Tate Britain - 27 March – 11 August 2019
In 1873, at the age of twenty, Vincent van Gogh arrived in London as a trainee for the art dealers Goupil. He was fluent in English, and was an avid reader of British literature, from Shakespeare to Victorian novels. He was particularly fascinated by Charles Dickens and George Eliot, whose works were ‘more real than reality’. During his three years in the city, he became acquainted with British art, and visited galleries and museums. He also developed a passion for British graphic artists and prints, and ended up collecting about 2,000 engravings, which were to serve him as training in his early career, and inspiration throughout his life.
The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain reveals for the first time the depth of the artist’s relationship with Britain, how British art, literature and culture had a lifelong impact on his style and subject matter, and also how he became a major influence to British artists. Over 50 works by Van Gogh are displayed together with various sources of inspiration, from paintings by John Constable and John Everett Millais, to the artist’s own copies of prints by Gustave Doré and many others. There are also vitrines displaying illustrated books by his favourite authors and illustrators, and his own sketchbooks.
In comparing similarities and differences between Van Gogh’s sources of inspiration and his own work, we discover new depths to his talent and approach, and we are also gently led beyond the trite myth of the tortured artist, the isolated genius, by discovering a fluid dialogue with the culture of his times.
By the 1920s Van Gogh’s pictures were regularly exhibited and bought by collectors in Britain, establishing him as a modern master. Following the publication of two biographies and Van Gogh’s letters, his life and his work became seen as strongly entangled, and the stereotype of madness and art engraved itself in people’s mind. Interesting is a vitrine displaying a volume of Horizon containing Antonin Artaud’s article ‘Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society’, which, if you are not sure what is mad and what isn’t, I warmly suggest you read.
The whole exhibition is spectacular, if you manage to deal with the throng of visitors that it attracts, but here are some of the highlights: Room 3, Starry Night, which is particularly striking after the long display of treelined autumn roads of the previous rooms. The Prison Courtyard (1890) after Gustave Doré’s Exercise Yard at Newgate Prison, exhibited next to it. Room 7, a whole bright room of sunflowers, including the rarely loaned Sunflowers 1888 from the National Gallery, and sunflowers painted by the many British artists that were influenced by Van Gogh.
In the course of your visit, you might find out, if you didn’t already know, that certain themes, like the empty chair, and portraits of people with their head buried in their hands, were not invented by Van Gogh. Yet he made them his, by adding his particular touch and interpretation.
First published in the East Finchley Open Artists April 2019 Newsletter - Click HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.