Issue Number: 105
‘Find things beautiful, as much as you can,’ Van Gogh urged his brother Theo in a letter of January 1874, ‘most people find too little beautiful’ (letter no 17). Van Gogh’s quest for beauty knew no bounds, as his eloquent and moving letters reveal in pages of expressive descriptions and drawings.
The recent publication of his complete letters in facsimile and with new, more authentic translations, brings us closer to his creative voice and vision and is the guiding force behind The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters at the RA this winter.
In letter No 627, to John Peter Russell, Van Gogh fills every inch of the page with words and images about art. He mentions Rodin in one line, Cimabue further down. Then, in a flow of visual stream-of-consciousness, his writing bursts into a flurry of dashes, hatches and lines in his sketch of a painting that he is working on. He says the subject is ‘difficult to treat’, but this image of a sower under the blazing sun emerges fully formed and confident on the page.
Van Gogh’s life was lived on paper to a very large extent, writes Martin Gayford (page 38). For most of his life, he led a lonely, itinerant existence and his letters provide a transcription of his thoughts to absent friends and relations. But while his creative power shines through on the page, up close people found Van Gogh’s intensity hard going.
As Gayford points out, even his devoted brother Theo complained when they lived together in Paris, that ‘after he came home from work, Vincent would start talking about Impressionist painting and never stop. When Theo retired for the night, Vincent pulled up a chair beside his bed and carried on.’
Ann Dumas, Curator of The Real Van Gogh, says, ‘The letters have made me look at his art differently. Now I see that both his words and his painting have the same immediacy of expression. What comes across is his incredibly intense response to nature – a kind of epiphany – an exaltation of nature that never gets tarnished’ (page 48). In his paintings and drawings of cypresses, he expresses the vitality of nature pulsating around him, connecting earth, trees and sky in strong, swirling strokes that break down barriers between line and colour, between art and the natural world. Then he signed his work Vincent, as in his letters, so that his painting speaks to the viewer like a message from a friend.
Nature also takes centre stage in Earth: Art of a Changing World, which looks at contemporary artists’ responses to climate change (page 52). Art critic Richard Cork interviews artists such as David Nash RA and Cornelia Parker and talks to Professor Chris Rapley, Director of the Science Museum, about the state of the planet. Professor Rapley’s prognosis is gloomy but he believes that human creativity can offer solutions and artists can lead the way: ‘The richness of the world around you is enhanced by looking at it in as many different ways as possible, and that is the role of the artist.’
Van Gogh looked at the world in a way that no one has ever seen it. Over and over again in his letters he exhorts his reader to cherish nature and see its glories as he does, from flowers in a ditch to stars in the sky, all swirling in a perpetual cycle of life. At the heart of his vision is the recurring image of the Sower, at one with the earth, spreading his seed, illumined by the sun. It may be a kind of self-portrait but perhaps it is something more – a vision of the artist as a force of nature, planting seeds that nourish humanity.