Every few years Tate Britain finds a way to link an , or group of Impressionist painters, to Britain as an excuse to hold an exhibition of Impressionist work. Why? Because, such is the popularity of the Impressionists, that it all but guarantees a sell out show and the sale of tons of merchandise, thus going a long way to raising the funds the museum group needs to continue operating. This time it is the turn of that great Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh.
He is not one that you would readily associate with Britain. So going into the exhibition I had a feeling that it was going stretch any connection that existed between this miserable genius and Britain – like butter spread too thinly over toast, dragged further than is really possible, all to help the gallery meet its financial needs. Happily, while there is at times an element of this, what the Tate has orchestrated is an incredibly intimate look at the man. And this is despite the sheer number of elder retirees clogging the rooms and blocking the works from view.
So the link between Van Gogh and Britain? Between the age of 20 and 23, Van Gogh worked for a Dutch are dealer in London. The first part of the exhibition focuses on his time in London and his engagement with the arts while here, and the second part looks at the British artists prior to 1950 who were inspired by him.
The first part is the most interesting and unsurprisingly intimate. The walls are laden with framed prints of artworks that Van Gogh owned, collected and was inspired by when in London. Most incredible are the letters with his little doodles of street scenes on them. These doodles are no more than 2 inches square, but the style is unquestionably his and the detailing for drawings on that scale is captivating. However, the works of Van Gogh that fill this section are not works he did in Britain. Instead, the curators argue they were stylistically and compositionally inspired by the works he had seen and the prints he collected while in London. Certainly they make a good case for this, but at times it does seem a little of a stretch, especially regarding his paintings of the asylum he was admitted to at Saint-Remy.
The second half of the exhibition is less interesting and, to be honest, almost a separate exhibition, though it does have its highlights. Van Gogh’s Farms Near Auvers is found there and instantly transports you to the French countryside. Francis Bacon’s tryptic response to Van Gogh is a treat to see, but the real room of interest is room 7, housing the National Gallery’s version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and paintings by other British artists inspired by it – they are a riot of colour.
While this may be two exhibitions in one and the central message is, at times, stretched a little thin, the window it gives onto the intimate life of Van Gogh makes it worth it. Be sure to visit; just try to find a time it’s not busy, though admittedly that’s as likely as a unicorn giving you a guided tour of it.
London Lamppost Rating(4 / 5)
Van Gogh and Britain
Till 11th August
Feature Image – Vincent van Gogh (1853 –1890), Self-Portrait 1889, Oil paint on canvas, 572x 438mm, National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney