“It has always been so much my desire to paint for those who don’t know the artistic side of painting.” So said Vincent Van Gogh. He clearly addressed me.
My mathematics teacher once remarked that I struggle to draw a straight line using a scale. I was her pet student and she was concerned that I would lose a few marks for finishing in geometry. She concluded that there was no hope with my handwriting and drawing.
I moved to London, and thus Europe, when I was offered a job by a Dutch Investment Bank. Soon I got a chance to visit the Headquarters in Amsterdam. When I had first poured through the critical edition of the diary of Anne Frank, I had never imagined that one day I would visit the Secret Annex. My firm had placed me at The Pulitzer, located at 315 Prinsengracht. Anne Frank Museum located at 267 Prinsengracht was just a short walk away. During that corporate visit to Amstersdam, my star attraction was Anne Frank. Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Vermeer were not on my list.
When I first visited Van Gogh museum, I had no plans to return ever again. I expected to wrap it up in a few hours. Instead I spent more than a day. And keep doing the same when I return to Holland, the last time with my better half.
My 3 year old has been visiting National Gallery, near Trafalgar Square, for over a year and half. Tried to get him interested in Raphael and Van Gogh amongst others but I did not succeed. He has a mind of his own and that mind clearly favours Seurat. This year, after visiting the ‘Real Van Gogh’ exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts, he is able to identify Van Gogh’s work, the orange beard in the self portrait being his object of attention. It also helps that this image gets reinforced watching various ads promoting this event. To his credit, he also appreciates ‘Still-life with a plate of onions’.§
Sunday Times offered a chance to visit this exhibition an hour before it opened for public view. I naively planned to tweet realtime sharing my impressions. Alas, the museums consider mobile phones to be a nuisance. Phones in general are a bad idea because people will chat disturbing the paid clients. Smart phones are worse because the idiot who will chat at the exhibition is also likely to use his camera to take pictures.
A Marsh is the study in pen & black ink over graphite which is an early work that depicts the reflections of cloud and play with light. Encouraged by younger brother Theo in August 1880, Van Gogh chose to become an artist at the age of 27. Self taught and working alone he created this in June 1881 and this work is considered best of his early drawings. I like it far more than anyone else especially because I am unable to use pencil to draw a line.
The Bleaching ground at Scheveningen is even more impressive when one gets to watch the croquis (draft version) in a letter right next to the finished article. Comparing the two, one appreciates the master even more for his dedication in sincerely capturing the image for what should be a quick sketch in a private letter. Surely he wanted to sell his works as an artist, though he failed to do so in his lifetime, but his correspondence was not for sale.
That he was not appreciated in his lifetime, but still continued to practice and improve so that he could churn out one masterpiece after another for the next ten years shows the remarkable side of his persona. He used to write often and most of his letters have been preserved. His artwork can be understood much better through these letters. It is the success of this exhibition which brings out the real Van Gogh by combining the two. Vincent had been working on his craft for less than three years when he painted Scheveningen. His skill, perseverance and the pursuit for perfection stands out as one stands amazed in front of this work.
Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in July 1890. Soon after his brother Theo died of syphilis in January 1891. It was his wife Jo who preserved the letters and published the first major edition of Van Gogh’s letters to Theo. These days Van Gogh’s letters, along with respective English translations, can be viewed online. The exhibition displays letter 172 where Van Gogh mentions his attempts at figure drawing. Once again viewer gets an opportunity to see ‘Storm clouds over a field’ next to its postcard version (see sketch A). This September 1881 pencil, black chalk and wash is part of a private collection and I can’t find its online version.
In 1880, Vincent was living in poverty, lonely, dejected and depressed. He had worked as an evangelist and a preacher. His temporary appointments would lead to termination owing to his fanatic behaviour. He would not confirm to social conventions shunning normal middle class life. In August 1880, Theo encouraged Vincent to become as artist at the age of 27. By February 1881, Theo assumed the responsibility of financially supporting his elder brother and did so for rest of his life.
It is August 1882 where Van Gogh’s letter 253 to Theo mentions:
I’m very grateful to you for visiting me here — it’s wonderful to have the prospect of a year of steady work without disasters, and thanks to what you gave me I now also have a new horizon in painting. I regard myself as privileged above a thousand others in that you remove so many barriers in my way.It goes without saying that many often can’t carry on because of the expense; well, I can hardly put into words how thankful I am to be able to keep on working steadily.I have to try twice as hard to make up for lost time because I began later than others, and with the best will in the world I would have to give up if I didn’t have you. Let me tell you about everything I’ve bought.”
To be continued …..
§ He likes ‘Still-life with a plate of onions’ because I picked up a tray from the gift shop depicting this.