The je ne sais quoi of the Eternal – Van Gogh at the RA

First published on The Bubble (May 2011):!page=1

[This article was written while The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters was featured at the Royal Academy last year.]

A house, a street, burns against a cobalt sky, figures obliterated by a remorseless “sulphur sun”. A train crosses a bridge in the background, its plume of smoke swirling up and out of view. That movement is all the more striking for the stillness of buildings, trees, and people fixed by the unforgiving blaze of light.

The Yellow House was painted in Arles in 1888. The artist thought this place “tremendous, these yellow houses in the sunlight and then the incomparable freshness of the blue”. It is difficult to disagree.

Most of us think we know Vincent van Gogh: brightly coloured Provençal landscapes, rustic portraiture, and those sunflowers. This monumental exhibition – The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters – allows the real artist, a true intellectual, to shine through. Placing the works and the letters side by side allows each to shine a light on the other. They letters reveal a man deeply involved in all aspects of art, its philosophy, mechanics, discipline, and cost. We have no greater or more detailed record of an artist’s personal development and views of their work than this.

Most of the letters are to Van Gogh’s younger brother – and source of money – Theo, to whom he would describe his projects, worries, progress, and setbacks. Indeed, it was at Theo’s urging that his brother had turned to art. What emerges is a deep sense of artistic mission. Van Gogh began to write about art as he had about his abortive attempts to be a Christian missionary. He was immensely committed to the artistic enterprise he had begun in 1880 at the late age of 27 and immersed himself in learning all the skills of a painter: drawing, composition, perspective, colour theory, art history. For example, he tells his brother of early struggles with composition, providing a diagram of a “perspective frame” and the difficulties he had in making it.

To give an impression of his work Van Gogh illustrated his letters. What is particularly striking is that, at least early on, these “croquis” or sketches, are more successful than the full-scale pictures of which they were meant to give a flavour.

Pollard Willow is an immensely evocative drawing, sent to Theo at the end of July 1882. “I’ve attacked that old giant of a pollard willow… A sombre landscape – that dead tree beside a stagnant pond covered in duckweed, in the distance Rijnspoor depot where railway lines cross, smoke-blackened buildings – also green meadows, a cinder road and a sky in which the clouds are racing, grey with an occasional gleaming white edge, and a depth of blue where the clouds tear apart for a moment.” It is a consummate piece of work the size of a postcard. Its watercolour equivalent is drab and, yes, watery by comparison.

Van Gogh was always interested in the expressive power of colour yet at the start of his career his tones were earthy, dull, and Dutch. That is brought home by the early rooms of The Real Van Gogh. A letter to Theo attests the desire to “paint with earth” in order to express the life of backbreaking labour and dirt of the peasantry. His studies of this time are full of bent-backed men and women with enormous hands and feet, caught forever in awkward poses. They betray his pictorial naivety as much as his sympathy, culminating in the much-criticised Potato Eaters (not included in the exhibition): “I have tried to emphasize that those people, eating their potatoes in the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour, and how they have honestly earned their food.”

On leaving the rooms of his Dutch period to enter those of Paris and Provence one is struck by the sudden liberation of his brushwork and, of course, his colour. He discovered the open form of Japanese prints and modern colour theory: “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art,” he wrote in Arles. The combined influence of the Impressionists and Japanese art germinated in the soil of the south. The effect of Van Gogh’s arrival in the Provençal town of Arles in February 1888 was immediate. Basket of Oranges is a stunning study bathed in a divine, a blinding light. It is only done justice when seen firsthand.

Within the brashly brushed shards of white linen sits a daringly modelled basket of oranges, casting a blue shadow. Those oranges seem infinite in weight, eternally there with spattered, rough textured skins in red, orange, yellow, white and green. Van Gogh’s appreciation of the sheer variety of texture and colour in the most ordinary things is blossoming. As is his ability to depict it with incredible force. A letter written to the artist Emile Bernard a few months later casts light on the theory behind the work: “NO BLUE WITHOUT YELLOW and WITHOUT ORANGE.” (June 1888) This theory of complementary colours has been dazzlingly applied in Basket of Oranges, just one of the remarkable still lives in the exhibition.

In portraiture, too, Van Gogh sought to combine observation with expressive colour: “I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of the colouring.” That exploration of colour as a key to the phenomenology of the subject is dazzlingly caught in the portraits on show at the Royal Academy. In Lullaby (La Berceuse) intense colour is caught between black outlines as if Van Gogh feared it might, in its sheer exuberance, escape its bounds. Behind the woman in her chair is a shifting floral background, a window to the calm and soothing interior of a mother rocking her baby’s cradle. “And I believe that if one placed this canvas just as it is in a boat, even one of Icelandic fishermen, there would be some who would feel the lullaby in it.”

Van Gogh’s first and famed mental breakdown was in December 1888 and led to two years of precarious health with the artist going in and out the Saint-Rémy asylum before ending up in Auvers-sur-Oise in May 1890 where he painted his last canvases. Van Gogh at his height uses texture marvellously to suggest colour and tonal variation while using colour and tonal variation to suggest texture. His final landscapes are virtuosic in their expressively impastoed forms. They are also calm and thoughtful after the blaze of his first year in the south. Liquid forms shift and merge in the sky and landscape whilst smokey oaks and flame-like cypresses wisp ever upwards. Something seems to shine through these landscapes, some intangible truth, that “je ne sais quoi of the eternal” Van Gogh relentlessly sought to capture.

Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in the fields of Auvers on 27th July 1890 and died two days later with his brother at his side. To the end he believed that in the history of art “the part which is allotted to me, or will be allotted to me, will remain, I assure you, very secondary.” To demonstrate just how wrong he was this exhibition should be visited again and again.

A reaper, the study is all yellow, terribly thickly impasted, but the subject was beautiful and simple. I then saw in this reaper – a vague figure struggling like a devil in the full heat of the day to reach the end of his toil – I then saw the image of death in it, in this sense that humanity would be the wheat being reaped. So if you like it’s the opposite of that Sower I tried before. But in this death nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold. Good, here I am again, however I’m not letting go, and I’m trying again on a new canvas. Ah, I could almost believe that I have a new period of clarity ahead of me. (Letter 800)

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