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.