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See how brilliant Van Gogh is for yourself: Tate exhibition not to be missed

by Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art Correspondent

Painting of a prison courtyard by Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh, The Prison Courtyard 1890 Oil paint on canvas © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

As a young man Van Gogh lived in England for a few years - years that a new exhibition at Tate Britain claims were crucial to his development as the artist we know today.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) wasn’t an artist when he arrived in Britain. He was a 20 year-old who had come to London to train as an art dealer, but during the years between 1873 and 1876 he fell in love with British culture, avidly consuming the novels of Charles Dickens and George Eliot, and becoming inspired by artists such as Millais and Constable in the museums, galleries and art-dealers rooms he visited.

He walked the streets, travelled the river by boat and trains on the underground, taking in the sights, the moods - and the inequalities he saw all around. Writing to his brother Theo, he said ‘I love London’.

Painting of shoes by Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh, Shoes 1886 Oil paint on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

Initially he saw his future as an urban evangelist, but the influence of art and literature took over. Sacked from his job, he tried his hand at teaching and preaching, in Ramsgate, Kent and Isleworth, west London, and then in late 1876 he left Britain for good.

But the seeds were set for life as an artist, which began four years later, and as a print collector. In time he collected over 2,000 engravings, mostly from English magazines such as the Illustrated London News, and in studying these ‘black and whites’ he developed his eye for composition and style.

Nearly fifty works by Van Gogh are in Tate’s show - from early works and drawings, many of which you may not have seen before, to celebrated paintings such as Starry Night (1888), Sunflowers (1888), Shoes (1886), and L'Arlésienne (1890). Some were painted after he moved to Provence and some while he was in the Saint-Paul asylum. For instance, Starry Night was painted as his response to the clarity of the night sky after years of living under northern, more polluted skies, say the curators.

Late works displayed include Van Gogh’s only painting of London, The Prison Courtyard, painted in 1890. It’s based on Gustave Doré's print of Newgate Prison that shows prisoners plodding in a circle around a tiny exercise yard beneath forbidding walls. An array of printsby Doré -scenes of workaday London that Van Gogh collected - makes a strong impact in the exhibition, much as the individual prints he collected of soup kitchens and refuges and the like informed several of his works.

Self portrait by Vincent Van Gogh in 1887
Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait 1887 Oil paint on canvas, Paris, Musée d'Orsay © RMN

Both Doré and Whistler were influences on the young Dutchman, particularly in terms of composition and the light effects on water at varying times of day. Two examples on show, Doré's engraving Evening on the Thames (1876) and James Whistler's Nocturne: Grey and Gold, Westminster Bridge (c.1871-2), both capture the mesmeric effects of lights on a far riverbank filtered through the pollution at twilight.

Clearly, the nascent artist soaked up influences like blotting paper - or that’s one premise of this wide-ranging exhibition. For instance, Dutch landscape painter Meindert Hobbema’s The Avenue at Middelharnis (1689) with its tall spindly alders lining the road hangs commandingly on the other side of the room from Van Gogh’s more closed-in, sombre Avenue of Poplars in Autumn (1884).

In his letters home he wrote of feelings of ‘melancholy’ and of life as a difficult journey. Possibly that’s why a path or road often features in his works, curators suggest.

Later on in this large exhibition - and this one has masses of works, paintings, prints, books and letters, to keep everyone enthralled - Van Gogh’s renowned Sunflowers is set amidst a group of flower pictures by British artists. The idea is to illustrate how the simple still life he painted in 1888 to decorate his house in Arles in the south of France contributed to the revival of flower painting among modern British artists. Works by Frank Brangwyn, Winifred Nicholson, Samuel Peploe and others make a wonderfully colourful display.

Poster from 1948 about exhibition of Van Gogh Paintings at the Tate Gallery
Vincent van Gogh exhibition poster Tate Gallery 1947 © Tate, 2018

This is the first exhibition of Van Gogh’s work held at Tate in over 70 years. The last, back in 1947 attracted record-breaking crowds. The queues to see the Van Goghs were compared to those found outside food shops during rationing, and the exhibition’s stand-out success put down to the fact that during those years of austerity “the people were colour-starved.”

What’s more a whole generation of young British artists was influenced, including David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Matthew Smith, Christopher Wood, and Francis Bacon whose paintings are also on show, notably in the final room.

Themed Phantom of the Road: Van Gogh Tragic Hero the room is dominated by three incomparable canvases by Bacon painted in response to Van Gogh’s self-portrait that showed the artist walking beside cornfields to Tarascon (the painting is believed to have been lost, possibly burnt during World War II).

Although no longer colour-starved, crowds will still flock to see Van Gogh’s work, together with all the British art on show here. And when all’s said and done, despite the internet and the ready availability of brilliant colour reproductions, nothing can beat seeing such stunning work first hand, feeling its energy, and responding personally to the uninhibited expressiveness of a Van Gogh work of art. Do go.


The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain

Tate Britain, London

Showing until: 11 August 2019



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