Van Gogh and Britain: More Than a Walk in a Sunflower Field
Updated: Feb 18
“This is magnificent" – a woman whispers to her other half whilst staring at the “Trunk of an Old Yew Tree” (1888), painted with pastel blue hues as if it depicted spring on a serene day. But the colours are deceiving – it’s a melancholic autumn again, van Gogh’s most celebrated season, which he painted repeatedly throughout his career. Indeed, when I look closer, I quickly learn that the branches of this old tree are bare, only a few golden leaves refuse to flutter down to the ground.
Symbolising survival and enduring strength, the tree is rooted in the empty field, rather distantly from the village and a little forest. It’s difficult not to think about the isolation of the mentally ill artist, who created this piece in South of France, where he sought brighter days and re-connection with nature.
The woman continues to admire this lonely tree that has been brought to Tate Britain from a private collection, and I, slightly captured by the melancholic mood, move on to the more cheerful sunflower paintings, exhibited in one of the last rooms of a few men's (women are mostly muses here) show called “The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain”.
You may not always be able to say what it is that confines and yet you feel I know not what bars... and then you ask yourself, Dear God, is this for long is this for ever, is this for eternity? Vincent van Gogh, 1880
Yes, this Dutch genius isn’t on his own in the Tate’s show. The artworks and literature of the other few men revolve around Van Gogh either as the force that impacted his creativity or as an outgrowth of his vastly inspirational artistic practice. From John Constables and Charles Dickens to Francis Bacon and Harold Gilman – they all help to put Van Gogh’s creative life and his years spent in London in context.
But why is Van Gogh's relation to Britain worth exploring if he spent less than three years here and wasn’t even an artist at that time? Well, for the British culture which Van Gogh immersed himself in as soon as he landed a job in London as an art dealer in 1873. Black and white prints and British literature became his passion which he constantly talked about in his letters to the family and friends and which left lasting footprints on his artistic road.
As a self-taught artist Van Gogh found inspiration in British prints featuring everyday life of the working class. They made an impact on his own art stylistically and technically as he continuously studied them. Throughout his short life Van Gogh collected a couple of thousand prints and read more than a hundred books of British authors which are examined here at the exhibition.
Clearly, it’s not a quick walk through the sunflower fields! One should arrive with an open mind and be prepared to face the whole spectrum of emotions, themes and colour pallets – from the gloomy but incredibly striking prints and sketches of suffering human beings to the expressive and colourful paintings of nature.
The visitors of the exhibition get another opportunity to witness that Van Gogh never really settled, was always on the move, so was his mental health. As he dreamed of helping the most vulnerable part of the society through art, the art actually was helping him to cope with the darkness inside himself.
Art was his response to the changing internal and external environment. For instance, isolated and mentally ill, he once again sought solace in nature by painting Saint Paul hospital’s garden (called "Hospital at Saint-Rémy" (1889)) with such a great energy that the movement of the brushstrokes made it almost hypnotising and surely unforgettable.
Unforgettable is the entire Van Gogh’s journey in life and the seeds of inspiration that he unknowingly scattered across the world. It really seems the whole world is here in front of the “Starry Night” (1888) being star-struck and fascinated by the vibrant but fleeting moment, which the Dutch master painted during his darkest years. I linger for a bit longer just to soak the night lights in and it occurs to me maybe I’m getting swirled into the starry night instead – so magically powerful this troubled man is.
"The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain"
Open until 11 Aug 2019
Millbank, London SW1P 4RG, UK