Issue Number: 106
What do today’s artists make of Van Gogh’s remarkable achievement? Martin Gayford talks to three RAs who share their insights into the artist’s genius as they tour ‘The Real Van Gogh’, while Tom Phillips RA, reveals the artist’s brilliance in his own words
‘The Real Van Gogh’ is stunning. It is most interesting to see his drawings and paintings hanging side by side. Van Gogh was one of the great draughtsmen. His work is simply staggering for sheer graphic invention: the way he made marks, how many different ones there were. He is constantly looking at things, then finding new shorthand ways to suggest them.
The letter-sketches are like drawings of drawings. When you look at them, they contain everything. It’s all there. These days I suppose he would be using an iPhone, sending Theo his drawings on that as well.
All the great work by Van Gogh was done in less than two-and-a-half years. From the time he set out for Arles in early 1888, there was one marvellous thing after another. If he had died before then we would think he was an interesting – minor – Dutch artist. But when you know what he did later, and you look at the early things, you realise they are also really good.
When Vincent is described as self-taught, you have to remember that every person is mostly self-taught about drawing. There is no absolute way to teach it. Those early drawings of peasants such as Reaper, or Peasant Woman Kneeling (both 1885) are technically remarkable. You really feel the volume, and get the feeling of the body and the texture of the clothes they are wearing – and yet they transcend that, because Van Gogh’s empathy with the people is so strong. Rembrandt could do that. With a great draughtsman, there is no formula. Each drawing is something new in Rembrandt, Goya, Picasso – and Van Gogh.
When you see his work collectively like this, you realise that he could already see a great deal when he was still in the north. I think Van Gogh was aware that he saw more clearly than other people. It was an intense vision he had. But there is an added clarity that occurs in the south – where we all see a bit more simply because you don’t have misty horizons and water vapour in the atmosphere. So when Vincent was thrust into those conditions it gave him an enormous joy. This comes out in the paintings of the trees in blossom and the harvest after he came to Arles. That’s what people feel when they look at them.
Van Gogh’s paintings are so direct that he seems to be doing them in front of you. Painting is a sort of performance art, but you particularly feel that with Van Gogh and it’s stunning. If you use paint the way he did, you’ve got to paint fast. The method isn’t good if you work slowly, because of the thickness of the paint and the fact that it all has to dry at once. I don’t think he spent more than three or four days even on some of the complicated canvases he painted in Arles. The Still-life with Bible of 1885 which he wrote about to Theo, saying that he had painted it in ‘one go’ in a single day, is so powerful you read the image right across the room.
Van Gogh’s portraits are fantastic, such as the ones of the Roulin family – the postman Joseph Roulin, the boy Camille, Madame Augustine holding baby Marcelle, and rocking the cradle in La Berceuse all from 1888-89. He was the first modern artist to put colour into portraits like that – using strong, flat, often complementary colours – which influenced artists such as Bonnard and Matisse. That came to him from seeing Japanese prints. A lot of early modernism came from looking beyond Europe.
In another way he was bringing the Oriental attitude to Europe, because Eastern artists always recognised the importance of the brush. The Chinese regarded it as crude when the brush and the marks it made weren’t acknowledged. It was trying to cover something up, to create an illusion, so it was not such a high form of art.
Academic artists whose work Van Gogh knew – Meissonnier and Bouguereau for example – were making everything look smooth, without brushstrokes, as it is in a photographic image. But Van Gogh didn’t have a high opinion of photographs. There are photographs of every other artist from that period, but none of him after the age of nineteen.
Van Gogh was looking at the world in a different way. He makes us see a great deal more than the camera could. Most people who actually saw his subjects – the flat landscape around Arles, for instance – would have found them incredibly uninteresting. But if you had locked him in the dullest motel room in the world for a week, with some paints and canvases, he would have come up with astonishing paintings and drawings of a run-down bathroom or a frayed cardboard box. I think Van Gogh could draw anything and make it enthralling.
Woman Peeling Potatoes of 1882 is one of the most moving of Vincent’s early drawings. The woman is so engrossed in her inner self. The task she is working on is almost unnoticeable because of the density of thought and emotion in her head. Vincent captures that. You always come back to the head that has that spiritual essence that gives it a grandeur out of the poverty, out of the struggle she’s going through. It’s done with such compassion and love, it touches your heart so sharply. I find it one of the best things in the exhibition, and among the best drawings by anyone in the late nineteenth century.
Vincent Van Gogh, 'The Yellow House (The Street)', September 1888. Oil on canvas, 72 x 91.5 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) I’m particularly fond of Boats at Sea, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer of 1888 since the content is close to my own work. There’s a violence and a turbulence behind the painting, as well as in the painting of the sea. It’s astonishingly powerful for a work of this scale. His touch expresses something coming from inside him, as if he’s had to drag it out.
There’s a vehement feeling for the sea and boats in harmony with each other, as if the boats are growing out of the sea. The waves and all these things are hooked into one tremendous mark, almost as if they were done with one brush stroke, with all the desperation, confidence and pride of the work in one statement.
His Self-portrait as an Artist (1888) is so tender and yet there’s a man in turmoil and despair behind the brushes. And the portraits of his friends, Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking a Cradle (La Berceuse) of 1889 and The Postman Joseph Roulin of 1888 are exquisite in their poignancy. The colour is so strong, and so deeply aligned with the underlying drawing. The way he has broken up the green with the yellow, in La Berceuse. And the dark blue of Joseph Roulin’s uniform: if he had gone a tone lower or a tone higher it would have made such a difference to the picture, but he just gets it bang on. It knocks you sideways.
It always astounds me how small the paintings are. You have this utter masterpiece, The Yellow House (The Street) from 1888 (above), and it's only 76cm by 91cm. I imagine it’s one of the most accurate paintings done from hand to eye that Vincent ever did. The magic touch is the thing that really makes it and the feeling bursts through. This is an everyday scene but he has transformed it into something holy, right from the depths of his soul. That is always the quality that makes his work so different from anyone else’s. You can never miss a Van Gogh, the depth of feeling is so profound. You look and look for years. You can’t stop looking.
His use of the black line in Mountains at Saint-Rémy of 1889 (above) is probably more poignant than anywhere else. If the black lines were taken away, it would have no power. It has a feeling of the earth being brushed through into a climax of growth. But Van Gogh also reveals a dark side; it is a painting that reminds me of Arnold Böcklin’s funereal Isle of the Dead (1880-86). It is a picture that draws you in more and more. That sense of inner turmoil is at the core of so much of his work. It’s always there. And death is always present in some part of the picture.
In Arles in the summer of 1888, when he was painting the harvest, Van Gogh must have worked in torrid levels of heat. I experienced similar conditions in Sicily. I was working in Palermo, and the temperatures were almost hallucinogenic. Your brain boils. I was in a studio, protected from the heat – and even that was brutal. So actually to work under the sun like Van Gogh must have been incredible. And to get to poetry in strong colour as he did is really hard. It’s much easier in ranges of grey.
Like me, Van Gogh had a northern mentality – used to the greyness, the cloud cover. When I went to Sicily, I felt like a foreigner, but at the same time I felt as if I had found my land: Palermo, the city of death, with violent light and incredible violent shadows. Van Gogh’s journey was from the Netherlands to Paris. Then he took what he had picked up in Paris – colour basically, and Delacroix – to the isolation of the south of France.
I think he was always trying to escape, and making paintings was his only way of belonging in the world. That’s why he moved around so much. Painting was a way to survive. You read that again and again in the letters. Making a mark is a way of saying you exist. I think most painters find that. It’s as important as eating.
In the south, his northern mentality stayed with him – that toiling in the fields. But the sun is like a god. In 1888 he was on fire. I think that’s what I admire about him most, his fervent pursuit, it’s almost as if he was trying to make nature himself.
He uses exaggeration – a classic narcissistic way of being, which would go with his illness. I would have thought he was bipolar. Obviously, when it was very severe he couldn’t work, but his work is interrelated with his personality as a whole – not separate from it at all. When Van Gogh uses reflected light, say on the side of a jug, he exaggerates it. It’s like a hyperbole, and that is reflected on a wall, so everything – colour and light – vibrates within the picture.
Vineyards with a View of Auvers of 1890 illustrates something else I have noticed with Van Gogh’s work. If you look at the red poppies, the tone of the red doesn’t change through space. The red in the foreground is the same temperature as the ones further back. In academic painting, you wouldn’t do that, you would modify the red as it receded. He doesn’t – instead he reduces the size of the poppies, so it has a dual effect. You feel the space going back, but it stays in the same plane.
There’s a psychological contradiction going on. I think that’s what gives Van Gogh’s work a claustrophobic feeling. You see that again and again. Because he was a very contradictory character – or sounds it – painting was a perfect medium for him. Painting can hold contradiction. That’s why it’s so fantastic.
Van Gogh activates every area in his paintings. Everything looks manic, on the move. He creates this incredible force. The grass is frantic. When he paints sky around trees you feel you could hold it. He doesn’t have the blank space that exists in his drawings. At times I wish there was a bit more of a pause. But it wouldn’t be a Van Gogh.
I’ve probably looked at his drawings more than his paintings, because I find his vocabulary of mark-making astonishing. I don’t think he can translate those marks into paint in quite the same way. There are drawings, for example Olive Trees, Montmajour of 1888 I think are absolutely amazing. When he draws Cypresses, of 1889 (opposite) it’s the effect of the wind that he’s drawing. If the mistral was blowing, he worked with that too. When Van Gogh’s really good, he navigates nature. That must have had an impact on his physical body when he worked, like it did when Turner was painting in a storm. It’s almost painting as performance art. That goes so well with the way Van Gogh was. His whole persona was about struggle. It’s like the person who is ploughing the field, except he is ploughing the image through paint.
Vincent Van Gogh, 'Cypresses', June 1889. Oil on canvas, 93.3 x 74 cm. Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, 1949 (49.30). Photo © 2009. Digital Image / The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala It was Van Gogh’s calligraphy that first struck me at the age of nine or ten. In the corridor outside my classroom at primary school, there hung two reproductions of paintings by Dutchmen: The Concert, by Gerard Ter Borch (c.1675) and Van Gogh’s Cypresses of 1889 (right). One was a ‘normal’ painting but the other, the modern one, was wild and strange. It looked to be written in colour and made of great ‘S’s and ‘V’s and vigorous ‘I’s of paint.
This was over 60 years ago when the picture was indeed modern in that it had been painted not much more than 50 years before, as if a ten-year-old boy today was looking at a Jackson Pollock. I imitated Van Gogh’s scrolls and dashes in Bonfire Night, the painting I submitted for the school prize. To my amazement, I came second to Isabel, whose soppy Holiday Scene won. Such are the perils the modernist must face.
It would be another ten years before I would see reproduced any of Van Gogh’s illustrated letters to Theo, or his magical drawings with quill or reed pen. These showed me how he was at his most painterly when at his most graphically notational, with an armoury of signs; this reserved for stubble, that for growing wheat, these curlicues for the cypress trees and those spiky hieroglyphs for pollarded willows. Variants of this repertoire served to make a language for his figures, capturing the arthritic ballet of toiling peasants or the gnarling of their weather-beaten features.
An early ambition to become an illustrator combined with a fierce ethic of frugality of means, and simplicity of subject matter, led Van Gogh to the least lofty sources: those everyday engravers and lithographers whose work was the staple of English magazines and, later, their Japanese equivalents, the now admired woodblock artists of cheap popular prints.
There is no more telling exhibit in the RA’s revelatory show than No.29, a typical wood engraving from The Graphic, a magazine that Van Gogh collected and pored over. It is a sheet that he pasted down on a board for further reference. It is by an artist so humdrum that he is not named in the catalogue. William Bazett Murray would have been thrilled to know that his representations of labouring life were being reverentially imitated by one of the greatest artists in history, and no doubt delighted beyond his dreams to learn that his work, in turn, would be studied by scholars and hung in the Royal Academy. Every texture of his cross-hatching and stipple and every device of his figuration would reappear in the work of Van Gogh.
It is here that the artist finds the beginning of a technical lexicon that would serve him the rest of his short career. His letters spell out the journey with vivid relish. We see again and again, next to the body of the painting, its skeletal essence as Van Gogh rehearses what he is tackling or summarises what he has achieved. At first these ideas are stiffly and laboriously transmitted. But as Van Gogh’s final clarity is approached, he sends his brother Theo a perfect shorthand of a landscape, or the touching orthography of human likeness, growing seamlessly from the handwriting itself.
As with the letters, the pictures end in a calligraphic flourish with a name whose implicit conquering spirit was so brilliantly captured in Mark Rylance’s recent reading of them on the radio... Vincent!