To WH and TC, both of whom I wish I had brought to see this exhibition before they went to Amsterdam.
When you look at a Van Gogh painting, what do you see? Do you see the brilliant and beautiful contrasting colours, or the "madness" of the paint brush? Do you remember the vibrant colours but such sad and somewhat troublesome mood? Do you know of Van Gogh as a crazy artist who cut of his ear? Whose self portraits seem to penetrate the soul of his sitter like a Dorian Gray?
If you answer "yes" to any of the questions above, you should visit the currently running exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London - The Real Van Gogh: the artist and his letters. One of the most intriguing exhibitions I have seen this year.
What we are told about someone before we really know them usually influence the way we think about them -- and with artists, the way we look at their work. Sometimes we need to go that extra mile to really discover them for who they are, and not what they were told to be. This is exactly what the exhibition did -- offering you the chance to know the "real" Van Gogh.
By investigating an abundant resource of the artist's letters, most of which were written to his brother, Theo, the RA has brought to London a major Van Gogh exhibition for the first time in 40 years. And by looking at his works from a perspective that I learned has never before been so fully investigated in one exhibition - his letters.
There are 40 letters exhibited that traces the Van Gogh's artistic development from the moment he decided to become an artist at the age of 27. During his short artistic career, Van Gogh is probably the artist that wrote the most about his works. Many of the paintings and sketches on show were accompanied by the letters in which Van Gogh used words beautifully to pre-paint his vision of work he planned to do. Despite the lack in presence of a few key pieces such as "The potato eaters" the body of works presented there were extraordinary.
Van Gogh was not only a remarkable painter but he was also an educated and a beautiful writer. He read extensively, literature pre- and of his time including many English writers such as Shakespeare, Elliot and Dickens. Van Gogh spoke and wrote fluently Dutch, French and English -- though most of his letters were written in the two prior languages. And although his artistic career only spread for a decade or so, Van Gogh has produced a phenomenal amount of work (over 800 bodies of work) and is one of the most hard-working self taught artists I have ever known.
Van Gogh worked relentlessly. Firstly with sketching and perspective drawing; then to figure painting which he found "most difficult". Lastly he tackled portraits, which he thought "(were) the highest goal an artist can achieve". He progressed from water colour to oil painting while self-teaching Delacroix's colour theory. His works were influenced by inspirations he found along the way, either it be literature or in Japanese prints, which also became a huge influence in his landscape paintings and portraiture.
Van Gogh's art wasn't accepted then... He never sold a piece in his lifetime. His techniques were regarded as clumsy (figures) and although he later lightened his palette to match those of the impressionists, Van Gogh's style was always on a course of its own. Sometimes having your own style means unpopularity.
What I love most about this exhibition was two things
1. I was truly blown away by getting to see some of his work in person like The Two Empty Chairs (1888), his self portrait, the dried sunflower, Hospital at Saint-Remy (1889) and many of the landscape paintings ... I have always been fascinated with his use of colours and the way he really painted what he felt. But I was so moved by his commitment and dedication, by his intellect and "genius".
2. Another wonderful thing that surface this exhibition was the brotherly love, support and respect between Van Gogh and Theo. I am sure there were times of difficulties and conflict between them. But no matter what course life takes, what is more precious than having someone who believes in you?
I will share in the next few posts details of some of the work I love.
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