Saturday 16 May 2020


Tate Britain, London 

“Real painters do not paint things as they are ...they paint them as they themselves feel them to be."
-Van Gogh

Love Colour, Let It Show

Van Gogh and Britain? He arrived in London in 1873 on his employer’s orders, and in the three years he spent there he painted …wait for it… nothing at all. Pierre Cabanne’s book devotes less than two pages to the non-episode. The (many) British artists who came to be influenced by him almost routinely made pilgrimage to Provence, to the landscapes where his style developed. While this show makes what it can of thumbnail sketches stuck in the margins of letters.

And the Tate Britain has form for this… In 1870, Monet and Pissarro went to London, fleeing the Franco-Prussian War. Monet went home almost as soon as he could, and (again) before he’d reached his mature style. They found that enough for a show.

Contemporary artists have most likely become averse to taking stopover flights in Heathrow, lest the venue try to wring a retrospective out of it, speculating on things they might or might not have bought in duty free which may or may not have influenced their work. But the truth is… muggins here went to both shows. If there’s some Monets and Pissarros or some Van Goghs - I’m there. Morsels can look like meals to the hungry.

The show starts with paintings he’s thought to have seen in his stay, and been influenced by. Sounds a stretch, but let’s take it at its word. Notably, there’s only one which now seems tolerable. Elmore Leonard famously said “if it reads like writing, rewrite it”. And the majority of these works are painterly. And their ostensibly being nature scenes only makes this problem worse.

Whereas with Millais’ ‘Chill October’ (1870) no effort seems apparent. The composition looks casual, as if hit on by chance. In fact I saw the same painting at the Tate B’s earlier Pre-Raphaelites show, and praised it’s ridding itself of the encumbrance of narrative. But hung here, it seems to make a deeper point…

Of course direct responses to nature, without the intervention of human culture, are an impossibility. (Something I’ve been known to rant about before.) But, like an actor who manages to suggest the lines he’s learnt are coming to him in the moment, too skilled to appear skilful, Millais seems to leave you with no place to apply that knowledge.

If there is another work here whose imprint can be seen on our boy it’s by another Dutch artist, albeit an older one, Meindert Hobbema’s ‘The Avenue At Middelharnis’ (1689). And what Van Gogh does is take Hobbema’s subject matter, a solitary figure in an avenue of tall trees, and match it with Millais’ ‘naturalness’ and Autumnal, melancholic mood. (Millais’s is the only work in this sequence not to include human figures.)

This is true of several works, the best of which is ’Avenue of Poplars in the Autumn’ (1884, above). It has Millais’ rich and deep colours. Yet it adds a unique feature. Both earlier works have expansive skies, a common feature of nature art, an open space they use to evoke mood. (Different skies for different moods, but the concept’s the same.) Van Gogh’s sky barely shows through. The tall painting is dominated by the tall poplars, which is then enhanced by their shadows cast on the path, then enhanced again by the twin fences on the bridge.

An attentive reader may have already noted that by this point Millais’ style isn’t that far different from the Impressionists, who by this date were already at work. And in fact the chief drawback with this section is that it mires us in looking elsewhere when the Impressionist influence on Van Gogh was surely stronger. There is after all a reason why he’s considered a Post-Impressionist. (And it’s not just because Post-Pre-Raphaelite would sound so clunky.)

Like the Impressionists, Van Gogh normally worked en plein air. (‘Outdoors’ to you and me.) But his art isn’t as descriptive, as concerned with capturing moments as theirs. It’s not even that we find we belong in nature, nature reflects us. The roots of Expressionism, the notion that art’s function is to map the mental state of the artist, are here. A smaller, ink-and-chalk work, ‘Alley Bordered By Trees’ (1884) is quite Munch-like.

His Wikipedia entry suggests he strove to convey what he saw as eternal truths, but which needed to be instanced through the real world. So everything had to have both a literal and a symbolic meaning, meanings which had to be presented as conjoined. And one could be said to stand for Van Gogh’s inner self, and the other for his responses to his environment. So the common debate about Romanticism, how much the artist channels the natural world and how much he projects his own feelings over it, becomes particularly acute.

One of those helpful hints no-one ever actually tells you about Van Gogh… Forget the sunflowers, which long ago became too familiarised for you to actually see. You can even skip the self-portraits should time be pressing. His essence is in his paintings of trees.

‘Hospital at St. Remy’ (1889, above) doesn’t just foreground and show them towering over buildings. It presents them stretching up into the sky, like a record of the their growth - like we’re looking at really slow time-lapse photography. It allows you to picture them forcing their way up through the ground, every inclination upwards. If this was a piece of music, it would be ever-swelling without reaching a crescendo.

And Van Gogh achieves such an effect by painting still things as though they aren’t still. In ‘Path in the Garden of The Asylum’(1889, above) the movement isn’t in the scene but where we almost don’t think to look - in the brushwork. Compare this to the earlier ’Avenue of Poplars’, where the path was a kind of canvas - a base layer to throw shadows over. Here the path is a tumult of strokes, as flowing as any river. In fact the stillest thing here seems to be the human figure. Everything else moves, just on a scale he can’t see. And this is what the show calls Van Gogh’s “distinctive, mature style”, a flickering flux made up of thick hatch-strokes applied by brush. He later incorporated the swirl motif, most famously in ’Starry Night’ (1889), a shape it’s almost impossible to perceive as still.

The well-known ‘Starry Night Over the Rhone’ 
(1888, above) is hung alongside Whistler’s ‘Nocturne: Grey and Gold, Westminster Bridge’ (c. 1891/2). But they’re more a contrast than a comparison. Whistler uses the London fog to mystifying effect, defamiliarising our own environment. It’s not a place but a setting. You wouldn’t know where you were without the helpful title. (‘Nocturne’ is usually a musical term, and music doesn’t normally go in for likenesses.)

Whereas ‘Starry Night’ is perfectly straightforward. You’d know if you were placed in that location, even in different weather conditions. (Its Wikipedia entry places a photo by it.)

Its instant hit comes from the way the harbour lights are stretched so dazzlingly by their reflection in the water. But the more lasting effect comes from the lack of distinguishing between the harbour lights and the stars, which virtually line up together. Van Gogh was influenced by Japanese prints. And like them he pictures an environment that is in inherent balance, harmonious to its marrow.

The effect isn’t at all melancholic, rather it’s rhapsodic. As Laura Cumming puts it in the Guardian: “The sheer joy of it all is what strikes every time: every brushload laid upon the surface an act of exultation, every colour a kind of gratitude.”

Which is why Jonathan Richman’s rip-roaring musical tribute to him is actually appropriate when that cloying Don Mclean crap just isn’t. (“He loved, he loved, he loved life so bad/ His paintings had twice the colour other paintings had/ So bad so bad that the world had to know/ The man loved colour and he let it show.” Good analysis. Not kidding.)

And all this only enters his art after he moves to France. Yet it’s the Van Gogh we think of.

Similarly in ‘Farm Near Auvers’ (1890, above), with those tumblingly uneven thatched roofs, the buildings blend into the slope of the hills, the flecked cottage roofs echoed by the yellow fields. There is something Arcadian in this lack of distinction between human construct and the natural world.

And he often seems part of a Modernism whose quarrel with Romanticism was merely aesthetic, about upping the ante. They had been too genteel in their approach; for so savage a subject what was needed was a more savage art - to capture nature in the raw. This often fed into his posthumous popularity, particularly among artists and art critics. The show includes a quote from Roger Fry: “Modern European art has always mistreated flowers, dealing with them at best as aids to sentimentality until Van Gogh saw the arrogant spirit that inhabits the sunflower.”

Yet ‘Loom With Weaver’ (1884, above) presents its twin subjects in title order. In fact only the upper torso of the weaver is visible behind his loom, caught within repeated frames. Yet despite this and the muted colour scheme there’s no sense of man being made prisoner by machine, the way Romantic art would insist on. That art almost always depicts a uniform group of figures, a production line of people. Putting one man in interaction with one machine seems more a precursor to Constructivism.

And in the ostensibly straightforward way it’s painted, it seems more a latterday piece of folk art - the mechanical loom presented as if if were a traditional activity. (We should also note that the bright lights captured in ’Starry Night Over the Rhone’ came from then-novel gas lighting.)

Romantic art could stray into seeing nature as Edenic and ‘unfallen’, and society as Babylonian, hopeless corrupted by sin, the place to flee. Whereas Van Gogh’s refusal to see nature and society as antithetical, could there be a connection between this and his humanism? He had an interest in socially reforming art, quite at odds with his tragic outsider image. Prior to Provence, he frequently drew and painted studies of the common folk, saying “I want to make figures from the people, for the people”.

In ‘Augustine Roulin’ (1889, above) that’s wallpaper behind the figure, but the flowers still seem to shimmer and dance. And this is enhanced by the colour scheme, where both the wallpaper and the figure’s clothes are in different shades of green. It seems influenced by his frenemy Gauguin, in works such as ’The Little One is Dreaming’ (1881). As I said, this was painted “as if the ‘real world’ was suffused with dreams”. Yet Van Gogh paints not just a wide awake woman but a particularly solid one, definitely planted in the real world. Realms don’t seem linked only at their margins, they just co-exist.

This Cult of Crazy is Crazy

As I said over the earlier Gauguin show: “Between them, Gauguin and his sometime compatriot Van Gogh embody the two main stereotypes of the modern artist – one the deranged visionary, the other the bohemian adventurer.”

And the show becomes more interesting when it timelines what we could call the Van Gogh cult, perhaps because it details something which actually happened in Britain. (Though it seems to have happened much the same way on the continent, merely sooner.) He was included in the famous 1910 exhibition ‘Monet and the Post-Impressionists’, which caused sensation and controversy in equal measure - the Tate reproducing a jeering Bateman cartoon. And interestingly his mental illness was marshalled as evidence by both critics and fans.

Though it was the Twenties which saw the start of the cult in earnest, with two biographies plus a collection of his letters published. This didn’t arise in a uniform fashion. We’re told of a Tate show in ’47 where in the post-war climate he was depicted as an artist of the people. It proved so popular the floor needed reinforcing.

But if the road had twists it still took us to the popular view of Van Gogh we’re now encumbered with, the wild and deranged genius who painted in a frenzy with his feet, while glugging absinthe and chopping random bits off himself at regular intervals. Inevitably, it’s his ’Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear’ (1889) which accompanies the Wikipedia article on the Tortured Artist.

I know nothing of the biographies, but the letters are by necessity the artist’s own words. As Wikipedia puts it: “These began a compelling mythology of Van Gogh as an intense and dedicated painter who suffered for his art and died young.”

Yet I remember seeing the documentary ‘Vincent’ on release (1987), mostly comprised of readings from those letters, and being struck by how different those considered words were from that public image. (To avoid confusion, this is not the later ‘Loving Vincent’.) Norbert Lynton has pointed out “his letters prove him to have been one of the most observant and thoughtful painters ever.” (‘History of Modern Art’) This is the Van Gogh who spoke four languages and read widely, scarcely a savage outsider.

But, just as with his art, the published letters became a talisman of the popularly constructed deranged genius. What he said in them wasn’t the significant thing, their existence was taken as further proof for what everyone had assumed all along. These were books to wave about, not read.

It’s scarcely coincidental that this myth began after the artist’s death, even that 1910 show nearly thirty-five years after he’d gone. His headstone was a necessary lodestone to build it over. Not just because it fed the cliché of doomed romanticism, but because he was no longer around to contradict anything said about him. He went from living, breathing artist to mounted trophy. Effectively, he died twice.

When suffering from attacks, Van Gogh was unsurprisingly incapable of working. So is there any reason to suppose that they were not gift but merely burden? That, un-beset by them, he’d have produced more paintings during his time and probably lived longer anyway? Suppose he’d suffered from some debilitating physical ailment which prevented him painting, and finally finished him off? Would we be having the same conversation about his art then? He said himself, in one of those letters, he was best off trying “to look upon madness as a disease like any other.” And so should we.

’Self-Portrait’ (1889, above), used as the poster image here, has often been interpreted as the artist channelling his suffering into his work. Which just overwrites what’s on the canvas. He sports a scrutinising expression and clutches his palette firmly. This is an above-average example of a familiar image, the calling card of the hard-working artist. It’s a construct, of course. Art is always a construct. It may, for all we know, have been an act of bravado by a troubled soul. But we should always try to get as close to Van Gogh’s Van Gogh as we can, and worry less about others’ obsessions.

Given which, this show is a strange creature. The second section is essentially given to deconstructing this cult. Yet the show’s existence, particularly given its thin premise, is testament to that cult’s continuing prevalence. The bigger it becomes, the less we will know Van Gogh’s art. And it’s still growing…

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