Van Gogh is perhaps the most enigmatic figure in twentieth century art. We find the young-talent-dying-young plot irresistible at the best of times [James Dean, Marilyn Munroe, JFK] but when you throw in cutting off your ear, living on the line between madness and genius, and the inevitable deterioration to a tragic suicide, it is no surprise that many find Van Gogh fascinating and that his paintings, unappreciated and most unsold in his lifetime, go for millions today.
I must confess that when I look at his paintings - especially the seventy that were executed in the last couple of months of his life - I find it impossible to avoid playing the macabre game of looking for signs of the tortured genius that finally led him to take his own life. I blame my parents for this - for American Pie was one of the few records in their collection that I enjoyed. I have no doubt that Don McLean has played a significant role in popularising the myth of the misunderstood artist, "suffering for his sanity" as "he tried to set men free".
Well if that is the Vincent that you want to encounter, then you are likely to find The Royal Academy's latest exhibition a disappointment, for Ann Dumas, the curator of The Real Van Gogh, presents a very different man - and there is not even a sunflower in sight. The audio tour, which is excellent, ignores the turbulent relationship with Gauguin at Arles and the ear-lopping episode altogether and plays down the suicide. The Real Van Gogh is not a madman, but a lucid artist grappling to master various aspects of the craft - from capturing faces and demeanour of the Dutch peasants at work, through learning about colour by painting flowers in Paris to developing a new style of portraiture, before discovering the countryside around Arles, where he hoped to establish an artists' commune.
The unique feature of this particular exhibition is that it juxtaposes Van Gogh's letters [mainly to his brother Theo] with his paintings. Theo Van Gogh was an Art Dealer, and it was he who supported Vincent both emotionally and financially. Vincent kept Theo informed of his work through line drawings which he sketched as part of the correspondence. What comes through these letters is a much more stable Van Gogh, who is passionate about his art, who was as keen to discuss literature as art, and who admired other artists - especially Gauguin, with whom he corresponded.
The exhibition is broadly chronological, which is helpful, although Ann Dumas deviates from this pattern to explore successfully the themes of the Cycles of Nature and of Art and Literature. The exhibition concludes with a far more positive approach to Van Gogh's final days at Auvers-sur-Oise than is presented, say, at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. That may of course be in part because the Royal Academy were not able to secure the loan of key paintings from his last days, particularly Wheatfield with Crows (1890), which would have illustrated a more pessimistic view. However, Dumas' more optimistic approach is supported by Van Gogh's final letter to Theo [Wednesday, 23 July 1890 - RM25], which appears in the exhibition, and only hints at the trauma bubbling below the surface.
Vincent Van Gogh's letters are now available online at http://vangoghletters.org in the original, in translation and in facsimile. What a wonderful resource it is to have the thoughts of the artist preserved in these letters - particularly as they are now available to us all for free. I know that I am not alone in thinking that art critics and art historians read too much into art - it can be a world of "The Emperor's New Clothes" at times. But here with the letters of Van Gogh we are able to get an insight into what the artist himself was thinking and considering at the time when he was painting - and that is invaluable. I left the exhibition in need to reevaluate Vincent and I hope that they hold the key . . . .