Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Van Gogh & his letters

Where are all the sunflowers? Van Gogh, sunflowers. Sunflowers, Van Gogh. Oh, and chairs and beds. Van Gogh, sunflowers, chairs and beds. Colour too. Wonderful, vibrant colour is what we associate with Van Gogh. Although sunflowers are pretty thin on the ground in this exhibition, shape and form, texture and light are there displayed in glorious technicolour. And letters.

The exhibition explained with his drawings and sketches his interest in various forms and ideas. We could how see the different styles took hold and developed into the paintings we know and love. He was primarily enthused and inspired by Japanese prints and from this grew his interest in painting.

Like many artists his changes in technique were influenced by the artists and movements of the time but Van Gogh largely worked out how to achieve the effects for himself. And worked by himself. His continuing interest in different genres led him to become a painter of portraits, still life and landscape and he mastered them all.

But the exhibition that has been on at the Royal Academy in London also showed something quite different. It showed that Van Gogh was just as prolific with his pen. Black and white. Paper and pen. What is so very interesting about Van Gogh’s work is that for every painting of his there is a letter to accompany it. He painted – often a painting a day – and wrote to his brother daily. His letters explain – often with sketches - what he is trying to achieve and how he is doing it.

We therefore do not have to rely on the ‘art experts’ opinion. Now, I have nothing against experts. I admire them, I envy them, indeed I love to hear them explain an art work. But this is from the horse’s mouth. The artist himself. We don’t have somebody else’s interpretation. Somebody else’s view of what the artist was trying to achieve. It is fascinating.

The other thing that struck me about this exhibition - or perhaps I should say that struck me when I learned more about Van Gogh, the man – is that he was a highly intelligent, thoughtful man who could have succeeded in so many other areas, particularly writing. He suffered from manic depression – now referred to as bi-polar disorder – the crippling suicidal lows of the disorder often accompanied by highly charged, exuberant and creative highs. Highs in which genius can shine through.

Art – and frenzied painting – must have given vent to the need to be ‘doing’ and creating in a much more tangible way than something less physical, like writing, would have. And it filled his lonely hours, because his illness affected his ability to make and keep relationships.

As children all we knew about Van Gogh was that he was that mad drunken Dutchman, who chopped off his ear and painted sunflowers in the South of France. That he was an intensely religious man, who wrote well and taught himself to be a great painter, was totally off our radar.

We take as read that Van Gogh had an innate talent for painting. But, without the highs of his disorder and the obsessions (those sunflowers!), would he have had the mental drive, physical energy and inspired vision to develop his style and medium as often as he did in such a short period of time. I doubt it.

With correctly balanced modern drugs, Van Gogh would probably have avoided his terrible bouts of depression and had a normal social life. But would we ever have seen such an amazing collection of works. The number of them, and the quality of them, is more than many wonderful artists achieve in a lifetime. And Van Gogh was only 34 years old when he shot himself. See this exhibition if it emerges elsewhere, and wonder at the man.



ALL THAT I AM said...

Just came across your post, Nice one.
The info based on Van Gogh is just awesome, actually didn't know he had written letters for each painting..Your insight into his work is just amazing.

Good day.

Noura said...

You have a blog good and useful

this too will pass said...

the BBC showed a superb drama-documentary using his letters about him recently

Lucy said...

Thanks to 'this too will pass': yes, I saw the drama-documentary. It was excellent. Illuminating. Who said everything on TV is rubbish. Lucy