Issue Number: 105
Vincent van Gogh, 'Self Portrait as an Artist', January 1888. Oil on Canvas, 65.5 x 50.5 cm. Signed and dated on the stretcher lower right: Vincent / 88. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation). This exhibition is organised by the Royal Academy of Arts in collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam Van Gogh's letters, recently re-published after fifteen years of research, stand as a literary monument of an extraordinary artistic life. Art critic Martin Gayford reads between the lines of this fascinating record to introduce ‘The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters’, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these fragile letters alongside the paintings in the most important Van Gogh show in London for 40 years.
Early in 1891, a young Dutch woman found herself widowed. She had been married for less than two years, and she had a small child. Her husband had died under distressing circumstances while still in his mid-30s. He had left her a vast quantity of apparently unsaleable pictures executed by his eccentric older brother, and innumerable letters from the same difficult and also dead relation, whom she had met on only a few occasions.
Many women under such circumstances would have thrown the whole lot away, and started searching for a new spouse. Instead, however, she devoted herself to promoting the reputation of the pictures and publishing the letters – and of course, posterity is most grateful that she did, because she was Johanna, wife of Theo van Gogh and sister-in-law of Vincent.
This autumn a new edition of these letters is published by the Van Gogh Museum. The most accurately translated and fully annotated to date, it runs to five richly illustrated volumes plus a sixth one of commentary and is the product of fifteen years of scholarly work. It was worth the effort because Van Gogh’s 819 surviving letters are a literary monument, as extraordinary in their way as his achievement in painting and drawing. To many artists and art lovers this correspondence is sacred text: a bible of modern art, a record of a life lived that is as moving and eloquent as any ever made. Van Gogh cared so deeply about words, his own and others, that he wrote to Emile Bernard on 19 April 1888 (letter no 599 in the new edition of the The Letters): ‘There are so many people, especially among our pals, who imagine that words are nothing. On the contrary, don’t you think, it’s as interesting and as difficult to say a thing well as to paint a thing.’
In a letter of 20 June, 1888 to his sister Willemien, (letter no 626) he attempts to do just this in describing the painting of his self-portrait: ‘Since I’m now so occupied with myself, I’d also like to see if I can’t make my own portrait in writing… a pink-grey face with green eyes, ash-coloured hair, wrinkles in forehead and around the mouth, stiffly wooden, a very red beard, quite unkempt and sad, but the lips are full, a blue smock of coarse linen, and a palette with lemon yellow, vermilion, Veronese green, cobalt blue...’
This special literary/visual symbiosis is the starting point of the Royal Academy's exhibition The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters. Not only will this be most important Van Gogh show in London for 40 years, it is the first major loan exhibition to take as its theme the artist's dual creativity. If Picasso – as was posited by a Tate exhibition in 1994 – was a painter/sculptor, then Van Gogh was an artist/writer. He was a painter in words, as well as pigment, and able to conjure up an image in either.
On 25 June, 1889 (letter no 783) he wrote to his brother Theo about his latest obsession: the trees that seemed to him characteristic of the Provençal landscape that surrounded the asylum of Saint-Rémy. ‘The cypresses still preoccupy me, I’d like to do something with them like the canvases of the sunflowers, because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them. [The cypress is] beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a distinguished quality. It’s the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape, but it’s one of the most interesting dark notes... they must be seen here against the blue, in the blue, rather.’ He went on to discuss what he felt was going to be the best of his cypress paintings (these are included in the current exhibition).
Van Gogh's letters span his adult life. The first to survive was written in 1872, when he was nineteen, the last a few days before he shot himself on 27 July 1890, dying two days later. He was a person who lived his life to a very unusual extent on paper. That was partly the result of his personal circumstances. For most of his existence, Van Gogh was socially isolated. In Arles he noted in a letter to Theo of 5 July, 1888 (letter no 636) ‘...many days pass without my saying a word to anyone, except to order supper or a coffee’.
There was only one brief period in 1882-83, when he lived something resembling a normal family life with a reformed prostitute named Sien Hoornik in the Hague. For another two years, from February 1886 to February 1888, he shared his brother's apartment in Paris, where he had moved to learn about contemporary painting and was deeply affected by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. But for the rest of his adulthood he was a friendless wanderer.
Vincent van Gogh, 'Still Life with a Plate of Onions', Early January 1889. Oil on canvas, 49.6 x 64.4 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands. Van Gogh’s solitary existence is brought home in a still-life picture from soon after he was released from the hospital in Arles in January 1889. Still Life with a Plate of Onions (right) was painted within weeks of the crisis in which he mutilated his ear. Van Gogh painted his kitchen table laden with objects that brought solace: his faithful pipe and tobacco, a bottle of the drink that soothed him and yet probably exacerbated his problems. Next to the plate of onions is a book of popular medicine – Annuaire de la Santé (Directory of Health) by Dr Raspail – from which he derived a cure for the insomnia that plagued him: camphor placed under the pillow. Alongside the book is a stamped and postmarked envelope, probably the one in which a letter from his brother Theo had arrived just before Christmas.
The post was his main form of communication with the outside world. Very seldom, except for nine increasingly fraught weeks spent with Gauguin in autumn 1888, did Vincent have the company of a close friend. His charm and intellectual power – which comes through so strongly in the letters – functioned better at a distance. Face to face, almost everyone – even his faithful brother – found his company too much. Theo complained that after he came home from work, Vincent would begin talking about Impressionist painting and never stop. When Theo retired for the night, Vincent pulled up a chair beside his bed and carried on.
But the loneliness that gave Vincent so much pain has been a stroke of luck for posterity. As a result, we have an amazingly detailed transcription of his thoughts, feelings and experiences in his letters. The only large gap – a reminder that letters are the product of absence – is the spell spent living with Theo in Paris.
On only one occasion, however, does his intermittent mental instability emerge: in the last letter before the crisis of Christmas, sent on 17/18 December, 1888 (letter no 726) which describes a tense visit with Gauguin to the gallery at Montpelier. ‘Gauguin and I talk a lot about Delacroix, Rembrandt & c. The discussion is excessively electric. We sometimes emerge from it with tired minds, like an electric battery after it’s run down.’ A couple of lines down, he wrote, ‘Rembrandt is above all a magician’ and then inserted the wild, almost incomprehensible words, now included in the new edition of the letters: ‘and Delacroix a man of God, of God’s thunder and bugger off in the name of God.’
The letters deal with various subjects, from the everyday to the profound. They contain discussions of Van Gogh’s finances, lodgings, home furnishings and eating arrangements, interspersed with profound meditations on life, death, poetry, novels and – above all – art. In a letter to his sister in late October 1887 (letter no 574) he wrote: ‘I have a dirty and difficult occupation, painting, and if I weren’t as I am I wouldn’t paint, but being as I am I often work with pleasure, and I see the possibility glimmering through of making paintings in which there’s some youth and freshness, although my own youth is one of those things I’ve lost.’
In many of the letters he mixes words and images, as was the case with his discussions of the cypresses, where he added drawings to explain what he was describing. All that was missing was colour, and that he supplied in words – literally in some places, where he made notes on the drawings to indicate the colours he was painting. In two letter-sketches from 12 May 1888 (letter no 609) of a field with irises near Arles, he inserted the word ‘blue’ above the horizon line and wrote: ‘If they don’t mow the meadow I’d like to do this study again, because the subject matter was really beautiful and I had trouble finding the composition. A little town surrounded by countryside entirely covered in yellow and purple flowers. That would really be a Japanese dream...’
Van Gogh also made many literary associations with what he saw, which is generally apparent only through his letters. Van Gogh’s was a paper existence in a double sense. When he was not painting, or looking or writing, he was reading. He was a voracious consumer of all kinds of printed matter – including magazines and newspapers but, above all, poems and novels. A section of the exhibition is devoted to Van Gogh and his books, some of which served as subjects for still lifes (for example, Still Life with French Novels and a Rose, of 1887) as well as being a source of surrogate company. He identified with French naturalist writers such as Zola, Flaubert, the Goncourt brothers, Guy de Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet, who focused on the everyday, ordinary, seedy side of life. In a letter to his sister in late October 1887 (letter no 574) Van Gogh wrote ‘ [they] paint life as we feel it ourselves and thus satisfy that need which we have, that people tell us the truth’.
Van Gogh painted books in certain pictures to convey a message. In Gauguin’s Chair, of 1888 for example, the two novels and the lit candle on the seat might symbolise the practice of painting from the imagination that Gauguin advocated.
Novels also feature in some of his paintings of Madame Ginoux, proprietress of the Café de la Gare in Arles, and for some time his landlady. It is not known whether she read Zola and Flaubert but he added the books to show that she was a sympathetic soul. She was ill, a sufferer like him, and thus a kindred spirit.
Van Gogh’s Zola-like preoccupation with everyday contemporary reality no doubt explains why in Arles he largely ignored the Roman ruins – the subject that brought other artists to town – and preferred instead to paint the scruffy, urban fringes around the railway station where he lived: the railway bridges over the main road and his own humble yellow house under a deep-blue southern sun.
On 29 September, 1888, in letter no 691, Van Gogh sent Theo a sketch of a picture of the yellow house on Place Lamartine: ‘That’s a really difficult subject! But I want to conquer it for that very reason. Because it’s tremendous, these yellow houses in the sunlight and then the incomparable freshness of the blue.’
Van Gogh’s other subjects in Arles included the public gardens outside his front door and the stagecoach that plied between Arles and the nearby town of Tarascon, seen in the Tarascon Diligence (right and opposite page, top). The stagecoach makes an appearance in the novel Tartarin of Tarascon, by Alphonse Daudet, where the author gives the vehicle a voice. ‘Do you remember in Tartarin,’ he wrote to Theo on 13 October, 1888 (letter no 703) ‘the lament of the old Tarascon diligence – that wonderful page? Well, I’ve just painted the red and green carriage in the yard of the inn.’
Of course, nobody looking at the painting – so fresh, so direct, so obviously painted from a real coach standing in the southern sunshine – could possibly guess the literary connection. To comprehend the complex thoughts and associations in Van Gogh’s mind, it is necessary to put his letters and paintings together, as this exhibition does – and does magnificently. In that way, we can get extremely close to him: near enough to register the surging highs and lows of his emotional thermometer, to follow his swirling thoughts, almost to hear his voice.