RA Magazine Spring 2010
Issue Number: 106
Editorial: Artistic voices
Editor Sarah Greenberg celebrates the singular vision of artists past and present, from Paul Sandby and Van Gogh to Anish Kapoor:
In a letter containing a sketch of cypresses, Van Gogh writes to his brother Theo, ‘It astonishes me that no-one has yet done them as I see them’. He sees an ‘Egyptian obelisk’ where others see a tree; he sees a ‘dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape’ where others see the colour green. One of the joys of The Real Van Gogh (until 18 April) is that it allows us to see what he saw through his extraordinary letters and the words and images they contain. Reading them alongside his paintings, we bear witness to Van Gogh’s singular vision, as with Cypresses, but we also hear the artistic and literary voices that spoke to him – from Rembrandt to forgotten printmakers, from Dickens to Alphonse Daudet.
Artists’ voices echo across time and culture. When RA Magazine asked a group of painter RAs to view the Van Gogh exhibition and tell us what they saw, their comments were illuminating (page 54). Tom Phillips RA recalls how the painting of Cypresses (1889) shaped his artistic vision from a young age and admires Van Gogh’s graphic notation, such as ‘curlicues for the cypress trees’. David Hockney RA remarks that despite the fact that Van Gogh learned from other artists, notably the Japanese, no one saw the world as he did. Jenny Saville RA talks about the vibrancy of his light and colour. For John Bellany RA, the strong black lines in Mountains at Saint-Rémy (1889) reveal the artist’s dark side: ‘Death is always present in... the picture’.
Among the most compelling images of death ever painted are those by Caravaggio. Andrew Graham-Dixon’s forthcoming biography of the artist makes new arguments about his famous painting of David holding the severed head of Goliath – a gruesome self- portrait of the artist (page 65). We print an exclusive extract from the book, describing the artist’s infamous murder of a local pimp in which Graham- Dixon explains how Caravaggio used his sword ‘as a paintbrush’.
The links between swordsmanship and painting are well-documented in the case of Gauguin, who frightened Van Gogh with his fencing swords when they shared a house in Arles. But it was news to me that Barbara Rae RA was once the British Junior Foil champion. Over lunch, she talked to me about fencing but also about the importance of landscape in her art: ‘I’m not interested in topographical detail,’ she says. Landscape drawings are only ‘the starting point for something I play around with in the studio.’
Not so for Paul Sandby, a watercolour artist who began his career by mapping the Highlands for the British Army after the Jacobite rebellion and became a founding member of the RA. Giles Waterfield introduces the RA’s Sandby exhibition (page 48), while Jenny Uglow traces the roots of Sandby’s pastoral vision in the landscape poetry of his day (page 52).
For Sandby, watercolour was a modern, portable tool for recording the ever-changing face of eighteenth-century Britain. Modern technology can serve artistic expression in every era. Podcasts, available free on the RA website, now make the words of artists available to all, as our interview of Anish Kapoor RA by Nicholas Serota shows (page 60). And news is just in that the Culture Secretary and Shadow Culture Secretary have ‘tweeted’ their admiration for the Van Gogh show within minutes of each other. While such bipartisan praise is heartening, I can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief that Twitter didn’t exist in Van Gogh’s time. The artist’s intense vision comes as much from being out of touch as in touch, from hearing other voices but following his own.
© RA Magazine
Editorial enquiries: 020 7300 5820
Advertising rates and enquiries: 0207 300 5661
Magazine subscriptions: 0800 634 6341 (9.30am-5.00pm Mon-Fri)
Press office (for syndication of articles only): 0207 300 5615