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The Royal Academy of Arts, London
23 January - 18 April 2010
Reviewed by: Allison John »
I visited this exhibition last month, and have to say that it is one of the most thought provoking, interesting exhibitions I have seen. I have a bias, in that the life and works of Van Gogh have fascinated me since I lived in Holland 20 years ago.
His works I find vibrant, and inspiring, finding that I can revisit them time and time again to see new things, and ask myself new questions. They always make me want to know more of the man who produced such wonderful works of art, and yet suffered so much, and died so young.
So it was with anticipation that I visited this exhibition at the Royal Academy in March. I was certainly not disappointed with any expectations that I had arrived with.
The exhibition was very busy, as you would expect from such a prestigious body of work, and once I had adjusted to and accepted the crowds, I found the whole experience fascinating, and one which I would have loved to revisit several times.
The idea behind the show, was to bring together some of Van Gogh's letters to his friends and family, with those Paintings and drawings mentioned in them. The result was a fascinating exhibition that you felt bought you closer to the man himself and not just his works.
The exhibition was extensive taking the whole of the top floor at the Royal Academy, with a wide range of his paintings and drawings on show.
Each letter was accompanied by the works of art that Van Gogh refers to, offering us an insight into his thought processes going on at the time. We are lucky to have so many of Van Gogh’s letters preserved, (over 600 in total), a luxury that with an artist living in this day and age we probably wouldn’t have. With our instant technology, emails, texts, phone calls, there won’t be this written record for future generations. Our blogs and facebooking while valuable and essential in some ways for today’s artists, will leave no record into the future, and while some may ask whether it is necessary to have such records, for me the work of an artist is not just about the final image, but it is also (and perhaps more importantly) about the understanding and thoughts of that artist when creating that work. We are so fortunate that these letters were kept safe, especially as at the time of his death, Van Gogh had only sold a few of his paintings, and was not highly thought of. They are a legacy to us that allow us to see a glimpse of his world from his view point, allowing us to understand how he thought and was feeling as he struggled with his painting and his mental illness. In a lot of ways they bring us closer to the man, than just looking at the finished pieces of work.
Any exhibition of Van Gogh’s that contained the number of Paintings and Drawings that this one does, would be exceptional, but the combination with the letters is the thing that makes it so special. The letters are like sketchbooks, where we can follow the man himself, and his passions. We can get a sense of the frustrations, the lack of understanding of others to his intentions when he paints, the tensions building between himself and his brother as his mental illness leads him to more and more bizarre behaviour. In the letters he mainly talks of work in progress, of paintings he has done, or ones he is struggling with, the moments in nature he is trying to capture. Most of his letters are to his brother Theo. Van Gogh and Theo were extremely close and Theo remained supportive of Van Gogh for all of his life. They worked together on leaving school, and Van Gogh continued to send him work throughout his life in the hope that Theo, moving with in the art world would be able to find a market for them. Van Gogh’s letters often read like mini sketchbooks with thoughts and images keeping Theo up to date with his work and progress.
The paintings at the exhibition are some of his best known works, and what a delight it is to have the opportunity to see the originals and not have to make do with reproductions. The close proximity to the works makes you realise the three-dimensionality of the paintings, the thickness of the paint, the richness of the colours, the intensity of the brushstrokes. They vibrate with energy, colour and emotion. The drawings that are hung are dynamic, and powerful, his portrayal of the figure so strong, you can just ‘feel’ the peasants and their struggles.
The letters help us to ‘see’ the man. What impassioned him and that despite all his struggles he continued to paint, that he could not ‘help’ himself’. He inspires me to consider what is important in my artistic practice, to question myself, and ask what it is that I am trying to say to the viewer, what is important to my work. By the end of this exhibition I was exhausted, but wanted more, and wished I could have come back the next day to do it all over again.
I am a printmaker exploring many different areas of print. I particularly enjoy mixing different print techniques in single images, using over layering to gain a sense of depth and interest in the final print. I am at present completing a BTEC diploma in Professional Printmaking at The Regional Print Centre, Wrexham. I completed a BA(Hons.) in Fine Art at Glyndwr University in 2008.
The Royal Academy of Arts »
Burlington House, Picadilly, London W1J 0BD
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