Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Real Van Gogh at the Royal Academy

The Real Van Gogh - the Artist and his Letters will, without a doubt, be an absolute blockbuster of an exhibition. It opens to the public on Saturday at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Why? Well here are just a few reasons:
  • This is the first major Van Gogh exhibition in London in 40 years - which makes it almost certainly a once in a lifetime experience for very many people.
  • It's arrived in the UK from a very similar exhibition Van Gogh's Letters held at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. However, the press preview on Tuesday was very crowded and included many non UK press and TV crews. I'm taking this as an indication that there's every reason to expect that this exhibition will be extremely popular, likely to be crowded and people wanting to go could be well advised to buy their tickets asap!
  • The exhibition displays some 65 paintings, 30 drawings and 35 letters. Together these express the principal themes of his longstanding correspondence with his brother Theo. Other artists have written letters but no other artist has written quite so much about the process of creating art - on a contemporaneous basis.
Still Life with a Plate of Onions
(and a letter)
Vincent Van Gogh (January 1889 - letter 732)
oil on canvas, 49.6 x 64.4 cm
Kroller-Mollo Museum
  • Van Gogh's letters are rarely exhibited because of their fragility - which makes this a very rare exhibition. These are also very powerful documents which help to create a real sense of connection with Van Gogh. I defy anybody, having reached the end of this exhibition, not to feel some emotion when looking at the very last letter he ever wrote which is on display in this exhibition. It was found on him after he shot himself.
  • Most importantly this exhibition tackles some of the myths about Van Gogh and reveals him as being a very different artist from the one which is promulgated by 'popular' publications and films (and Brian Sewell apparently - who I don't recall seeing at the preview!). If you want to get to know more about what sort of man Van Gogh really was then this is the exhibition to come and see.
I was fortunate to be able to see the exhibition at a preview on Tuesday and was so impressed that I'm going to be writing a series of posts about the exhibition and what I learned about him.

Poplars and Pines painted at St Remy on display in
"The Late Landscapes" room

Hence why this is by way of an introduction and a prompt to watch out for further posts next week.

This exhibition clearly conveys how Van Gogh lived his life on paper - he drew, he painted, he read and he wrote. His was a very solitary existence - he was apparently so intense and focused on what he was interested in that he was very difficult to live with.

He comes across as a very intelligent and well read man in this exhibition. Also, although his execution of a painting may have been fast at times, the letters and drawings clearly demonstate that he is somebody who studied hard, practiced in a very deliberate way to develop his skills, and created plans for his compositions and colour schemes only after he had thought about this in some detail. Plus - in a view I've expressed before - I've tried drawing with a reed pen and ink and it's not the speediest of tools for drawing. His drawings are remarkably free from blots and dribbles suggesting drawings which have been executed with some care.

The letter (including a sketch), the drawing and the painting
all photos copyright Katherine Tyrrell

I particularly liked the two examples where letter, drawing and painting were brought together - even if, as seems likely, both drawing and letter were produced AFTER the painting was started!

In essence, his letters provide an audit trail of both thought processes and artistic practice - and I'll detail some of this - with images from the letters - next week.

What struck me half way round the exhibition is how much art bloggers will enjoy this exhibition. Van Gogh's letters are the nineteenth century equivalent of an art blog. Just imagine what he would have been like and how he might have been received if he was around today!

So, this is going to be an exhibition where to get the most out of it, people will need to read as well as view art. Logistically that makes for people moving very slowly. However the RA seems to have created ways of easing the path of visitors. The explanations on picture labels have been printed at a font size which allows ease of viewing from further awat than is usually the case. The letters have been displayed in such a way that they can be studied from both sides when appropriate and sometimes at right angles to a painting arther than right next to it. Overall, the layout and display of the exhibition appears to have been thought about from the view of channelling visitors through but also allowing them to view the letters with ease. (This does not look like it will be a repeat of the scrum experienced at the V&A in 2007 when we had Da Vinci's notebooks on display). I also really appreciated the colours that the walls of the exhibition have been painted - they really echoed and assisted the display and the colour themes of different parts of the exhibition and his life.

I also like the way they've provided an opportunity within the exhibition to view the letters online - although I predict problems with the keyboard and mouse which are set into and integrated with the desktop!

Letter 902 - the very last letter from Vincent to Theo Van Gogh
Drawing of Wheatfields after the Rain (the Plain of Auvers)
In his very last letter to Theo dated Wednesday 23rd July 1890, four days before he shot himself in the chest - Van Gogh sent sketches of two no. 30 canvases depicting immense streches of wheat after the rain.......the unfinished letter to Theo, a draft of the one that was actually sent was found on Vincent's person after he shot himself in the fields on 27 July 1890 (and is in the exhibition)
Exhibition Catalogue: The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters
If you'd like to read the letters you can now do so now by visiting the new Van Gogh Museum website dedicated to them - Vincent Van Gogh - The Letters. This gives you access to all 902 letters. If you have the catalogue you can match the drawings and paintings in the exhibition to the letters to which they relate.

Next week I'll be looking at his early studies with perspective; his drawings using a reed pen, the impact of time on his colour schemes for some of the paintings, and developments of different motifs - and the unsung heroine of all this - Johanna Van Gogh.

Details of the exhibition: Dates and times
  • Opens to the public: 23rd January 2010 Closes: Sunday 18th April 2010
  • Open 10am - 6pm daily; Fridays open until 10pm; Saturdays open until 9pm. All days last admission 30 minutes before closing time
  • £12 full price; registered disabled/ aged 60+ £10; NUS/ISIC cardholders £8; 12-18 year olds and those on income support £4
  • There are some tickets available daily at the RA (but from my experience these are likely to generate queues and/or go fast)
  • Tickets can be booked in advance by telephoning 0844 209 1919 or visiting the RA website. Due to the popularity of this exhibition, all pre-booked tickets are timed entry which means you need to arrive 10-15 minutes before your entry time to allow for the collection of tickets and cloakroom services. Advance tickets cannot be bought at the ticket office
Exhibition Catalogue: The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters

The exhibition is sponsored by BNY Mellon

Events and resources: various activities are organised - but the free lunchtime talks are already sold out

RA Magazine: two articles online RECOMMENDED READ

A beautiful mind Martin Gayford explores the Van Gogh beyond the canvas. The artist’s letters reveal his thought processes and give a rich and moving picture of what he was really like

Behind the scenes Curator Ann Dumas and Exhibitions Director Kathleen Soriano explain to Martin Gayford the complex negotiations involved in putting together ‘The Real Van Gogh’

Reviews of the exhibition: Here are links to some of the other reviews:Reviews of the new publication from Thames and Hudson

Vincent van Gogh: The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition (Vol. 1-6) by Nienke Bakker (Editor), Leo Jansen (Editor), Hans Luijten (Editor)

This is the most complete edition of Van Gogh'e letters ever produced, illustrated extensively throughout, and drawing on fifteen years of scholarship and dedicated research. For the first time, all the works to which Van Gogh refers are shown alongside the letters—not only the paintings and drawings that he himself was working on at the time, but also the works of art by others that he mentions.

Commenting on the new publication are:

NOTE: Vincent Van Gogh - Resources for Artists is my information site which contains links to all previous posts about Vincent Van Gogh on this blog - see Making A Mark - blog posts about Van Gogh

The Art of the Landscape


  1. Van Gogh has been my favorite artist since I was 12 years old. I saw the exhibit at the MOMA last year of his night paintings, including Starry Night.

    I so wish I could see this exhibit! I truly appreciate your detailed and thoughful posts since I will have to see and experience the exhibit through your eyes!

  2. Fascinating to also read the linked newspaper articles/reviews. I get the sense of a thoughtful, intelligent and illuminating exhibition about the old keener.

    In some way, our van Gogh was a proto artist blogger, wasn't he? His letters expand his drawings and paintings, and we get to know the artist.

    Thanks for a great report, Katherine.

  3. This exhibition sounds fascinating and I wish I could see it. Thank you for the link to the letters, they will make fascinating reading. I just read a book of Steinbeck's letters and found the insight into his work process illuminating - I can't wait to see what insights I get from Van Gogh's letters!


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