Tate’s latest exhibition, Van Gogh and Britain, reveals the extent to which the artist was inspired by British culture and in turn, influenced it. In her review, Jo Hemmings asks why we’re still captivated by Van Gogh and his work.
Starry nights, vibrant sunflowers and the mad genius who cut off his own ear, then took his own life: Vincent Van Gogh is easily recognisable, the most famous artist in the world.
Grim London streets, a dark grey prison and great Victorian literature: this does not immediately suggest Van Gogh in quite the same way.
The latest exhibition at the Tate Britain is titled Van Gogh and Britain and attempts to show that Van Gogh’s love of British culture (from living in Britain between 1873 and 1876) lasted his whole life and contributed to the style and subject matter of his art.
If you are mildly sceptical of this claim, you shouldn’t be. It’s true that the exhibition begins a little too earnestly – Van Gogh’s signature in the visitor book for the Dulwich Picture Gallery seems a little overly insistent that Van Gogh experienced art in London – but the facsimiles of Van Gogh’s letters provide the flavour and the substance for this claim (the original letters are too precious to be moved from Amsterdam). The letters he sent home to his family contain scribbled sketches of London sights such as Austin Friars church and tree-lined avenues, and his 1875 quote ‘How I love London’ is so on point it is inscribed in large text on the wall of the exhibition.
One really valuable idea that this exhibition brings out is to show how expansive Van Gogh’s understanding and enjoyment of all forms of art was, including his love of literature. He wrote to his brother Theo that, ‘reading books is like looking at paintings: without doubting, without hesitating, with self-assurance, one must find beautiful that which is beautiful’. It is known that Van Gogh read and enjoyed Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti and Shakespeare. He loved the reality of Victorian novels and wrote, ‘My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes’. The exhibition shows how Van Gogh identified with the solitary, working heroes of Dickens and Eliot through displaying his later pictures such as Loom with Weaver (1884) and the man with his head in his hands in Worn Out (1881), a position Van Gogh later used again to depict himself in At Eternity’s Gate (1890). The only painting in which Van Gogh painted a recognisable London scene was in the last year of his life when he was in hospital in France for his mental illness. The Prison Courtyard (1890) was a translation of an 1872 engraving of Newgate Prison by Gustave Doré that Van Gogh owned. It is thought that Newgate Prison was familiar to Van Gogh from the novels of Dickens and that the ‘prison’ of Van Gogh’s life inside the mental hospital drew him to this subject matter at that time.
The second part of the exhibition explores the impact of Van Gogh in Britain. One room focuses on the groundbreaking exhibition in London in 1910, Manet and the Post-Impressionists, which introduced the British public to unfamiliar modern styles of art. It was so influential that author Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed’. It contained what are now some of Van Gogh’s most famous pictures – Sunflowers (1888) and Wheatfield with Crows (1890). Even in 1910, critics connected Van Gogh’s artistic talent to his mental illness, contributing to the image of a ‘mad genius’ that has continued in our culture until the present day.
The question I found myself trying to answer throughout was this: what exactly is it that makes Van Gogh so great?
It would be tempting to say that the only reason Van Gogh is so famous is because people are obsessed by his life and the mystery surrounding its end. Two recent films indicate this. Loving Vincent (2017) was indeed a labour of love for Vincent Van Gogh, being an animation made entirely of hand-painted images in the style of Van Gogh and weaving the story of the last few months of Van Gogh’s life around characters taken from his portraits. At Eternity’s Gate (2018), starring Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh, also recreated the ending of Van Gogh’s life, focusing on his time in Arles with Gauguin and afterwards in the mental hospital. Both films engage with a relatively new theory (from a 2011 biography by Naifeh and White) that Van Gogh did not in fact shoot himself; rather, he was accidentally shot by a troublesome schoolboy and then covered for the boy by pretending he had done it himself. This desire to somehow exculpate Van Gogh from the ignominy of suicide appears to be the latest trend. At least it is a variation on the ‘mad genius’ idea.
But – leaving aside the turbulent biographical details – it is clear that Van Gogh was a very great artist. He was exceptional. I was struck with this forcefully upon entering the Sunflowers room in the exhibition. The purpose of the room, according to the catalogue, is to show how Van Gogh’s flower still lifes contributed to a revival of flower painting among modern artists in Britain. In a room full of paintings of flowers by various artists, many of them sunflowers, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (the version held by the National Gallery, borrowed for this occasion) is startling in the way it stands out, effortlessly attracting attention. Now this could partially be due to the prominent positioning of Sunflowers in the room and the fact that, being so famous, the painting is instantly recognisable and therefore more likely to stand out. But after directly comparing Van Gogh’s Sunflowers to every other painting of sunflowers in the room by other artists following him – as I did, at length – there is no question but that Van Gogh’s painting is mightily superior.
How is he so superior? One answer that is sometimes given as to why Van Gogh is so great is his use of colour. I said this to a family member once apropos the Sunflowers and he said, ‘what, no one had ever painted in yellow before?’ Sometimes it is the basic questions that get you thinking. It got me thinking that the brightness of the colours may indeed be a reason why children engage so easily with Van Gogh and then remain attached as adults – pictures such as the Sunflowers and his Self-Portrait (1887), also on display in the exhibition, are some of the most popular. But it is more to do with his application of colour. The blending of colours, the shaping and the detail of Sunflowers gives life to the painting, in a way that is in marked contrast to the sunflower paintings of others in the room. Frank Brangwyn’s Sunflowers, for example, looked amateurish in comparison, the flat broad strokes of colour being pretty enough from a distance, but lacking in interest up close. Something else I hadn’t appreciated about Van Gogh’s Sunflowers until I saw the painting for real is the layering of paint and the texture of the picture – the heads of some of the individual sunflowers look almost three-dimensional. It is a truly astonishing picture.
This exhibition at the Tate Britain, the first Van Gogh exhibition in Britain since 1947, was always going to be popular, and the crowds attest to that. Yet examining the influence of Van Gogh’s time in Britain on his life and later work is a surprisingly worthy idea. It is fresh to focus on Van Gogh’s early life and to visualise this highly sensitive and intelligent 20-year-old in London who had yet to paint his first painting, rather than to focus on his later mental health issues and melodramatic death.
I still don’t have a full answer on why exactly it is that Van Gogh is so great. But perhaps that is the point of genius: it cannot be explained. Van Gogh was a genius.
The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain will be shown at Tate Modern from 27th March – 11th August. Click here for tickets and more information. Loving Vincent is currently available to watch on Netflix.