Vincent Van Gogh liked to read Dickens
25 February, 2010
Last week I toodled along to the Royal Academy to see the Van Gogh exhibition that everyone is talking about. The queues were incredibly long and by the time I went in, I think they were only selling tickets for the next day. Plus it was half-term, so you get the picture.
Van Gogh is one of those artists whom I didn’t get at the beginning. Of course I grew up reading all three volumes of the Ladybird Great Artists series by Dorothy Aitchison and illustrated by Martin Aitchison as well as all the other art books we had lying around the house when I was a child and knew his story. I sneered at his brightly coloured paintings, pontificating to my mother (who is a Nihonga artist) that anyone could draw like him. They were just childish dabblings and I couldn’t see why he was considered one of the greats. That was before I discovered Impressionism and was still a vulgar and unenlightened person. I stand corrected. One day I stood before a painting by Van Gogh and was transfixed by its beauty, depth and intensity. And that was what struck me at this exhibition: the sheer energy inherent in his work.
Titled The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters, the exhibition also featured letters written by Van Gogh to his brother Theo detailing the progress of his work including drawings and sketches that were to become formal paintings. These were exhibited alongside the paintings and illustrated how deeply he thought about each of his paintings. What first struck me was his beautiful and measured handwriting. I was expecting frenzied scribbles, but no, there was nothing of the sort. It shows how much I was influenced by the one-dimensional image of Van Gogh as a tortured genius when in fact he was a sensitive and cultivated soul grappling with mental illness.
And did you know Van Gogh was also a great reader, reading books in four different languages including Zola, Balzac and Dickens? There were a number of paintings featuring books that would bring a smile to all book lovers that I don’t recall seeing before, but alas, no postcards were available.
I came away from the exhibition with renewed admiration for one of our most beautiful, complex and tragic artists. Not only for his intensely textured and energetic paintings (the gold and yellow of the hay fields he painted are still shimmering before my eyes) but also for the kind of man he was. If you have a chance to go and see this exhibition, do so. Otherwise you can always go to Amsterdam and visit the amazing Van Gogh Museum.
And for those of you who may like an extra dose of Van Gogh, you may want to check out Irving Stone’s Lust for Life (a brilliant fictional biography of Van Gogh), art historian Sheramy Bundrick’s debut Sunflowers (which I haven’t read yet but about which I have heard good things) and The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin and nine turbulent weeks in Provence by art critic Martin Gayford.