Van Gogh

London: “Van Gogh and Britain” @ Tate Britain

I don’t think I even need to say how much I love Van Gogh to anyone who reads this blog regularly, but yes, I love Van Gogh! And so Marcus booked us tickets to go see the new exhibition at Tate Britain, “Van Gogh and Britain” whilst there were still tickets to be had (I assume there are still tickets at this point, since it runs til 11th August, but I also know that exhibitions in London can completely book up if you’re not careful to get in early). Because Van Gogh is such a big name that they can get away with it, admission is definitely on the pricier side at £22, though fortunately they do offer discounts for National Art Pass holders, so we got in for £11. And yes, we did have to stand in the queue you see above, even with pre-booked tickets, but it moved quickly.

The purpose of the exhibition, as you may have guessed from the title, was to cover both Van Gogh’s experiences whilst living in London (between 1873 and 1876) and his posthumous influence on British artists of the early-mid 20th century. Van Gogh moved to London when he was 20 to work for an art dealer, which lasted for two years until he was dismissed (he was developing increasingly radical ideas about art, which proved incompatible with his position) and dabbled with preaching and teaching in Isleworth and Ramsgate. Although he never returned to Britain after 1876 (he left before he had even begun painting, though he did make little sketches whilst he was here, some of which were on display), the experiences he had here clearly shaped his life and art, especially the time he spent visiting museums. The exhibition had his signature in the Dulwich Picture Gallery guestbook on show, as you can see above (I can definitely read the “Gogh” and maybe a “van”, but that doesn’t look like “Vincent” to me. Honestly, it looks more like Theo Van Gogh, but they said it was Vincent, so I’ll go with it).

The first four rooms contained a mix of Van Gogh’s paintings and paintings that he saw whilst visiting London that inspired him, some of which he copied in his own style whilst learning to develop as an artist. As you can see, calling this exhibition crowded is an understatement, but due to how things were laid out, I found that I was able to slip in and look at paintings with relative ease. However, although it was clearly beneficial for me as a blogger, and I know I often complain when exhibitions don’t allow photography, in this particular instance, I felt it would have been a much better experience without it. People were just standing in front of the paintings for ages whilst trying to get that perfect shot, and not even looking at what was right in front of them, which really annoyed me – especially because Van Gogh has a tendency to make me a bit emotional, and I wish everyone could take the time to really appreciate his talent for finding beauty in the mundane.

Like me, Van Gogh had a bit of a love-hate relationship with London. He said, “I often felt low in England, but the Black and White and Dickens [“black and white” meaning British prints] are things that make up for it all.” The exhibition contained quotes excerpted from Van Gogh’s many letters, to great effect, and even some facsimiles of his letters, the originals being too fragile to travel (Van Gogh spoke four languages, including English, so the ones here were written in English, and I enjoyed reading them). He discovered Gustav Doré’s engravings of London, and absolutely fell in love with them, collecting as many as he could afford. He even made his own version of Doré’s print of prisoners exercising at Newgate, as seen above right. There was also a painting of the Victoria Embankment (above left) about which Van Gogh said, “A couple of days ago we got a painting by De Nittis, a view of London on a rainy day…I crossed Westminster Bridge every morning and evening, and know what it looks like when the sun’s setting behind Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and what it’s like early in the morning, and in the winter with snow and fog. When I saw this painting, I felt how much I love London.” Which sums up how I feel when I cross over Hungerford Bridge at night. Oh, Vincent.

Like I said, it’s not hard for me to get emotional over Van Gogh, and that’s definitely what happened when I read the caption on the painting of a “sorrowing old man,” based on an earlier lithograph he did of a war veteran he sometimes used as a model. According to one of his doctors, when Van Gogh was mentally unwell, “he usually sits with his head in his hands, and if someone speaks to him, it is as though it hurts him, and he gestures for them to leave him alone.” Just like the man in his painting, which he did when he was staying at Saint-Paul Hospital. Reading that just about broke my heart.

There were lots of pieces here that I’d never seen before, including one of the hospital at Saint-Remy that I visited last year, which was one of my favourite pieces in this exhibition. I also really loved the sketch of Vincent and his brother Theo, done by Vincent’s friend Lucien Pissarro, which is thought to be the only image of the brothers together (and it’s gratifying to see that Vincent looks pretty much as he does in his self-portraits, so the picture we all have of him in our heads is probably fairly accurate).

My favourite part of the exhibition was definitely the half on Van Gogh and Britain, rather than on British artists and Van Gogh, but there were still some Van Gogh paintings to enjoy in the final five rooms, although they were heavily interspersed with those by British artists influenced by the Post-Impressionists. Obviously I enjoy the Post-Impressionists myself, but I still had to laugh at the cartoon showing “Post-Impressions of the Post-Impressionists” based on the first time these paintings were shown in London in 1910, twenty years after Van Gogh’s death.

There was a whole room devoted to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which was first exhibited in 1924 in the original location of the National Gallery at Millbank, in what is now the Tate. Since the painting moved with the National Gallery to Trafalgar Square in the 1960s, this is the first time it has made the trip back across town. The National Gallery was given permission to buy the painting by Theo Van Gogh’s widow Johanna (Theo died only six months after Vincent), who devoted the rest of her life to promoting Vincent’s work, and offered the museum the painting only a year before she died.

I’ve stuck to mainly including Van Gogh’s paintings throughout this post, but I had to show you this painting of a young Roald Dahl by Matthew Smith (above right), which was heavily influenced by Van Gogh’s style. In fact, the last room was entirely pieces by British painters, mainly Francis Bacon, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I felt like I had to return to the room before it to look at some of Van Gogh’s work again so I could leave on a high note. There was some discussion in here of how Van Gogh’s mental illness affected British perceptions of him throughout the 20th century, which I thought was quite interesting, and I would have enjoyed hearing more about it, though I suppose that topic could (and apparently has, judging on some of the books on display!) fill a book.

The shop had some nice merchandise, including the very expensive, but very cute crocheted Vincent doll (I went for the cheaper miniature key chain version, but he was still £8!), and I also went home with a print of the above self-portrait. The exhibition mentioned that the last Van Gogh exhibition at the Tate, in 1947, attracted 5000 visitors a day, and judging by all the people that were there when I visited, I could easily imagine this exhibition surpassing it. I didn’t love the experience of visiting because of the crowds and the issue with people taking photos (which I know is a bit hypocritical since I had Marcus take photos for the post too, but I would have been perfectly fine with no one being allowed to take photos in this instance) – lest you think I’m exaggerating, have a look at the collage Marcus made, below. It was a fairly big exhibition, and I’m delighted I got to see so many Van Gogh pieces, including some that had never been on public display before, but I’m still glad I only paid £11, because £22 is an awful lot of money (and to be fair, I spent more than £11 on stuff from the shop, so they got the full admission fee out of me in one way or another)! Nonetheless, I think the exhibition was well done, and I especially appreciated all the text, which can be rare in an art exhibition – thanks to Van Gogh’s eloquent letters, I feel I understand certain aspects of his life better, particularly the time he spent in London.  I liked that the exhibition focused largely on the lesser-known parts of Van Gogh’s life, since I think most people who are willing to pay £22 to see a Van Gogh exhibition are familiar with the most well known parts of his life story by now, and don’t need to re-read it fifty times. And of course, Van Gogh’s art is always gloriously moving. So, 3.5/5 for the exhibition, even with the issues with the crowds.

Arles to Saint-Remy-de-Provence: The Van Gogh Trail

I know that most people have a soft spot for Vincent Van Gogh, and I am certainly no exception. I’m staring at Cafe Terrace at Night, which hangs above my fireplace, as I type this, and my old bedroom at my parents’ house has a celestial theme, dominated by a huge copy of The Starry Night hanging above my bed. I named my life size poseable skeleton Vincent (and his pet skeleton cat is called Theo), and I can’t listen to that Don McLean song without tearing up (I completely lost it at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Like full on ugly crying in public). Hell, I even have one of his paintings tattooed on me, so I guess it’s fair to say that I take my fondness for Van Gogh further than most people, and one of the reasons I wanted to go to the south of France was to retrace his footsteps and see some of the places that inspired him.

  

Van Gogh moved down to Arles from Paris in 1888, hoping the climate would improve his health, and was deeply inspired by the Provencal landscape, entering a very prolific period of work. Unfortunately, when his friend Gauguin followed him down there, his mental health took a turn for the worse, and he ended up cutting off his own ear (probably, I think the jury’s still out on what exactly happened), requiring him to move into a hospital to recover. Today, Arles is home to a Van Gogh gallery of its own, but as far as I could tell, they don’t actually own any of his paintings – they just borrow some to put on their annual exhibition, which changes every year, and only contains a few of Van Gogh’s works (the rest being by other artists on a Van Gogh-inspired theme), so I decided to skip that in favour of the Van Gogh Walk, which is meant to take you past a number of Van Gogh related sites.

 

We drove into Arles, and obtained parking on the street. Because we hadn’t had much luck finding food that morning (I was holding out for panisse and chichi fregis from this village near Marseille, only it turned out that all the food stalls there were closed on Monday, so I ended up eating nothing), I was pretty cranky, and Arles would not improve my mood. To start with, very little was open here either, except for some super touristy cafes in the forum (everything in France appears to be shut on Sunday and Monday (and Tuesday in some cases)), so I ended up falling back on some not very nice crisps we’d bought the night before, in case of food emergency (the French do not excel in the art of the crisp, I have to say), and was still exceedingly cranky. This meant that I was unwilling to walk out to where he painted Starry Night over the Rhone (a different painting than the more famous The Starry Night), since it was far and I didn’t see much point in looking at it in broad daylight. Most of the other sites on the list also turned out to now look completely different from what Van Gogh painted, so weren’t even worth photographing. However, I was keen to see the yellow cafe portrayed in the aforementioned Cafe Terrace at Night, since I look at the painting every day.

  

This is still a cafe, but other than the colour, it looks very little like what Van Gogh painted, and has been turned into one of the super touristy cafes I just mentioned (it’s actually called Van Gogh Cafe), so it was quite a let down. In the end, we took a quick look at the outside of the Roman amphitheatre (which still hosts a form of bullfighting, gross) and hightailed it out of there, hoping nearby Saint-Remy-de-Provence would prove more fruitful.

  

Initial impressions of Saint-Remy weren’t great either, since I really had to pee by this time, and the only public toilets we could find were squat toilets that were absolutely filthy, and I was wearing sandals, so wasn’t willing to put my feet in there. I decided to hold it in until I could find somewhere more suitable (like a secluded tree), and we instead headed into the touristy centre of town to look for food. Fortunately, unlike Arles, there were appetising looking shops open, so we were able to at least get a baguette, and probably the most delicious pastry of the trip – a caramel and almond tart from a patisserie we stumbled across (and a very nice little financier type cake, but the tart was the highlight), so I was less hangry. Therefore, we decided to do the Van Gogh trail in Saint-Remy, which takes you from the centre of town up to the mental institution where Vincent voluntarily committed himself after his breakdown in Arles.

 

The trail itself was a bit lame, since it just consisted of pictures of Van Gogh’s work, with a brief explanation of each, plonked down at random intervals on the road to Vincent’s old hospital.  I think it would have been a lot better if the trail was actually through the places where those pictures had been painted, rather than just an ordinary street. Still, I loved seeing The Road Menders featured here, which is my favourite Van Gogh painting at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and reading the caption to Almond Blossom, which included a letter from Vincent to his mother explaining that he had painted it for his nephew, his brother Theo’s son, did make me a little choked up. This trail was mainly remarkable on account of the cicadas that are apparently everywhere in Provence, and were so noisy they actually hurt my ears (the sound also fills me with dread because it reminds me of the locust years in Cleveland, but these cicadas, whilst gross, weren’t quite as horrific, in that they didn’t actively attack my head like locusts do).

  

We arrived at the hospital, called Saint-Paul de Mausole and still used as a psychiatric hospital, and were asked to pay 5 euros for entry to the hospital and grounds, which of course we did, because I was most keen to see the recreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom (also I was hoping there’d be a toilet). We found this rather touching statue of Vincent holding drooping sunflowers just inside the grounds, and paid a brief visit to the hospital chapel, which contained an interesting small sound and light show in one corner that was activated after we deposited 20 cents in a box (we did it with no idea of what was actually going to happen. I was hoping for automata).

  

I then hightailed it out to the garden, as I had spotted a toilet sign, and indeed, there was a non-squat model out there (albeit lacking a seat and soap, but still); however, there was just one for everyone, so I had to queue for about ten minutes for my turn (with all women – I suspect the men did just find a suitable tree, like my original plan). Thus relieved, I was free to explore the gardens, which contained small patches of both lavender and sunflowers, so that I felt I was getting a bit of the Provencal experience at last (the good Provencal experience, rather than the squat toilets, cicadas, and extreme heat). Van Gogh painted the gardens here, and loved the local cypress trees, which feature in many of his paintings, like The Starry Night, which he also painted during his stay here.

  

Finally, we headed up to see Van Gogh’s re-created bedroom (I wasn’t clear on whether his bedroom was actually in this area of the hospital, or they’d just picked it for the re-creation because it was out of the way, but it would have been interesting to know, given that he painted variations of the view from his window twenty one times), which was filled with very wordy signs (with English translations) on what Van Gogh’s medical diagnosis may have been today (no real consensus, but possibly bipolarism). His bedroom was quite depressing, as you might expect (this wasn’t the one he famously painted, that was in Arles), and it was sort of a relief to head down into the shop, which contained a number of artworks done by current patients of the hospital in addition to the expected Van Gogh stuff (he was given a ground floor studio at the hospital, which is where he did the actual painting (he could only make sketches in his room), but I’m not sure if this is where the shop is now, or another area entirely). I think 5 euros was a little pricy for what we got (there was apparently meant to be a museum somewhere in the hospital about the period Van Gogh was living here, but we never found it if it was there. There was a small gallery near the entrance with some wooden sculptures in it, but there were no English captions and they were extremely abstract, so I’m not sure what they were meant to be), but the gardens were lovely, and I’m glad I got to see some of what Van Gogh would have experienced, so in the end it was worth it.

  

I don’t think the trail gave me any special insights into Van Gogh’s mental state, but seeing the cypresses and fields up close did help me better understand the composition of some of his paintings, and it’s always a pleasure to look at his work, even if it’s just mounted by the side of a busy road. It wasn’t as moving as the Van Gogh Museum was for me, but I still felt myself getting emotional at times, and I don’t regret doing it – I just wish Arles had been more fulfilling and less of a tourist trap (my advice if you have limited time would be to skip Arles and just head straight for Saint-Remy). To end on a more cheerful note, I’ll leave you with pictures of some dogs we encountered on the trail (I got really excited when the one on the left followed us for quite a while, thinking I had a new best friend, but it turned out he was just returning to his owner who worked on a building site).