Tuesday 16 March 2010

Van Gogh: The artist and his letters

The Real Van Gogh the artist and his letters.

I remember the first time I went to an art gallery very well; I was eleven or twelve and I was dressed in my Sunday best for a Saturday in town with my Father. At that age a day out in London was as exciting as Christmas to me and I felt so terribly grown up and important having people to meet and things to do in this enormous, beautiful place. We were early for our engagement so my father said would I like to go to the National Gallery and I said yes- not because I really knew if I would like the paintings or not but because it was national and important and in a building that looked like it was from Mary Poppins London and it felt like something you simply must do if offered.

I remember walking inside and being amazed at how beautiful the building was, like a church or museum, which were the only things I had to compare it to. I distinctly remember saying to my Father hadn’t we forgotten to pay when we walked into the first room with paintings and him saying no, it was free, it was the national gallery. I said so anyone can come? And he said yes of course (I’m not sure he went into details of permanent collections and special exhibitions at this stage). I thought how wonderful that was.

We looked at quite a few rooms with different styles and I remember having a good time. Then my Father said would I like to see the Sunflowers. I didn’t know very much at all about art or painting at this age but I knew what the sunflowers were. I stood in front of that picture for what felt like a long time- I suppose it was actually about five minutes. I said to my Father how wonderful it was that we could just walk off the street and share such a valuable, precious, beautiful thing- don’t hate my small self I wasn’t insufferable I was just struck with the idea that art should be for everyone and not locked up in houses where no one can see it.

Anyway that day a love affair with galleries and particularly Van Gogh began.

Some of my friends don’t like galleries and want to know why I do- and I think it is the chance to see something up close and in reality. I suppose seeing a Van Gogh is like having seen the Beatles play live or Richard Burton in Shakespeare- but we can all do it, it isn’t a moment in time- it captures that moment for us forever.

This post has come about because I have recently been to see Van Gogh the artist and his letters at the Royal Academy and seeing so many of his paintings in the flesh reminded me of that day out when I was younger. I felt exactly the same about the pictures now as I did then- that no postcard or reproduction I’d ever seen could come close to the real pictures. Now honestly I don’t feel this about a lot of artworks I see, it’s lovely to see them of course but it’s not so dramatically different to a text book that I feel desperately sorry for people who can’t see them. The Van Gogh paintings are different- I suppose it’s the technique, that heavy layering of paint.

Whatever the reason is they hit you with beauty, sadness and a hypnotic quality that just doesn’t translate in a print or postcard- you feel like you are a bit drunk with them- the colours, the life, the light he captures. They are almost too beautiful, especially when viewed with his letters, themselves written in the handwriting of an artist, which are at times filled with joy and at times sorrow. I had tears in my eyes when I looked at the work of his last days. I could never produce anything that beautiful if I worked all my life and he produced so many magnificent works in a matter of months. The fact he never knew how celebrated he would be, how much pleasure his work would give people breaks my heart because he sounds like a kind if troubled soul in his letters, full of love his brother and the places he lived.


skirmishofwit said...

Oh, I saw this exhibition a few weeks ago and thought it was spectacular. Love the story of your first trip to the National Gallery.

Anonymous said...

Van Gosh has always been a favorite.

He's work is so amazing.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
vicki archer said...

I can't wait to go and see this exhibition....xv

Emily said...

This is a great show! I really loved it and it was a real discovery for me to realize that he was such a beautiful writer as well.

Great story on your first gallery visit. Really sweet:) x LZ

Marion Williams-Bennett said...

I just love this post! I love how you describe your first visit to a gallery – to me, that first visit sounds like how every visit should be, full of wonder, surprise and utter gratitude that we get to see this.

I too always feel so lucky to be experiencing art. I feel like I come away from it changes by what I have seen. You describe that so beautifully here, thank you!

Muddling Along said...

I so wish I could have got tickets to this - it sounds incredible

Rose said...

Hi Skirmishofwit- it's great isn't it- glad you liked the story- it was a really good day.

Hi K- thanks for stopping by- yes a favourite of mine too but in the flesh as it were- it really puzzles me why reproductions don't work well but they just don't

Hi Vicki- you will love it- are you going to be in London soon then? Australia, France, Italy, exciting times!

Hi Lizzie- yes and he had such good handwriting, very precise. I'm glad you liked the story, it's quite personal for me.

Hi Marion- gosh thank you for such kind words, it's a really fond memory and I told my Dad how much of an impression it made on me the other day and he was very pleased.

Hi MAM- certainly the queues are one of the less good things but you can go if you are prepared to queue up- which perhaps isn't so easy with a tiny person. I think Friday and Saturday nights are meant to be quieter. Good luck if you try!

Fran Hill said...

I didn't really know much about Van Gogh - your last paragraph certainly made me feel sad, too, if he didn't know the effect his work would have. It's so often the case, isn't it?

ScentScelf said...

A Van Gogh exhibit came through Chicago a couple of years ago; combined with pieces already in the museum, it was quite a whallop. I found myself strangely drawn to a still life of work boots...along the lines you draw here in your post, I kept staring at the nails in the soles. There was no way a 2-D reproduction was going to capture the odd effect they had on the canvas, nearly real, capturing ambient light in a way that was, well, compelling. And somehow made them sad.

Of course, I also think of John Berger, and his presentation of Cornfield with Crows--suggesting we react differently before and after we know the biography behind the painting. Which is like the Sergei Eisenstein experiment; same close-up, but when it follows different actions, the person in the close up is interpreted as sad, happy, pensive...you get the idea.

As interesting as that is, and good to be aware of, there can be no stripping of our own context/history when we approach a work of art. Which is a good argument in favor of listening to, but not worshipping, critics of any form.

That way we can keep our ears other experiences. Like your beautiful one. :)

Charlotte said...

I have been to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam too many times. I love his work, I even named my little boy Vincent!

Charlotte xx

mary said...

It was so moving seeing his last letter to his brother, that was found on his body after he died. It felt almost intrusive to read it ... I wondered what Van Gogh would have felt, had he known that a century later people would be queuing as if they were making a pilgrimage to see his work.
Your story about the National Gallery reminded me of my first visits there when I was also about 12. I used to roam around London in the holidays on my own- can you imagine today's parents allowing that, and yet I was perfectly happy and nothing ever happened to me. And having very little pocket money, I was drawn to the National Gallery because it was free. I remember loving the Leonardo cartoon and Botticelli's Mars and Venus, and of course Monet's waterlilies. And one day I got chatting to one of the security men, who seemed amused that a little girl would visit all on her own and he said 'Do you want to see my favourite painting?' and he walked me over to a Rembrandt self-portrait and said, 'Look at his eyes.' I remember recognising that it was something special although, left to myself, I'd never have been drawn to a painting of an old man. Those visits sowed the seeds for a lifetime's love of art and made me feel passionately that art galleries should be free. And that children should be allowed freedom to roam.