‘They are great artists, the English’
A new Tate show takes a fresh look at Van Gogh and Britain
28 March, 2019 — By John Evans
Self-Portrait, 1887, oil on canvas, 47 x 35cm, Paris, Musée d’Orsay © RMN
CRITICISM of Vincent Van Gogh’s work has often “reflected prejudice and misunderstandings around mental health”, variously seeing him as a “madman and a genius”, we are told at the Tate’s new show.
And this can affect how his art is seen “even today”.
That message reinforced, then, pity someone coming to him afresh. Well, no, because this exhibition counters that view and shines a fresh light itself. It examines his time in England from 1873 to 1876, when he was in his 20s, a junior art dealer not a painter, engaging with English culture and literature, visiting galleries and, crucially, amassing a collection of around 2,000 prints, his “black and whites”.
In 1873 he told his brother Theo that English art hadn’t appealed to him much at first, one had to get used to it. A decade later he noted: “Studying them more than repays the effort, for they are great artists, the English.”
Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson says this is the first show to look at both the influence of British life on Van Gogh (1853-1890) and his subsequent influence on its art. He goes so far as to say the three years provided “a formative experience that transformed his vision of the world and encouraged him to become an artist a few years later”.
After 1880 Van Gogh was to have 10 years of output, both measured and frenetic, before his death at just 37.
The exhibition has more than 50 of his works, shown alongside those who inspired him and, later, those whom he inspired.
So, in a single room can be seen Constable’s The Valley Farm and Millais’s Chill October together with Van Gogh’s oil, Avenue of Poplars in Autumn, 1884, and a wonderful, small drawing from the same year, Alley Bordered by Trees, from a private collection.
Farquharson picked out another private loan, a rarely seen oil, as a favourite. With its striking simplicity and startling use of colour, Trunk of an Old Yew Tree, Arles, October 1888 is outstanding.
Other highlights include the National Gallery’s 1888 Sunflowers, a Self-Portrait from Washington, The Arlésienne 1890 from São Paolo, Starry Night 1888 from the Musée d’Orsay, and The Prison Courtyard 1890 from the Pushkin State Museum. The latter was painted by Van Gogh in the Saint-Paul asylum in his last year. It’s based on an 1872 print of Newgate jail by Gustav Doré, which Van Gogh owned, and his personal copy of this is displayed next to his oil. The prison scene is his only known painting of London.
Trunk of an Old Yew Tree, Arles, October 1888, oil on canvas, 91 x 71cm, private collection
A regard for Charles Dickens is evident. The Arlésienne actually features one of his titles, and Van Gogh wrote: “My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes.”
Early concern about social reform shows through, for example, in works that depict a Hague public soup kitchen, a carpenter’s yard and laundry, or an old man drinking coffee. Van Gogh’s “black and whites” helped shape these.
A second part of the exhibition explores his impact in Britain and on its artists up to the 1950s.
We see paintings by Bomberg, Gilman, Vanessa Bell, Sickert and more; and even a 1933 Jacob Epstein watercolour of Epping Forest referencing Van Gogh’s Pollarded Willows at Arles. Epstein’s take on sunflowers is also included, with a number of others.
As a fitting sign-off there are three Francis Bacon paintings from 1957, two studies for a portrait and Van Gogh in a Landscape.
Bacon said Van Gogh “…speaks of the need to make changes in reality… this is the only possible way the painter can bring back the intensity of the reality”.
• The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain is at Tate Britain until August 11. 020 7887 8888, tate.org.uk