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.

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