Today I’m a very lucky man writing about a very unlucky man. I’m lucky for seeing the Tate Britain’s Van Gogh and Britain before it opened. It’s an extraordinary exhibition, worth every penny. The unlucky man needs no introduction. Vincent Van Gogh is the quintessential tortured artist. Imaging him now, you’ve an an image of a haggard face, sad piercing eyes, ferocious ginger hair, a bandaged ear. Perhaps a straw hat perching on his head. This exhibition won’t revolutionise that; Vincent’s mental torture was all too tragic. But what this exhibition does is show a Van Gogh previously little known. It highlights some of his inspiration, and gives a sense of what he hoped would be his reception. That sad, lonely man wandering through the fields of Provence was a democrat. His inspiration came from Britain’s impoverished inner-cities. He was a painter of the people, for the people.
Van Gogh and Britain charts the influence on Van Gogh of his time in Britain. Whilst it might be a stretch to say Blighty made the genius, its art, both literary and painted, certainly gave it a good go. Van Gogh wasn’t an artist when he arrived in London in 1873. He was 20, and training as an art dealer. Painting wouldn’t be his profession for a good few years, with his work continuing until his suicide a decade later. Britain’s influence on Van Gogh is introduced in the exhibition’s first half. We find the literature he adored and the paintings he loved. Shakespeare, Constable, Dickens and Millais – each are represented, with the latter’s Chill October being a particular delight. These works’ lasting impact is clear; L’Arlesienne, a portrait from the last year of his life, is foregrounded by a favourite Dickens.
The inspiration behind his later themes is found most clearly through some of the 2,000 prints he amassed whilst in England which portrayed contemporary social conditions. Prisoners Exercising, prominently displayed, was based on a Doré engraving he collected whilst here, and is his only painting of Britain. In a collection of more than 50 of his works, this is a stand out. Van Gogh’s dexterous weaving of colour and shape focuses one’s attention of the misery of the prisoners, locked in a never-ending cycle. Van Gogh’s face, hidden amongst the crowd, reflects his own life in an asylum as he painted it.
The exhibition’s second half is slightly less inspiring. It focuses on Van Gogh’s legacy in British artists. Whilst there’s some nice Francis Bacons and Matthew Smiths, but it was always going to be a slight anti-climax. When an exhibition has a sunflowers, one of two unfinished works, several self-portraits and, my personal favourite, a rich and vivid starry night, it’s churlish to quibble. I said Van Gogh was a painter for the people, and that’s true – their lives inspired him, and he lived for their interest. The interest surrounding this exhibition only highlights what a genius he was. Please go see it; you’ll be very lucky indeed.