Skip to main content

van Gogh at the Royal Academy

I was at the RA for 9.45am today, and there were two longish queues - one for 'RA Friends' and the others who were buying their tickets. In the ten minutes we waited to be admitted (I was with an RA Friend) both queues doubled in length. van Gogh is a man whose life and work, it certainly seems, has maintained a hold over both populists and the arties in equal measure. Part of the appeal seems to reside in the tragedies of his life - the ear incident, the fact that he only sold one painting in his lifetime, even his friendship with fellow artist Paul Gaugin. It is almost as if he has to be accorded special status because of these things. Yet this special status is warranted in its own right; he was a gifted artist, maintaining that hold through his work alone - self-taught, his deep love of vivid colours has given him his own special place in people's imaginations. Thankfully, however, we are not in the habit of the Formalists and judge work by work alone, but see it in the context of a life and its passions and imagination, as well as its great difficulties and challenges. And it is imperative in van Gogh's case; they tell us so much more.....

His letters, 35 of which are also on display here, serve as testament to this unwavering devotion to art - and his passion too for literature. 'Art and literature dominate van Gogh's letters; practically everything he saw or expeirenced was coloured by a literary or artistic reference. He wrote to his brother Theo: 'Books and reality and art are the same kind of thing for me'. Reading fed his ideas, helped him to express his thoughts and comforted him when he was lonely'. And what books did he favour? Emile Zola's L'assommoir, and La joie de vivre, as well as Jean et Pierre by Guy de Maupassant, as well as other writers, like Charles Dickens. He was a fan of realism, then, even though his own work was often made up of impossible vibrancy. A favourite picture for me was 'Wheat Field (June 1888), which he describes in the corresponding letter to Emile Bernard: 'old gold yellow landscapes - done quick quick quick and in a hurry, like the reaper who is silent under the blazing sun, concentrating on getting the job done...'

However, there was one particular letter that spoke to me more than the others. Letter 902 to Theo, dated 23rd July 1890. During his time living in Auvers, he writes that he feels like he is a failure there. Yet, he writes that he is 'applying myself to my canvases with all my attention'. In those last 70 days of his life van Gogh painted more than 70 canvases, some of which are his best work. Some failure! Four days later he shot himself in the stomach in a field. He died from his wounds on 29th July 1889 with Theo at his bedside. What is striking is that, despite his state of mind, or maybe because of it, he remained devoted to his artwork right up until he went into that field and shot himself. The reaper had come, and so van Gogh had indeed been quick quick quick and in a hurry... concentrating on getting the job done...'

Popular posts from this blog

Who was Mary Burns?

On 7th January 1863 Mary Burns was found dead from a suspected heart attack. She was 43 years old. Since her death Mary has received barely any attention despite the fact that she spent over twenty years as the common-law wife of Friedrich Engels, one of the world’s most influential thinkers and the co-founder of Marxism.

Born in 1822, Mary was the oldest surviving child of textile dyer and factory operative, Michael Burns, and Mary Conroy, Irish immigrants from Tipperary. Mary’s parents had married at St. Patrick’s in an area known casually as Irish Town, one of few Catholic churches in Manchester at that time. The year of Mary’s birth and her infancy were significant in that Manchester was still dealing with the aftermath of the event that became known as the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, a peaceful protest of the working-classes on the site of St. Peter’s Fields in which several people were killed and hundreds injured. The Massacre occurred when magistrates, alarmed at the size of t…

Booker Shortlist announced

It's been a while... I know. Dog walking on the Downs, a bit of theatre, a bit of baking, a bit of writing etcetera etcetera. I also managed to read two complete books in the past month, which I was so pleased about. I had not read a whole book for about a year. The first was A Lie About My Father by Scottish poet/writer, John Burnside; a very well written memoir about father and son, but like all memoirs, some unreliability I felt. Poignant and tragic in equal measure. Then my husband returned from Cyprus (too hot for me this time of year, I can barely cope with England!) with Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong. He loved it. And then I read it and also loved it. I had originally picked it up several years ago but didn't get beyond Amiens, where the first section is set, but was really glad I did this time around. Another incredibly well written book in the style of a good Victorian! I felt a bit unsure about bits of Elizabeth, in the later section, but I have never learnt so muc…

Days Without End and Mosul's Avengers

So fed up am I of buying books that I don't finish, that I decided I would go to the local library for a copy of Sebastian Barry's latest novel, Days Without End, which has just been awarded the Costa Prize. Unfortunately, I could only borrow it on the proviso that it was return by 1 February. I returned it the day after, without having finished it. I was about three quarters through, and will now have to go out and buy it for the final quarter. I loved Barry's The Secret Scripture, and on every publication of a new work, his star rises. Days Without End follows two boys, one descended from native Americans, and the other having arrived on one of the notorious coffin ships from famine struck Sligo. The tale is brave, funny, touching, but most of all Barry has achieved the perfect pitch. It is quite remarkable.

Another remarkable work comes in the form of reportage in the New Yorker (February 6, 2017) The Avengers of Mosul, by Luke Mogelson 'A Reporter at Large'.