The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and his Letters

January 22, 2010

Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait as an Artist, January 1888, Oil on canvas, 65.5 x 50.5 cm

The Royal Academy’s hotly anticipated Van Gogh exhibition has been deemed one of the “most important exhibitions ever held at RA” by director of exhibitions Kathleen Soriano and is expected to be one of the gallery’s most successful shows to date. It is the first major show devoted to Van Gogh to be staged in London for 40 years and includes several works which have never before been displayed in the UK. The show has been ten years in the making but will finally be open to the public from 22nd January who will undoubtedly relish this unique opportunity to gain an insight into the complex mind of Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh, Letter 252 from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, The Hague, Monday 31 July 1882, Pollard Willow, letter sketch, paper, 14 x 13.4 cm

At the heart of the exhibition lies a collection of over 800 letters by the artist and his friends and family, painstakingly collected and prepared over the years by a team at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Over 35 of these original letters are displayed throughout the RA exhibition having rarely before been exhibited due to their intense fragility. Each letter is displayed in correspondence with specific paintings or drawings offering a fascinating insight into the artist’s vision, inspiration and motivation.

Vincent van Gogh, Letter 783 from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Tuesday 25 June 1889, Cypresses, Letter sketch, paper, 21 x 27 cm

Curator Ann Dumas explained that her intention was to create the effect that Van Gogh is taking you around his own exhibition. The desired effect certainly achieved. In his enthralling correspondences Van Gogh describes his methods in acutely intricate detail from colour choice and subject matter to areas in which he struggled such as, “that down right witch-craft or coincidence” – perspective, as Van Gogh apparently put it. Dumas explained, “No artist has ever before left such a complete correspondence of how he went about his writing career”.

Vincent van Gogh, Still-life around a Plate of Onions, Early January 1889, Oil on canvas, 49.6 x 64.4 cm

Upon entering the exhibition, the first room displays only one work, a still life of the artist’s drawing table painted shortly after his break down in December 1888 when he famously mutilated his ear. The most notorious fact associated with Van Gogh is very deliberately confronted from the start of the show in order to be turned o it’s head throughout the remainder of the show. Whilst the Van Gogh of popular myth is a mad and erratic genius, by following his works alongside his letters, a new image emerges of a sensitive, determined, hard working and exceptionally intelligent man. Through his writings the artist’s incredible gift for language is portrayed in a way that has previously never been credited to him.

Vincent van Gogh, Pollard Willow, July 1882, Watercolour, gouache, pen and black ink on paper laid down on board, 38 x 56 cm

Between the seven galleries the exhibition explores Van Gogh’s short 10 year career as an artist, predominantly in chronological order. Beginning with his early sketches of Dutch landscapes and moving on to his dazzlingly bold depictions of the Mediterranean countryside of Arles, the artist’s spiritual love affair with nature becomes evident. His vividly expressive descriptions of the beauty he saw around him convey his struggle to achieve artistic perfection in his depictions of the beauty he saw all around him. In one letter to his brother Theo he exudes, “In all of nature, in trees for instance, I see expression and soul”. The colour notations alongside his sketches and clear descriptions of his plans for future works go further to dispel the myth that Van Gogh worked sporadically or spontaneously. In fact, it becomes evident that the majority of his works were intricately choreographed pieces.

Vincent van Gogh, The Yellow House (The Street), September 1888, Oil on canvas, 72 x 91.5 cm

In the final galleries are housed the most recognisable of Van Gogh’s works with the notably dynamic, energetic, swirling brush strokes for which he is famed. The sad fact that several of these paintings are slices of landscape viewed from the restricted view of his asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence are a stark reminder of the artist’s troubled mental state. At the age of only 37, Van Gogh shot himself, “perhaps”, speculates Dumas “due to a sense of failure as an artist or a fear of the reoccurring attacks on his mental health”.

The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters was curated by Ann Dumas of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in collaboration with Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Niewn Bakker of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The Exhibition runs from 23rd Jan – 18th April 2010.

Vincent van Gogh

Self-portrait as an Artist

January 1888

Oil on canvas

65.5 x 50.5 cm