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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...'

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