There are two aspects of the Tate Britain show ‘Van Gogh and Britain’ that to my mind are remarkable: first, the extent to which the artist himself is sensitive, but shallow; and second, that the connection with Britain is somewhat forced. Van Gogh is a painter of landscapes, flowers, and people, who introduced innovations in brush strokes and impasto, with occasionally fauvish colours that were radical in their time. Stylistically, van Gogh is instantly recognisable, with his wavy lines and deliberate forms; but where is the depth?
Beyond his technical prowess, it is rare that we see anything genuinely meaningful or existential in van Gogh’s work, save in so far as it is perceptible from the aesthetic. Some of his portraits – At Eternity’s Gate, or The Postman Joseph Roulin, for example (the latter not being part of this exhibition, though I had the good fortune to see the painting at the MFA in Boston a few weeks back) hint at something deeper, they remain representational works.
His painting Trees in the Garden of the Hospital St Paul begins to hint at something more, perhaps an ecological sensibility. The trees merge with the sky, and with each other, everything is being sucked up into the air, it seems. The two figures each beside a tree, appear subject to nature too – she with her parasol, as the heat seems to soar through the painting. The colours seem burned into the canvas, and retain all of their vibrancy today. It’s perhaps my favourite painting by van Gogh from the exhibition.
In reading about the exhibition, I was particularly intrigued by van Gogh’s representation of the prison yard, as perhaps a statement of some kind of political or social relevance. However, it appears to have been a copy! Side by side with van Gogh’s painting is the lithograph from Gustav Doré, who van Gogh copied, almost exactly. It could perhaps be re-titled Gustav Doré’s Prison Yard, to afford its proper attribution. It is uncanny how little van Gogh changed the image, retaining even the two butterflies in the upper left hand corner. Commentary at the exhibition suggested that the guard in the bottom right is looking down in van Gogh’s version, perhaps meaning that he’s not ‘seeing’ the prisoners, but I think it’s fanciful: this was an exercise in colour. Even the shadows are replicated. This was a social commentary from Gustav Doré, not van Gogh.
Over at Tate Modern, meanwhile, the Pierre Bonnard exhibition is of an altogether different sort by comparison, with a kind of intimacy and sensuality, as opposed to sensitivity, not seen in van Gogh. Bonnard’s The Boxer as a self-portrait appears far more honest (even violent!) than the two van Gogh self-portraits at Tate Britain. That said, it could be argued that the man-on-the-road paintings are essentially self-portraiture, albeit with the human figure dwarfed by the landscape.
All in all, Van Gogh’s work is technically exceptional, coloured magnificently, and remains challenging and thought provoking to this day, but primarily in the aesthetic sense: his are questions of representation, of light, and impression. The series of motifs of the man on the road (or just off the road, on occasion) point to a certain introspection, and a self-awareness of the artist’s own position in the world, and those paintings are certainly autobiographical, or self-portraiture within the wider ecosystem, and they are wondrous things for that (as Francis Bacon, amongst others, was to later acknowledge). Yet there remains a sense of something missing that could have said something more, as Turner had done before him, as Picasso did after him, and so many others.
The second aspect of the exhibition that appeared to be notable to me was the lack of a real connection between van Gogh and Britain. There were quotes from his letters and writings about how he enjoyed his time there, and there were artists who he admired, like Millais, and in particular his Chill October. While some of his landscapes showed some similarities such as with the tree-lined roads, the influence seems to have been minimal at best.
What’s more, all of the major works on exhibition – the sunflowers, the starry nights, the landscapes – were not painted in Britain and appeared to bear little resemblance to paintings he would have seen there. What’s far more interesting, and indeed impressive, are the works from British artists (alongside Ireland’s Roderic O’Connor) that clearly draw inspiration from van Gogh.
In particular, Christopher Wood’s Yellow Chrysanthemums is a stunning representation of flowers in a vase, and juxtaposed alongside van Gogh’s Sunflowers is (to my mind at least!) every bit as accomplished. Jacob Epstein’s Sunflowers too – they pop from the canvas. Van Gogh appears to have taught these young British artists how the canvas can sing!
The exhibition at Tate Britain is well worth going to see, populated as it is with wonderful paintings from van Gogh’s most prolific and successful period, and for the organisation of British (and Irish!) art that was inspired by van Gogh. The connection with Britain may be forced, but every exhibition like this needs a narrative; and judging by the crowds, this one seems to have worked. Anything that can bring this many people to see art can’t be a bad thing!