The Molten Force of the Sunflower****

‘I, indeed, before, others, have taken the sunflower,’ wrote Vincent Van Gogh to Paul Gauguin on 21 January 1889 with remarkable assurance for a man of such febrile temperament. Ever since, the whole world has inclined to agree with him. The name Van Gogh has become identified with his various painted representations of it. Without the sunflower there could be no Van Gogh. Without Van Gogh there is no such thing as painted sunflowers.

Sunflowers real or imagined: Van Gogh merchandising in full flight readiness
at the Van Gogh Museum shop, Amsterdam

There were not one, of course, but many. The five most celebrated, all contained within rude vases, are dispersed in museums throughout the world: London, Philadelphia, Munich, Tokyo and Amsterdam, in the Van Gogh Museum.

Sunflowers (1889), Vincent van Gogh, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

This exhibition is a prolonged interrogation of the one in Amsterdam, and it was painted just a few months after the variation you can see at the National Gallery in London. It has been subjected to prolonged scrutiny at the hands of researchers and conservators for two reasons. Such is the global fascination with Van Gogh and his sunflowers – he is art’s rock star; the average age of the visitor to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is 26 – that we are desperate to peer behind the arras. What are its secrets? How was it made? And how has it stood the test of time?

His pulling power may be one of the reasons why London’s Royal Academy has just recruited the man who has run the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for more than a decade to be its next Chief Executive. Oh would that the Royal Academy, an institution still hopelessly locked into self-preening venerability, could make a similar boast!

X-ray of Sunflowers

The exhibition does several useful jobs in one. It tells us about the results of all that peering and probing for a start. The good news is that the painting is in a pretty good state for its age (130), but it is also a little too fragile to do any more travelling. You’ll never see it anywhere other than here. Conservators have also discovered a few useful and fascinating things about its condition. Van Gogh added a strip of wood to the top of the painting to give the sunflowers a little more breathing space.

What is more, the various layers of varnish that were added by ignorant experts over the years, giving the painted surface an unpleasant sheen, were never of Van Gogh’s making. He would have hated the way they cause the textured surface of the flower heads to wink back at you when they catch the light. Unfortunately, the varnish has started to merge with the paint, so it is irremovable.

What else does the exhibition do? It tells us a bit about the history of flower painting in nineteenth-century France, and why Van Gogh might have wanted to add this skill to his repertoire. Flowers were cheap to buy. Flowers paintings sold well. Those were two compelling reasons.

Vase with Chinese Asters and Gladioli (1886), Vincent van Gogh, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (gift of Sarah Lee Corporation)

But his relationship with sunflowers is something very special, as he well began to understand as he persisted in painting them year on year. These are not flower paintings of a traditional kind at all. They are not pretty adjuncts to a room. Van Gogh’s sunflowers are not really decorative at all, as we recognise the more we stand and stare and stare at this museum’s prize rendering, one of the five.

Sunflowers are tough-minded, helio-centric, minatory, alarmingly large and robust. Travel along those little lanes between the fields of the Midi, and you will not be able to mistake their character. They weren’t everywhere in Van Gogh’s day. They are now though.

Allotment with Sunflower (1887), Vincent van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Van Gogh’s sunflowers look like emotional turbulence and unruliness barely contained. They are spiky, dense, tactile, bristly, awkwardly twisty, molten-solid. Each head could be a nasty packed boxing glove. The head looks even more lugubrious in death. Van Gogh’s sunflower is a species of self-portraiture, not pretty, not decorative, and certainly not polite. No wonder he was such a torment to himself and others.

According to Martin Bailey, writing in The Art Newspaper, Van Gogh’s gun has just sold at auction for 162,500 euros.

Van Gogh and the Sunflowers is at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam from 21 June to 1 September 2019

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