In the centre of a shadowed room lies a pale and bloodied corpse. Hair, matted and tangled, is spread out on a pillow as the head lolls onto one shoulder open-mouthed, eyes open but staring into nothingness, freed from the pain of grievous and grizzly wounds. Dirty fingernails and emaciated flesh are yet to be cleaned in preparation for entombment. Only a piece of blue cloth saves this man from complete indignity in death. The eye is drawn to puckered holes on hands and feet – to the sliced and deep hole in this man’s side, its leaked blood smeared down his stomach toward that blue cloth. This was not an easy death. In the words of Isaiah,
He is despised and rejected of men, a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. And we hid as it were our faces from Him; He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem Him stricken, Continue reading
Ovid Banished from Rome (1838)
There is a tiny portrait of J. M. W. Turner at the very end of the Tate Britain’s Turner and the Masters. It is by Charles West Cope and shows us Turner in 1837 when he was fifty-two years old: a hunched, somewhat scruffy man in his trademark stovepipe hat stands, as he was wont to do, on a platform barely an inch from the canvas whilst awed hangers-on stand at a respectful distance from this son of a barber and a mentally unstable mother. This is a man whom we can well believe never lost his cockney accent. It is also not the picture he would have wished you to remember.
First published on The Bubble (May 2011): http://www.thebubble.org.uk/art-photography/the-je-ne-sais-quoi-of-the-eternal#!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.