Reading, writing, rambling...

Friday, 26 February 2010

Van Gogh at the Royal Academy

The current Van Gogh exhibition in the Royal Academy is huge and absorbing. Despite the large number of masterworks displayed, the heart of it is a selection of letters, in Dutch, French and English, in which Van Gogh describes with a hard-rending simplicity, clarity and enthusiasm his methods and ambitions. The 7 years he spent in England gave him a fair fluency in English, while at a certain point he and his brother Theo began communicating in French. It would be interesting to chart this linguistic switch against the change in his palette, so transformed by the colours of Paris and Provence.

Tormented genius, thwarted lover of the world, successful (eventually) only as a suicide and then as a posthumous reputation and market investment, the Lust for Life version of Van Gogh has elided the thoughtful, articulate man who could talked so clearly, so engagingly about his subject matter, his compositions, his marks. It also became clear (jostling for space in front of the letters, full of eager sketches of his latest paintings) that this was a well-read man, someone whose rustic tables were covered with books, whose head was full of ideas and debates. His interest in and indebtedness to Japanese art, the subject of an exhibition in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam a couple of years ago, is also highlighted. Try to get there, and try to have at least half a day.

On a personal note, it was delightful to spot, across a crowded exhibition room, the painting of a tree in blossom that I used to see and enjoy on wet weekends (not a rarity in the Edinburgh climate) in the National Gallery of Scotland. It's been with me for over 50 years, and I feel affectionate and proprietorial about it now.

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