‘Van Gogh and Britain’
The Tate’s exhibition “Van Gogh and Britain” “begins with one of those Van Goghs that everybody thinks they know,” writes Boyd Tonkin, “The Arlésienne, painted in early 1890. This show, though, makes us see that those stark blocks of pale lime that rest on a darker green table in front of the sitter are no mere color-field props but books, and volumes with specific titles, too: Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Dickens’s Christmas Stories. Across this room at Tate Britain, a bookshelf gathers Victorian editions of scores of the novels, plays, and poetry collections in English that Van Gogh read. Often, the contemporary visual art that appealed to him would lead to the literature that inspired it. An early London letter details his first encounter with John Keats, “a poet who isn’t very well known in Holland, I believe. He’s the favourite of the painters here, and that’s how I came to be reading him.””
“Sections of “Van Gogh and Britain” display homages to—or arguments with—Vincent by a dozen British artists, from Walter Sickert to Francis Bacon. In one room, those too-familiar Sunflowers, sold in 1924 to the National Gallery in London by Vincent’s sister-in-law, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, hold court amid a floral host of responses to them by other painters. The quality of these post-Van Gogh works may vary; his commanding presence in them never does. Carol Jacobi, [curator for British Art 1850–1915 at the Tate,] refused to employ the stale notion of “influence.” In her view, “It’s much better to think in terms of conversations or retorts.” As Van Gogh’s sunflowers survey this bouquet of tribute acts, I thought of another parallel: the Internet meme that spreads across the web in ever-burgeoning profusion.
Other rooms show how the black-and-white illustrations by British artists in weekly papers (above all, the pioneering Graphic, founded in 1869) left an indelible mark both on Van Gogh’s vision and his method. In the early 1880s, living in The Hague, he built up a personal collection of some 2,000 English prints. Their subject matter—the poor, the homeless, marginal people from England’s lower depths, whether dustmen, street vendors, or war veterans—crystalized his belief in the heroism of everyday life. “He wanted to be a working-man artist,” said Jacobi. In other words, a modest artisan who stood squarely with, rather than above, his figures.”
For more information, visit tate.org.uk.