Vincent Van Gogh does not really need an introduction and a major new exhibition at Tate Britain hardly needs special recommendations. Is it worth visiting? If you are in London, definitely. Is there something we haven’t yet seen? Yes and no. Several works were loaned from public and private collections in Britain and beyond, such as the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, so it may be a good opportunity to see them in London for the first time. If you are interested in seeing Van Goghs only, then you probably should head to Amsterdam instead. But if you would like to explore Van Gogh’s paintings in a wider context, among the works of his contemporaries, friends and artists of the younger generation, then this is the exhibition for you.
You might have expected certain bias on behalf of the gallery, after all, Tate Britain logically should be interested in showcasing the British period in the artist’s life. Which is perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of van Gogh. Southern France, yes, but Britain? Van Gogh lived in Britain for three years, first working at the London branch of the Goupil art dealership, then trying his luck as a teacher and Christian preacher. How did Tate Britain go about an exhibition of works of the artist who hasn’t actually painted anything in Britain, as he did not become an artist until later? Well, read on.
Van Gogh and Britain is divided into two parts. First part focuses on the artist’s short stay in Britain (between 1873 and 1876) quite a formative period in his life, the second part is devoted to the influence the Dutch master had on the art on the British Isles.
From letters to his brother Theo we know that Vincent was reading many British authors, his particular favourite was Charles Dickens. Reading Victorian authors and walking around Victorian London, Van Gogh was absorbing elements of culture that later echoed in his art. Walks in parks and visits to art galleries were all sources of inspiration. He also collected prints, most relevant here are the wonderful images of London by the French artist Gustave Doré. The prints on display depict scenes from the streets of the city in the late nineteenth century, which Van Gogh came to know very well. Doré’s very relatable crowded London Underground scene is one of the first things you will see right from the entrance to the exhibition. Later in his life Van Gogh painted his versions of Doré’s prints. Most famous of those is probably The Prison Courtyard (painted in Saint Remy, 1890), based on Doré’s engraving Exercise Yard at Newgate Prison (1872). On display there are several paintings Van Gogh saw in London and wrote about to his brother.
Seeing the very same paintings that inspired Van Gogh alongside his own works invites comparisons and proves that, indeed, Britain, and London in particular, left a lasting impression on the future artist. In the second part of the exhibition we can see how Van Gogh’s relationships with other artists and people of the art world formed a legacy and shaped the way we perceive his art today.
There is a great room filled with sunflower paintings. Alexander Reid, Scottish art dealer gave Vincent a picture of flowers by Adolphe Monticelli. The image inspired Van Gogh to start painting flowers. It was interesting to learn that Van Gogh’s motivation, aside from artistic interest, was also financial. As he wrote to his brother, Vincent hoped that his own paintings of flowers could fetch similar sums (500 francs) to Monticelli’s paintings of the same subject-matter. Paintings of sunflowers proved to be extremely successful and many British artists later turned to this subject, for example S. J. Peploe and Frank Brangwyn (sadly this success came too late for Van Gogh himself).
At the ground-breaking Post-Impressionist exhibition curated by Roger Fry in 1910 (read more about it in my Art Quake post) several British artists saw Van Gogh’s paintings and fell in love with his style. Van Gogh’s landscapes, trees and flowers are instantly recognisable and were often used as a source of inspiration by others. In Britain, artists including Vanessa Bell, Matthew Smith, Jacob Epstein, David Bomberg and Francis Bacon were inspired by the Dutch master beloved by many of us today.
The exhibition at Tate Britain is a great opportunity to look at some of the artist’s famous works from a fresh perspective. The British period in Van Gogh’s life is not often discussed and it’s great that this is now getting more attention. Finally, the selection of works of British artists inspired by Van Gogh is a fantastic homage to his art.
Van Gogh and Britain is at Tate Britain from 27 March until 11 August 2019.