for viewing at the Royal Academy, these drawings, paintings, and corresponding letters and croques demonstrate the earthiness and often improvisational nature of Van Gogh’s highly prolific career.  

Although Van Gogh’s paintings are generally far too heavy to be classed with the impressionists, the movement’s influence over his work - subsequent to Van Gogh’s stay in Paris in 1886 – is indisputable. Van Gogh’s Terrace in the Luxembourg Gardens (1886), for example, with its leisurely visitors and budding groves of apple and pear trees, owes a debt to the neo-impressionism of his contemporary Georges Seraut. At this point of the Royal Academy exhibition, the galleries begin to burst with Van Gogh’s newfound mania for bright colors. It’s also here that we begin seeing in Van Gogh’s work frequent reference to the literature that inspired artists of all media in 19th Century France. In Romans Parisiens (1887), heaps of novels are stacked up on Van Gogh’s table with one splayed open mid-book to demonstrate the artist’s affinity for the fiction of naturalist writers like Emile Zola. As featured in Letter 574, Van Gogh writes to Theo: “If one wants truth, life as it is, DeGoncourt, for example, in Germinie Lacerteux… Zola in La Joie de Vivre and L’Assommoir and so many other masterpieces, [they] paint life as we feel it ourselves...” If only art and literature cross-fertilized each other today as they did then!  

Vincent Van Gogh, Romans Parisiens, 1887

The Royal Academy devotes an entire section of the exhibit to Van Gogh’s obsession with Japanese art, which he shared with Theo, who made a practice of staying current with the exotic imports that the Parisian beau monde was buying up like lace fans. In featured Japanese prints like Utagawa Hiroshige’s Plum Orchard at Kameido (1857) and Yoshitsune’s Cherry Tree (1855), Van Gogh found a profound simplicity of subjects and ornate color treatments that he would seek to emulate in his Provencal landscape paintings. Only weeks after he moved to Arles, Van Gogh wrote to fellow painter Emile Bernard: “This part of the world seems to me as beautiful as Japan for the clearness of the atmosphere and the gay color effects. The stretches of water make patches of a beautiful emerald and a rich blue in the landscapes, as we see in the Japanese prints.” In Portrait of Pere Tanguy (1887), Van Gogh combines both Provencal and Japanese landscapes, drawn from Theo’s prints, which lay fanned out behind the rustic figure of Pere Tanguy, along with two characters from kabuki theater. This east-meets-west concoction alone puts Van Gogh light years ahead of his contemporaries, making it all the more confounding that he only made the equivalent of a few hundred dollars over the course of his career.

“The Sacrifice for Art,” the final installment of Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters, is of course the most tragic, if not the most accomplished, section of the exhibition. Paintings from this period come straight out of the last fifteen months of Van Gogh’s life, nine weeks of which he spent in the famed Yellow House in Arles, where he worked in the throes of a tortured relationship with painter Paul Gauguin. From there, Van Gogh would spend a full year in the psychiatric clinic Saint-Paul-de-Mausole at Saint-Remy. Featured in Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters are such emblematic paintings from his time in the asylum as Mountains at Saint-Remy (1889), Wheat Field with White Cloud (1889) and Hospital at Saint Remy (1889). 
Scholars often remark on the lucidity with which Van Gogh composed his letters and paintings, even in his most disturbed states of mind. While not a suicide note, Van Gogh’s final letter (unfinished) to Theo was found in his shirt pocket after he shot himself in the chest in a field in Auvers. This letter, also on display at the Royal Academy, demonstrates Van Gogh’s unemotional objectivity about his own condition every bit as much as the famous self-portrait in Arles (1888), where he’s wearing a head-bandage after having cut off part of his ear: “Ah well, I risk my life for my own work and my reason has half-foundered in it.”  

In the last eight weeks of his life, Van Gogh wrote to Theo telling him he felt like an utter failure. Nonetheless, in those two months alone, he managed to paint 70 paintings, some of which appear at the Royal Academy until April 18. Even while losing his mind for the last time, Van Gogh ceaselessly produced some of the most original and evocative paintings of his or any other era. Still and all, his work would not start selling until about ten years after his suicide. By 1911, the first edition of his letters to Theo, edited by Emile Bernard, sold widely as admirers sought to understand the mind of the misunderstood genius. Today, crowds line up for hours outside museums, oftentimes seeking to do the same thing. In his lifetime, not even Van Gogh’s closest artist friends thought he was anything special and his letters certainly never foretold a time when he’d be memorialized like he is today in Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters at his alma mater, The Royal Academy of Art in London.

Kyle Smith

Kyle Thomas Smith is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. He is the Editor of Sentient City: The Art of Urban Dharma and a frequent contributor to Edge Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Vision and Art of Shinjo Ito. He is preparing for the release of his novel, 85A. Visit his website at www.streetlegalplay.com

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