= The Crawford Arts Review: Van Gogh and Britain

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Van Gogh and Britain

Part II: Van Gogh, an engineer-poet in paint

Tate Britain is currently giving its members a big treat. Every weekend (with the exception of one day, see below) it is opening its Galleries and Members' Room early so that people can enjoy the Van Gogh in Britain exhibition from 8 am to 10 am, a time when the galleries are cool and uncrowded. 

The exception is Saturday 1 June and the treat lasts until Sunday 11 August when the exhibition ends. The Members' Room in the upper Rotunda is also promising a 'Van Gogh-inspired brunch'. What are you waiting for? 

One can appreciate the work of Van Gogh at any level  the exhibition offers an instant infusion of Dutch light (not to mention enlightenment) and South of France colour. The work is emotionally intelligent  the artist looked at the inequalities and deprivations of the working poor in late-nineteenth century Britain and elsewhere and recorded it with painful honesty. Whether he's painting portraits of friends or of ordinary people, or one of his tough, painterly, poems to nature, he makes you see what you think you see differently.

As a Tate member myself, I've just revisited. During my first visit (see review above) I felt a little distracted by the presence of so many other paintings by British artists influenced, then as now, by the work of the Dutchman. It should be noted that the first time non-Europe-trotting Brits saw the artist's work was at the 1947 London exhibition (which by all accounts was so mobbed the floors threatened to give way). This time I felt I appreciated the points the curators were making. The other paintings on these walls are there partly for comparison. 

Relatively few of them can stand it. Van Gogh goes at his canvases with a vigour that, well, astonishes, however many times you may have seen them. See the detail of 'Sunflowers' shown below.

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), 
detail, Sunflowers 1888, The
National Gallery, London
Van Gogh sees how the flower, its sepal cap and its stem, have grown toughly muscular to support the heavy seed head that normally, in the uncut flower, will come later. The comparative British work? Not so much. Look at and compare the nature studies. When Van Gogh paints a pathway through woodland the pathway stays on the ground. Compare with some of the British nature studies (to draw attention to any one in particular seems invidious, but in one, so awry is the perspective that the path seems to be climbing the wall). The same goes for colour balance: Van Gogh offers a lyrical rendering that transports you: the Brits not so much. 

So here Tate Britain is mounting a scholarly exhibition but seems also to be paying appropriate tribute to Van Gogh and, inter alia, to the debt we owe to European art and European artists. And I love them for it.

Part III: Van Gogh and the paintings that influenced him in London

The EY Exhibition
Van Gogh and Britain
until Sunday 11 August

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

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