‘Van Gogh and Britain’ at Tate Britain

Art Art & Lit Culture Literature

Image description: ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’ by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Van Gogh’s art is so multi-dimensional, so broad in its influences, that there are countless different “Van Gogh and…” exhibitions just waiting to be curated. We could have exhibitions on his relationship to Japan, France and the Low Countries, or his reception in the USA after his death. Like Picasso after him, Van Gogh was an artist’s artist – obsessed by art history, and the work of others around him. He was a magpie, always on the lookout for new artistic treasures to fill his nest, and these treasures came from all over: Victorian illustrations, Rembrandt’s portraits, Japanese prints, Biblical theology, the novels of Zola, the Impressionists… His letters are peppered with references to painters, places and people who have inspired him, and his paintings are melting pots of ideas and influences.

Van Gogh’s relationship with Britain is often overlooked, as he was only here for a short while (1873-1876), and it was before he made the momentous decision to become an artist. I remember seeing the blue plaque outside his house in Isleworth, reasonably close to my home, and being taken aback to discover that he had lived there.

He was a magpie, always on the lookout for new artistic treasures to fill his nest, and these treasures came from all over

The show ‘Van Gogh and Britain’ takes Britain out of the shadows and into the limelight, arguing that Van Gogh’s years here were formative, leaving an important legacy on both his art and his thinking. This was the real strength of the exhibition: the links made between his art and that of Victorian Britain were clear and vivid, and never felt tenuous. The show explores the literature that he read (a lot of Dickens), the museums he visited and the art that passed through his hands when he was working as a dealer in London. There is a special focus on prints, because Van Gogh collected them obsessively whilst in London: he had 2000 ‘English black and whites’ which often showed detailed scenes of everyday life for the rich to the poor, or dramatic images from the news.

The second part, which focussed on Van Gogh’s impact on British art, was less impactful for me. Because his influence was so huge on the broad post-Impressionist/modernist landscape that whether it was British or not seemed irrelevant. The most powerful section of this second half was the exploration of our common cultural perception of Van Gogh, and the appeal of his persona as a passionate martyr to beauty. One of my favourite pieces was a little photograph from the Van Gogh exhibition held at the Tate soon after the end of the Second World War. It is the Tate’s first ever queue: a line of people smiling beneath their umbrellas, waiting to see those timeless paintings. Van Gogh’s art took on a new importance to Britain after the trauma of the war: it offered a radiant beauty, demonstrating all that is good about humanity. I found myself thinking about Gombrich’s The Story of Art, a wartime book, that similarly construes artistic achievement as an ahistorical ideal removed from the horrors of history, offering a hopeful vision of the human spirit.

‘Influence’ is always a tricky term in art history. Influence can be derogatory, implying a derivative artistic form that cannot really compete with the original. ‘Influenced by Van Gogh’ can easily be translated as ‘A bit like Van Gogh but not quite as good because, well, it’s Van Gogh isn’t it.’ I got this sense a little in the second part, when the British works were dulled by their direct comparison to Van Gogh’s paintings. I think they would look better viewed on their own terms.

Van Gogh’s art took on a new importance to Britain after the trauma of the war: it offered a radiant beauty, demonstrating all that is good about humanity.

But ‘influence’ is also useful for our perception of Van Gogh as an artist: rather than his paintings gushing forth from innate talent, they become the product of a long and careful process of gathering and evaluating material, and constantly experimenting. The influence of Victorian novels and prints, Pre-Raphaelitism and British watercolourists on Van Gogh testifies to his power as an intellectual, whose art came about in a self-conscious and often gradual process of thinking and learning. Rather than paintings from the soul, these are paintings from a mind, a mind constantly on the hunt for new ideas. This helps dismantle the myth of the mad-genius Van Gogh and allows us to see him as the intellectual and experimentalist that he was. The influence of Britain not only gives us Brits a bit of artistic kudos in the development of modernism, but also a more realistic picture (so to speak) of the real Van Gogh.

The show also gives a big profile to Van Gogh’s pre-Paris works: the paintings and drawings that aren’t the Van Gogh that everyone recognises. They are monochrome, tough pictures, windswept and earthy, populated by poor workers with unhappy faces. The series of drawings of his lover Sien are especially poignant, their thick scratchy lines drawn with immense compassion. Van Gogh has been essentialised as the painter of all things sun-drenched: it is good to have an exhibition that looks at him holistically, exposing these wonderful earlier works to a wider public.

“Vincent Willem van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888” by Jameswy.Wang i is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0