= The Crawford Arts Review: Part III: Van Gogh in Britain - until Sunday 11 August

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Part III: Van Gogh in Britain - until Sunday 11 August

Some six weeks into Van Gogh in Britain at Tate Britain I'd like to discuss an aspect of the artist's work that seems to me to be underappreciated. 

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Olive
, 1889, National Galleries
of Scotland

As the picture on the left shows, Vincent van Gogh never painted anything  from a roadside ditch to a group of trees  that did not show its foundational roots deep in the earth. Like the Dutch nation before and after he had an acute appreciation of the dynamics of landscape, whether covered by sea or not, and the built and planted environment. We now know this to be the result of millennia of endeavour to understand and work with both. Indeed, one saying attempts to sum it all up: 'God built the world but the Dutch built Holland'.
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)
Fortification of Paris with Houses,
1887, Whitworth Art 
(University of Manchester)
Over and over again Van Gogh's paintings tell this story. The work shown on the left (not in the exhibition since it's from Van Gogh's days in Paris) depicts his (unfinished) treatment of the urban environment. Fortification of Paris with Houses, a work from 1887, can be seen in Manchester where it is part of the Whitworth Art Collection.

As the Tate Britain exhibition makes plain, Van Gogh, who spoke English, admired many British writers and artists. Two painters that caught his eye were John Constable and John Everett Millais, both painters for whom landscape 'lived' and expressed much that man struggled to express in words. 

Tate Britain shows two of these works in a room devoted to the landscapes of Van Gogh himself. John Constable's The Valley Farm, dates from 1835. It shows the cutting in the river Stour that leads to the mill stream at Flatford, a watermill, with Willy Lott's cottage (much reworked) in the background. 

The Millais work is Chill October (1870), a view of part of the river Tay that forms a still backwater with trees and is pure unpeopled landscape. Both works can only have drawn Van Gogh's sympathetic gaze. A reminder of home perhaps. And, to remind for a moment of Van Gogh's many admirers contemporaneously and since, hats off to Jacob Epstein, whose Epping Forest, painted c. 1933, is both rigorous and uplifting. 

Of course, no one reviewer can hope to cover the immense contemporary context that has been assembled around these paintings and writings. But let me conclude here with the celebrated painting by Van Gogh's 17th-century compatriot Meindert Hobbema, The Avenue at Middelharnis (1689) (not shown here). It's an important inclusion. And much as I understand Tate's chronic lack of room in fitting so much work into a confined space, as well as to give pride of place to Van Gogh's lyrical woodland scenes on the opposite wall, the gallery has hung the Hobbema painting just a little low to show off its compositional brilliance. Take a careful step back and look at that big sky and low vanishing point, both of which allow you to make that great perceptual leap over field and farm and market garden to the horizon.

Hobbema's painting was acquired by the National Gallery in 1871. It would have been newly hung in the Gallery during Vincent's visit. Contemporary accounts record that he made many trips to see it. No painting in the world I think so expresses the practical nature of the Dutch, building dikes to raise the land above sea level, draining fields via a network of canals and planting and building on the result. Here, Van Gogh, lonely in London, would have felt completely at home. 

Afterword: No great exhibition like this one can reveal all its historical and artistic contexts over a single visit. I firmly advocate Tate membership. After one visit you can return as often as you wish free of charge. Pay online and you will be added to the database so that you need only show your credit card at the desk if your membership card is still in the post.

The EY Exhibition
Van Gogh and Britain

Tate Britain
Millbank, London SW1
Monday to Sunday 10.00–18.00
Check for late openings

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