It was always the sodding Sunflowers. The first Van Gogh painting I ever saw and if I’d had my way the last. Seventies student bedsits were crammed with posters of either the Tennis Girl, or Van Gogh’s drab pot of blooms. Perhaps they were right for the 70s in their awful beige flatness. Over the years my opinion of the troubled post-impressionist shifted somewhat, but I can’t say the Tate’s Van Gogh and Britain filled me with expectant joy. Sometimes it’s lovely to be proved wrong.
Everyone is describing this as a blockbuster exhibition so, being a member and to beat the crowds, I snuck in to see the show at 8am on a Sunday morning.
To be clear, VG never painted a single picture in England though he lived near the Oval in London in his early 20s while working for an art dealer. Apparently, he loved the place, loved Dickens and said: “My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes.”
The curators of this exhibition have done an astonishing job in selecting work that influenced the artist and in turn artists who were influenced by the troubled, red-headed Dutchman. He lived for just 37 years, painted for only ten of them and only made his artistic and stylistic breakthrough in the last two years of his life during which he created more than 2,000 pictures. If my maths is right, and I certainly wouldn’t guarantee it, that’s almost 20 a week. He was mentally disturbed and of course took his own life, but the range and intensity of his work leaves the viewer breathless.
A few years ago, the Royal Academy hosted the YBA’s ‘Sensation’ exhibition with the likes of Damien Hurst and Tracey Emin. It had the right-wing press in a lather not knowing whether to be morally outraged or to make fun of it. Twenty years after Van Gogh’s death his paintings were introduced to the British public in an exhibition at the Tate titled: Manet and the Post-Impressionists. At the Tate today there’s a wall of newspaper cuttings looking at that exhibition that are just as snide and sneering as those levelled at ‘Sensation’ but interestingly just like ‘Sensation’ it was wildly popular with the public and attracted more than 25,000 visitors.
After the war, when people must have been craving colour, the Tate staged a Van Gogh exhibition which also proved highly popular. There’s a photograph in one of the glass cases of punters queuing on the front steps, eager to get in. Similarly, as I left the current exhibition today there was a line of people stretching out the door. Van Gogh identified with the working man, perhaps with everyman and we seem to respond. Even at his most psychedelic, and some of these paintings are eye-melting, he speaks directly to us.
The standout picture of his in this exhibition is probably Starry Night, but some of the self-portraits are breathtaking and, unlikely as it might seem, a small picture of a pair of boots is heart breaking for reasons it’s hard to explain.
Obviously, those going to see this exhibition will be looking for pictures by the man himself, but there are wonderful paintings by his Contemporaries and those who came after. I thought John Everett Millais was just another of those drippy pre-Raphaelites. He did the one of Ophelia, a hippy looking bird, drowning in a river. But just take a look at his magnificent ‘Chill October’ which is technically brilliant and seems to epitomise a cold autumnal British landscape. The final three paintings are by Francis Bacon titled Van Gogh in a Landscape and I know most won’t agree but they are perhaps the greatest works in the entire exhibition.
Perhaps it’s down to decades of prejudice but ‘Sunflowers’ still looks drab, beige and curiously two dimensional. The exact opposite of just about everything else in this overwhelming exhibition. Don’t stop to think about it, just go.