Van Gogh comes to London

This is a huge and almost unwieldy, if not ungainly, show. So research-heavy is it that it courts the possibility of failure by sheer documentary overload, but because, by sleight of hand, it finally encompasses so much (and that much includes many excellent paintings by Van Gogh which have nothing to do with Britain whatsoever), it is in fact a great success.

Self Portrait Vincent van Gogh (1889), National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney

It is all about Van Gogh and the matter of Britain – not only the three short years (1873-6) that he lived and worked here, but also the impact of Britain (its writers, its painters, everything that he saw and heard and moved amongst when he lived in London) upon him and his work. And then, having dealt with Van Gogh during his lifetime, it goes on to show us, and to describe in great detail, the impact of that work upon Britain, from 1910 on, when it was shown for the first time in Manet and the PostImpressionists at the Grafton Galleries, and his influence upon its artists later in the 20th century, taking us up as far as Francis Bacon.

There is much to be said about Van Gogh’s passion for Britain, and he often said it in his letters – or spoke it out loud. He was fluent in Dutch, French and English – and there were writers in the English language that he read with much relish, from Dickens to Harriet Beecher Stowe. We read quotations from his letters, look at paintings whose influences he absorbed to his future good. He was not yet a painter when he lived in London, though he was already drawing and absorbing subject matter that he would make his own later, in his own inimitable way. The only painting he made out of the subject matter of London – it shows prisoners endlessly circling in a prison courtyard – is shown in this country for the first time. That was painted in 1890.

So much of what we see in the first galleries amounts to contextualisation, paintings and prints which help us to see and to feel what Van Gogh himself saw and felt when he was here, from the poor in the workhouse and on the streets, to paintings by Constable and Millais, or the Thames as seen by Whistler. He learnt to admire the rough immediacy of the faces of the poor as represented in the Graphic, their defiant dignity.

Then the exhibition – a tad perplexingly, but visually all to the good – takes us out of Britain altogether, to Paris (where he paints in Pissarro’s circle), and then on to those last years in Provence, where he strives in vain to create a community of artists in Arles somewhat akin to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There was no brotherliness to be had in Gauguin, his house-mate. So, in the absence of a brother, Van Gogh paints an empty chair. The end came quite quickly – his incarceration in an insane asylum and the bungled shooting which culminated in his death. It had been a self-taught career of stunningly tragic brevity. The final rooms are less densely populated, less intensely absorbing. The exhibition dribbles towards a conclusion: a room of fairly good flower paintings by the likes of Matthew Smith and Vanesa Bell and Jacob Epstein tiptoe in homage around Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which has travelled across London from the National Gallery for the occasion.

Van Gogh and Britain is at Tate Britain until 11 August 2019

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