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The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and his Letters -
Exhibition at the Royal Academy, London

9th March 2010

I am sure that many of us went on this trip knowing something about this subject: Vincent Van Gogh has been studied and written about by many; his life portrayed in plays, novels and films. As children we were intrigued by the ear incident and all the myths that surrounded that act.

The kind coach driver set us down outside the R.A. where we, the privileged ticket holders, could walk past the patient queues of Van Gogh devotees.

This exhibition was to be different because not only were we to see a selection of his works created through his life but also a series of letters written by Van Gogh to his brother Theo and fellow artists.

The rooms exhibiting Van Gogh's paintings and letters were divided into themes. We began the visit with his early works of the Dutch countryside. These were executed in his twenties when he had decided to make art his life. His colours are muted and earthy as can be seen in a colour sketch in a letter to Theo, which indicates that he is using the Dutch landscapes to practise his perspective confirming that this artist was mainly self taught.

The Peasant in Action room displays his studies of land workers, these hardworking people being his inspiration as he could not afford models. As an example, a painting of a woman digging captures the effort and strains in her body, bent double to lift the clods of earth.

We move from the dark studies of the peasants to the theme of colour. We learn through Theo's letters that he urges Van Gogh to lighten and brighten his palette. Van Gogh was aware of the Impressionists loose brushwork and their use of complementary colours to enhance the effect of light and we see his experiments in these techniques. In this room we see fruit, flowers, and gardens vibrant with colour. Like many artists at that time, Van Gogh was influenced by Japanese prints thus we see the bold contours, flat tones and decorative patterns seen in his gardens and fruit trees in blossom.

Many of the party enjoyed the portrait room, particularly the paintings of Joseph Roulin, the postman, and his wife. In a letter to Bernard, Van Gogh said: "Colour can express emotion and does not have to be true to life". We know Van Gogh was not a fan of photography, the new medium when he said: "I paint what I feel and not what I see."A moving touch for many of us was the inclusion of his chair paintings in the portrait section. The portrayal of his simple rustic chair on which rests his pipe and tobacco is hung next to a painting of the chair of the recently departed Gauguin, a more stylish, comfortable seat on which two contemporary novels and a candle are placed. Van Gogh describes the two pictures to Theo as portraits: Van Gogh's chair being less sophisticated than that of the worldly, restless Gauguin.

In the next room we see more of his work from Arles, the intense colour and expressive brushstrokes are vibrant and thrilling. 'A view of Arles with Irises in the foreground' was popular with viewers. Whilst standing in front of the many studies of cornfields, I heard one lady pronounce that Van Gogh's paintings would give her warmth in winter!

His Cycles of Nature could surely only be painted by an artist brought up in rural areas. The Sower, influenced by his admiration for Millet, depicts a tree trunk cutting across the picture as it might in a Japanese composition; the large brilliant sun behind the Sower's head resembles a halo. Van Gogh's obsession with religion in his early life has been replaced by an intense love for nature which can be seen in so much of his work.

In the last two rooms we see brush strokes which are urgent, swirling and sometimes disturbing and many of us felt the urgency came from his need to emphasise the importance and power of Nature and, of course, his own tormented interludes. At least one member of our group was moved to tears for the man who strived to do his best but died in despair.

Van Gogh's letters were clearly displayed and, in spite of the crowds, easy to access. Not so much diaries as pictures of his needs, evolving style, philosophies and aspirations, punctuated by requests for money or more materials.

Many members of our group expressed their admiration for a troubled man who had little formal training and yet could produce a vast number of passionate powerful works. It is sad that his acclaim came posthumously; his paintings fetching world record sums but it is fortunate that we could enjoy them on this trip thanks to the DFAS Cranleigh organizers.

Gerry Hincks

The CDFAS group assembled outside the Royal Academy