The Myth of the Erratic Genius

Louisa Long 9 February 2010

Louisa Long discovers the ‘Real Van Gogh’…

‘The Real Van Gogh’ – Royal Academy – Until 18th April 2010

Heralded as the first major Van Gogh exhibition in London in over forty years and prompted by the recent publication of over 900 letters’ worth of correspondence, the Royal Academy’s latest show promised to be one that could not go amiss.

Segments from a whole host of emotive letters and original sketches, or “scratches” (croquis) as Van Gogh referred to them, are juxtaposed alongside their masterpieces in a combination that seeks to redefine our appreciation of one of Post-Impressionism’s most revered figures.

Perhaps, for this reason, paying it a visit on its opening day was not the wisest move, but it certainly added to the sense of excitement, as throngs of keen beans swarmed into the galleries, eager to find out a little more about the man behind the paintings.

When Van Gogh’s name is mentioned, our immediate thoughts are of his most celebrated works: of sunflowers and scenery abounding with energy, painted with such vibrancy that they are almost hallucinogenic. Along with these come common assumptions about his life, of his deep-seated unhappiness which is said to have influenced his paintings.

Most of us have trouble viewing Van Gogh’s work in an entirely detached way; we are influenced by the stories about the tormented figure responsible for it.  It is for this very reason that the Royal Academy’s exhibition is of such paramount importance – if we’re going to associate pessimistic ideas with Van Gogh’s work, shouldn’t we start by trying to gain a better understanding of the man behind the paintings?

One of the remarkable things about this exhibition was that, although it did not avoid the darker moments in Van Gogh’s life, the overall impression was one that dispelled the popular myth of the “erratic genius”. Van Gogh’s letters reveal a wonderfully literate, intelligent man, whose remarkable sensitivity stretches not only to his art, but also to his appreciation of literature and, as is especially apparent in this exhibition, of nature.

One quote in particular stands out: “In all of nature, in trees for instance, I see expression and soul”. These carefully chosen sentences, coupled with the large wall projections relaying letters and sketches, manage to make an overwhelming amount of correspondence easily digestible. This intertwined  arrangement of the letters and paintings also seem to elevate Van Gogh’s correspondence into a form of artwork in itself. Throughout the exhibition, his unremitting determination to improve as an artist is made abundantly clear in his letters. Following his breakdown in December 1888, during which he notoriously mutilated his own ear, Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his younger brother, Theo, “I’m going to get back to work tomorrow. I’ll begin by doing one or two still-lives to get back into the way of painting”. The outcome of this touching resolve can be seen in “Still Life with a Plate of Onions” painted in January 1889, just over a year before he committed suicide. Despite the brevity of his artistic career, which lasted ten years, Van Gogh’s oeuvre contains a prodigious output of over 800 paintings and 1200 drawings.

It is to Theo, his closest supporter and advisor, that the majority of the letters displayed are addressed. They reveal the thought processes behind the gradual development of Van Gogh’s style, which was largely self-taught. For instance, the vivid, often starkly contrasting colours which became his trademark were virtually nonexistent in his earlier work. His earlier pieces are often line drawings in black ink, or heavy landscapes done using dense graphite and that show an acute preoccupation with perspective.

The letters highlight his consistently critical self-assessment and strive to dispel any impression of randomness from his work. Indeed, one of the most poignant paintings on display here is “Roses” (May 1890), painted during his stay in the asylum in Saint-Remy, just months before his death. Art seems to have been closely linked to an attempted healing process for Van Gogh, who in a touching letter shares the following: “the whole horrible crisis has disappeared like a thunderstorm, and I’m working here with calm, unremitting ardour to give a last stroke of the brush”. 

It is this eloquence and sensitivity that make the fusion of letters and artwork so successful whereas with other artists it might well have fallen flat. For anyone with even the slightest inclination towards art, here is an unbeatable combination and provides a remarkably refreshing approach to an already world renowned artist. Admission fee: £8 for students.

Louisa Long