Here at ArtMuseLondon we’ve been less than enthusiastic – to say the least – about some of the temporary exhibitions that Tate Britain has put on of late. Mayhap some imp of perversity has been loose around Millbank these past few years. How else to make sense of all the questionable curatorial decisions, the squandered opportunities, the telltale signs of hobby-horses being ridden, and what has almost seemed at times like a deliberate policy of obfuscation? The undoubted low point was the exhibition on the Impressionists in 2017 with virtually no Impressionist paintings in it (and who could forget those ghastly lavender walls?).
But now it’s time to give credit where credit is due, because this new show on Van Gogh and Britain is a corker. Thoroughly immersive, scholarly yet accessible, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Best of all, given that it isn’t intended to be a straightforward survey show, it’s packed to the rafters with Van Goghs.
The show is in two parts. The first half deals with Van Gogh’s British connection, focusing on the artist’s prolonged stay in 1873-76; the second examines his posthumous influence on British art.
Vincent Van Gogh arrived in London aged 19 and remained, off and on, for the next three years, doing various short-term jobs. He was fluent in English and read voraciously; Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ was a favourite book. He also loved George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe and particularly Dickens, all of whom shared his concern for social justice. He was already a great frequenter of art galleries, signing the visitor’s book at Dulwich Picture Gallery on 4 August 1873 – a bank holiday Monday – for example. He hadn’t decided to become an artist yet although he did include one or two tantalising little sketches in his letters back home, and it wasn’t until almost three years after his return to Holland that he finally took the plunge.
Van Gogh might not have been a practicing artist at this stage, but he was already thinking like one. The vivid descriptions he gives in his letters to his brother Theo of an autumnal walk along the Thames at Richmond, say, or of a chance storm off the Kent coast, betray the painter’s eye. What Vincent saw or read about would go into his visual memory bank, often to re-emerge only years later. It’s obvious, for example, viewing them side by side, how much one of Whistler’s nocturnes, ‘Grey and Gold, Westminster Bridge’, laid the ground for Musée d’Orsay’s ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’, 1888 (not the painting that Don McLean sang about, that’s at MOMA in New York). Those early years in Britain weren’t wasted.
The second half of the show begins with ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, the exhibition organised by Roger Fry in 1910, which included 20 Van Goghs. Critics tended to use the ‘artist and madman’ cliché when discussing his work, a disproportionate amount of attention being paid to his time in hospital and to his self-harming as possible triggers for his otherwise unfathomable art. Tate does an excellent job of unravelling how Van Gogh went on to become a recognised modern master even in artistically conservative Britain, so much so that when the first major solo exhibition of his work was held at the Tate in 1947 people queued for hours round the block in the rain.
The Bloomsbury and Camden Town painters were probably the ones most directly influenced by Van Gogh but countless others identified strongly with his life and travails (don’t most artists, if they’re honest?). Harold Gilman would begin each painting with a flourish of his brush: ‘À toi, Van Gogh!’. Another strong advocate was Christopher Wood, who made a special pilgrimage in 1927 to Arles ‘where Van Gogh, my Van Gogh, painted his best pictures’. This proselytising trend continued into the post-World War II era and the exhibition is rounded off by the series Francis Bacon did inspired by his favourite Van Gogh, ‘The Painter on the Road to Tarascon’.
Earlier, you’ll see the famous ‘Sunflowers’ in ‘conversation’ with other flower paintings by the likes of Frank Brangwyn, Winifred Nicholson and David Bomberg. Nowadays the painting normally hangs in the National Gallery but it was originally bought by the Tate and you can read the moving letter written by Vincent’s sister-in-law Jo when she was finally persuaded to part with it:
‘For two days I have tried to harden my heart against your appeal. I felt as if I could not bear to separate from the picture I had looked on every day for more than thirty years. But… I know that no picture would represent Vincent in your famous Gallery in a more worthy manner than the “Sunflowers” and that he… would have liked it to be there… it is a sacrifice for the sake of Vincent’s glory’.