Note: The F and JH numbers in this blog are standard references used by van Gogh scholars to refer to specific works, rather like scientists use Latin names to refer to species.
Today I went to see The Real Van Gogh: the Artist and his Letters exhibition at the Royal Academy in London and OH MY GOD, it was absolutely incredible. I got some real surprises and met some old familiar friends.
There are 65 paintings, 40 drawings and 40 letters on show. The letters are so fragile they rarely if ever get exhibited.
Most people are familiar with one or two of Vincent’s works; the sunflowers or the starry nights, perhaps. But for many people, when they see a van Gogh for real for the first time they are knocked out by the vibrant colour. I know I do. How can colour be so bright?! But Vincent gets me with a second punch to the jaw I every time when I consider his drawing. For me, to even attempt to paint without getting the drawing right is a mistake. Vincent knew this – indeed I learned it from him. So to see so many of his acutely observed drawings, some accompanied by the painting that they refer to, was extremely revealing. The spontaneity, the sheer force of line, the accuracy, the expression… what a draftsman! I could bang on for thousands of words about it, but instead have a butcher’s at this:
It’s Road with Pollarded Willows (F1678, JH46) drawn in 1881 in Etten. I spent AGES looking at it. This has everything in it that a good prog rock song should have: contrast, rhythm, tone, narrative, simplicity, skill, all ultimately leading to a wholesome and satisfying beauty. I love the cottages on the far right hand side with their red roofs. Like the ting of a triangle in a Steely Dan tune.
Later, in Arles, Vincent would take to using a reed pen, making marks with it that Japanese printmakers do using woodblock printing techniques. The drawings look like handwriting, and are as spontaneous and ‘legible’ almost in the same way. I’m absolutely BONKERS about Vincent’s reed pen drawings. Here’s one of boats near Les-Stes-Maries-sur-Mer:
There were many paintings hanging that I’d seen before in the Dutch or French collections, but to see them hung together was delightful. Take for example one wall in which featured a series of portraits of the Roulin family that Vincent made friends with in Arles in 1888. Here’s Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin (F432, JH 1522)…
…which was hung alongside portraits Vincent made of his wife Augustine, their young son Camille and baby Marcel. You could really get a sense of just what his friendship with this family meant to him. It was very moving. These were pictures I was familiar with. But there were others on show that I’d never seen before, from private collections.
For example, here’s Snowy landscape in Arles (F391, JH1358 ) painted in February 1888 just a few days after Vincent arrived in Provence.
The delicacy of colour, lots of high key whites and pastel tones which he’d been using in Paris, spill out.
Another surprise was White farmhouse among olive trees (F664) which I’d never seen before and sprung out at me like a pouncing leopard.
It hasn’t been exhibited for 109 years and now lives in Japan. The luminous colour in the sky left me gasping ‘how does he do that?’ Having been into the Provencal landscape close to where this was painted I understood every brushstroke, each wiggle of blue that makes the mountains, each slash of brown that makes the trees. For reasons I can’t explain, this one moved me to tears.
And how about this for piece of genius from someone who hardly yet considered himself to be any more than a student of art? It’s Cottage with Peasant Woman Digging (F1669, JH825) painted in Nuenen in 1885.
See what I mean about the drawing? Brilliant. Just bloody brilliant! My feet feel muddy just looking at it. Look at the white bricks around the door – Vincent has even managed to express the detail of the lime leaching out from the mortar.
And so to the letters…
Even if Vincent had never painted a stroke, he would surely be known as a writer. His written observations of the world around him are as fascinating and profound as his pictures. But Im not going to tell you about the content of the letters because you can read them – every single one – online right here. Instead I’m going to tell you about their physical appearance. The first shock is that they are tiny! Really tiny. Vincent often folded a sheet to make four pages from one leaf the size a little smaller than A4. His handwriting changes from mood to mood, from sentence to sentence. Sometimes it’s scrawly, sometimes neat, sometimes he uses too much ink so it blobs. Other times you can see him rushing to the end of sentence as he hurries to get a thought down on paper. Often it’s really tiny writing. You can see the folds, the dog-eared corners, greasy marks, the pencil markings that Vincent’s sister–in-law Jo and others used to number the letters into some kind of comprehensive order.
And then there are the sketches. To better describe what he was thinking Vincent would draw little tiny sketches; of recent paintings he’d made, of ideas he’d had, or in this case (above) to show how he imagined his pictures might one day be hung together. They are so revealing.
It got me thinking about how people today don’t write letters anymore. It’s all email and Facebook. I still have all the letters my mum wrote to me when she lived in Hong Kong and I missed her so much. My dad keeps all the postcards that I have sent him from all over the world. These human documents have a tangible magic that tell a fascinating personal story. It makes me sad to think that perhaps today’s iPod generation won’t ever have such treasure to look back on. I’ve digressed! Sorry.
These were just a few of the fascinating and exquisite things I saw today. I could have mentioned the sensitive portrait of Sien, the woman he lived with in The Hague; or the letter Vincent’s friend Paul Gauguin wrote to him from Pont Aven; or the ‘last’ letter … the unposted one found on Vincent’s body with great dark blobby stains on it. Blood stains perhaps? A gunshot wound to the stomach is likely to bleed. So here you have it. Vincent’s DNA exposed in a letter.
The curators of this exhibition have done an heroic job of getting this lot together in one place at one time. I think Vincent would be very proud.
Comment from David Brooks of Toronto, Canada
Wonderful commentary, Jane. Pen strokes or brush strokes, there’s something so moving about seeing Vincent’s work in person, isn’t there? What an amazing opportunity to see this incredible exhibition–the first major Van Gogh exhibition in England in forty years. And to rave reviews I might add. I’m so glad that you got to see it and that you could share your passionate insights with us.
And I agree about the demise of letter writing. The Helene Hanff “84 Charing Cross Road” days are behind us I’m afraid.