In the middle of an exceptionally busy time for me, on Sunday, a day off! The date had finally come round for my friend and student Sarah and I to go to
to see the exhibition: “The real Van Gogh, the artist and his letters.” We had tickets for the London , and they were timed entry, so we needed to be there at 2pm. Generally I ignore my local town train station and drive to Royal Academy Colchester. It is only 20 minutes away, and that way I can get straight on the fast train to . But not this time; due to the line maintenance there were no direct trains running. So it was train from London Colchester to Witham, bus to Billericay, train to Liverpool St London, then two tube trains.
But we made it. The rooms were quite dimly lit, to preserve the letters, which were displayed, often next to the paintings they refer to. They were not translated in full, but nevertheless they were fascinating. The first thing that struck me was the fact that nearly all contained sketches. Some were studies, or illustrations of things seen, most in pen, some coloured, one contained a picture of the brushes Van Gogh wished his brother to buy, amazingly brush design appears to have not changed in over 100 years. In an age before cameras, Vincent would draw a small thumbnail sketch of his latest painting to show his brother.
The exhibition was arranged in rooms, in chronological order. The first room contained many of Vincent’s attempts to master proportion and perspective, and his letters detailing the making of a device, a frame with crossing wires, which he is delighted has helped him. You can still buy little Perspex versions of these in art shops. In fact the first painting Sarah and I look at is a still life on a table, the perspective is definitely out. How reassuring to know that someone so talented struggled like the rest of us.
A phase follows where complimentary colours are explored: “No blue without yellow and without orange” writes Vincent. A stunning still life of oranges on blue illustrates how complimentary colours glow. Another painting, designed to showcase pink roses against a blue and green background, has faded to white flowers, as the paint used was not stable. I wonder if it was Alizarin Crimson, a notoriously fugitive pigment. We modern painters are lucky to have new replacements. It’s only just over a hundred years, and it’s a completely different colour. I feel suddenly justified in being so fussy about my paints. It’s one of the reasons I don’t do much collage, although I love it, I can’t bear to think of the inevitable fading…
Other rooms contained portraits, sketches inspired by Japanese woodblock prints and many more letters. I was struck by a rare letter in English to an acquaintance in the country. The letter is beautifully composed with excellent grammar, by someone who is often portrayed as coarse and uncouth. It seems the real Van Gogh was rather more cultured. Books read by Van Gogh were displayed, including one I have read myself (The Christmas Books by Dickens) and there is an overwhelming sense that reading and writing were in a way as important as painting.
Overall the exhibition was worth the long journey, and the fact that as is always the case at such popular exhibitions, quiet contemplation was impossible, there being at all times elbows, rucksacks and tall people to squeeze between. I am left wondering about the connection between the need to paint and the need to write. In a modern age would Van Gogh have been on Blogger, or facebook? It’s an amusing thought. Not as amusing as the text I get from my daughter on the way home… “Actually I am very clever and I know who Van Goth is he painted sunflowers and people I think”