Van Gogh and Britain review
Updated: Jul 16, 2021
It doesn’t matter if you’re a casual “insta art lover” or a heavy-cultured “art consommateur” – VAN GOGH AND BRITAIN has a takeaway for everyone. From the blue-chip masterpieces (Sunflowers, Starry Night over the Rhône, L'Arlésienne, Shoes) to Francis Bacon’s tributes to Van Gogh, bringing together over 50 works by Vincent van Gogh, this exhibition will give people of all shapes, genders, and ages enough visual cues to reflect, enrich and deepen their relationship with the iconic artist.
Van Gogh's British years
Vincent van Gogh lived in Britain in his early twenties, between 1873 and 1876. Three years that formatted his artistic persona. As this exhibition proves, his later style and subject matters were greatly influenced by the time spent in the UK, sketching, walking, working, and discovering the art world. He left Britain at 23 and 4 years later he officially entered the art scene as an artist, head-on.
Reality more real than reality
The first part of the Tate Britain show follows Vincent’s journey throughout London. For 2 years he was a trainee in an art dealer’s office in Covent Garden, but the part he enjoyed the most was experiencing first-hand the atmosphere depicted by Charles Dickens. He was an avid reader of Victorian novels and fascinated by their “reality more real than reality” style, he always sought ways to build that type of agonizing vibration in his art.
He used to travel along the Thames by boat, explore the city on foot, although he wasn’t less fascinated by the underground railway. He couldn’t have enough of London’s museums, art galleries, and art dealer’s rooms. He would sign his favourite museums’ guest books (British museum was among them), and we can actually see his signature in Dulwich Picture Gallery Visitors Book, dated 4 August 1873. These walks would stay with him forever.
Black and white British prints
While employed at London’s art dealer Goupil, Vincent came in contact with thousands of art prints and reproductions. At this time, he still hadn’t had any serious art training, so he just started to grow a personal collection of prints. He ended up having around 2000 pieces. He also spent plenty of time studying them, copying them, and paying attention to light, shades, and composition.
“I often felt low in England, but the black and white and Dickens are things that make up for it all” Vincent van Gogh, 1883
Although the British episode wasn’t necessarily happy – he lost his job, then tried preaching and teaching for a while after leaving Britain for good in 1876 – it’s fascinating how he managed to shift his misfortune towards creativity and inspiration. It’s during these years spent in Britain that his interest in the working class gained consistency. In his letters to his brother Theo, he often speaks of the disappointments of love and feelings of melancholy, which contributed to his growing empathy and understanding of life’s downsides.
In the next room, titled “Cosmopolitans: Van Gogh and British friends in France,” VAN GOGH AND BRITAIN curators follow his better-known whereabouts in France: Paris, Arles, Saint-Remy, until 1890 – the year of his tragic death – including L'Arlésienne, alongside two other paintings he made during his time at the Saint-Paul Asylum - At Eternity’s Gate and Prisoners Exercising.
Van Gogh’s legacy
20 years after his death, British audiences got a taste of Van Gogh’s genius through “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” Exhibition – a spectacular milestone for the British culture, with over 25,000 visitors. Sadly, the critics focused more on the artist’s personal story of mental issues rather than his unique approach and colour vibrancy.
His talent was only recognized in connection to his human flaws and mental struggles. Branded a “madman and a genius” by C. Lewis Hind, it’s an opinion that resides in the art world to this very day. His impact on other artists was never weakened, on the contrary. His bold choice of colours, his “carving” brush strokes, and twisted perspectives were accepted as challenges by all artists who have seen his works in either London or Paris.
Sunflowers, painted in 1888 in Arles spent most of the time on public display in Britain, at London’s National Gallery. The echoes of this series of paintings are explored in a separate room dedicated to different interpretations of it by various British artists.
Francis Bacon and Van Gogh
In the last room, you cannot miss one of the highlights (and my personal favorites) of this exhibition. Three works created by Francis Bacon who was deeply touched by Vincent’s sense of reality and of depicting the tragedy of the human condition. For instance Study for Portrait of Van Gogh IV (1957) is based on a melancholic self-portrait of Van Gogh which was destroyed during the war, but sneaked into Bacon’s conscience through photographs. A dark reminder of Vincent’s solitude against the popular artists of his time, and his barely-lit presence among society.
#WithinLondon #CuriosityCorner: Did you know that VAN GOGH AND BRITAIN is the first Vincent van Gogh exhibition in Britain since the 1947 Tate show – a show so popular that it damaged the gallery floors?
Five Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
The VAN GOGH AND BRITAIN exhibition paints a lively account of van Gogh’s personal and artistic becoming. Tiny sketchbooks and his persistent practice help us follow his footsteps and get inside his inquisitive mind at that time. It's an exclusive access to his “behind the scenes” if you wish. The British context is painted thoroughly and smartly linked with his later works. VAN GOGH AND BRITAIN is a five-star idea with impeccable, insightful execution. Will it have the same echoes as the one in 1947? Well, “watch this space” to find out. Go see it with an open mind!
Van Gogh and Britain at Tate Britain, 27 March-11 August 2019.
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