Saturday 1st June, 2019
One of the painters I have always loved, from girlhood, is Van Gogh. As a child I practically grew up in the Tate and the National Gallery as my Dad would take us there, on the bus, at weekends so he could study the art and we could pretend to do the same. Working class culture included and includes a love of art and other ‘high’ cultural pursuits. Something I wish was recognised and remembered as the art world can feel cosseted and closed and inaccessible to anyone without the right connections and background.
I have very clear memories of the corridors of the Tate, of the calmness and quietness of the building, of the majestic architecture and the whiteness of the walls. I remember finding paintings of horses and ladies boring and of being quite scared by some of the modern art (David Hockney’s Splash) but falling deeply in love with Henry Moore’s sublime sculptures and the wonderful colours and swirls in impressionism. Van Gogh and Cezanne stood out to me, even as a small child, as being full of life and excitement and I responded accordingly.
I have taken myself to many an art gallery or exhibition since and have been lucky to have seen some wonderous things. I have fallen to my knees in worship at El Greco’s mind bending religiosity, gasped in wonder at the Sistine Chapel, wept tears at Donatello’s wooden Mary Magdalene, felt seen and understood by Frida Kahlo and have held my hands behind my back when near Rodin sculptures as the temptation to stroke the cool marble is altogether too much. Art, like music, does things to and for me that I am unable to explain. There was a wonderful impressionist exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford a few years ago where I spent a very happy afternoon gazing in admiration and love at Van Gogh, Cezanne et al. I have yet to get myself to Amsterdam to see the Van Gogh museum, but that is something on my bucket list. Maybe one day I will get there.
For now, I had to content myself with being able to visit this exhibition in London. Which contains less Van Gogh than I would have liked, but as seems to be the trend in curation now, positions an artist within some other context. I am not entirely sure that the brief time Van Gogh spent in London was as formative as this exhibition would have us believe, and although some of the juxtaposition was good, I wanted Van Gogh, not whoever you thought he was influenced by. The flow of people (and by God there were a lot of people) seemed to feel the same, as the works that were not Van Gogh didn’t have a queue to look at them. It was so very busy that I felt uncomfortable at times. The layout wasn’t clear, the exits either and with no natural light and a flow of people everywhere I felt quite shaky at the start. This wasn’t helped by the exhibition being closed until 10am, even for members, who are usually able to access earlier, due to a private show for some corporate sponsor. I understand all too well the pressures art institutions face in the age of austerity, but they are supposed to be there for us all. Their mission and raison d’etre is to provide free access to the public of great art. That fails when the needs of greed are placed ahead. I cannot afford to be a member of the Tate, so I wouldn’t have been able to enter any earlier, but there were a large number of others in the queue who would have been and that would have freed up space for the rest of us. It would have helped reduce the overall numbers. I had deliberately chosen to go first thing, believing it would be quieter then, so I was quite unprepared for a long and winding queue in heat.
It took me a fair few rooms to find the calmness and beauty I was seeking in the art, simply because I had started off in such an overwhelmed state, which is a real shame. It was also a shame that so many other visitors spent the entire time taking photographs or posing for Insta worthy selfies with the art. In order to experience art, you have to give yourself fully to it. to be in the moment with it, to share in its beauty and glory you cannot be pouting and worrying if your contouring is ok! I honestly saw one couple, who did not even look at the paining, pose and preen as if they were on a catwalk. It saddened me that the only prism they were able to even vaguely comprehend the art was through that sort of filter. And I am saying that as a photographer! As someone who uses photography as a means to see, explore and feel. I have, at times, photographed sculpture, but that is a fluid form and I have never done so in a busy and crowded exhibition such as this. Well, other than two sneakily taken shots of the Sistine Chapel but I can be forgiven for that; I had fallen down in breathless wonder at it. So please, I beg of you, if you are visiting one of these big blockbuster shows, have some consideration for the people around you and put your phones down. At least some of the time. Look at the paintings on the wall, not the through the lens screen. It would help if galleries enforced no photo rules and sold affordable prints and postcards so that people could take home memories without resorting to their camera phones. Give yourself fully to the moment, to the art, have a relationship with the painting in front of you. Great art, great artists, do that, they create dialogue and conversation with you through their paint.
There were wonderful Van Gogh drawings and sketches that I had never seen before and I cannot begin to explain the thrill of seeing up close his signature in paint, or handwritten letters. They made Van Gogh human, in a very tangible way. Although his art has always been very humane and filled with love. The whole tortured genius trope is one far too well worn, and misapplied in Van Gogh’s case. Sadly, despite what the commentary of this exhibition would have you believe, it persists as the myth of the one who went mad and chopped off his ear pervades in our culture. I knew nothing of that as a child, when I first encountered Van Gogh’s art. What I saw, and what I still see, is colour and shape and form and emotion and love. A pure and open way of looking for the good it the world. You cannot paint in such vivid yellows, blues and greens as Van Gogh did, if you do not see beauty and light and goodness in everything you paint. The hues are so dazzlingly bright, the thickness of the paints so deep and layered that they must have been out there with speediness and with purpose, to talk to us about how he saw the world. I recognise the skewed angles, the intensity of colour and light, I recognise the sheer overwhelming and sensory nature of Vincent’s view. I share it. The world to me is as vivid and bright as he saw it. Sometimes that is incredible and wonderful and sometimes it is simply too much. Perhaps this was the source of his pain and why he required solitude. I recognise that need too. Mostly I recognise a beautiful soul, who saw the world in his own way and was driven to share that through his art. Vincent, you beautiful and wonderful creature, your art continues to and will continue to affect for generations. Starry Night and some of his self-portraits were so incredibly moving. Tears crept into the corners of my eyes and I didn’t want to move away from them. One of the self-portraits made me want to cradle his face in my hands and tell him, Vincent, it will be alright, it really will. The power art has to transport and transfer us from our own place and time is like no other, it is a form of time travel for me. Art is transformative. It has emotional power beyond words.
When I reach the end of an exhibition I always walk back through, against the flow, to find the pieces that spoke to me the most and to wish them farewell. I drink in the last looks, capturing them in my memory and heart as moments I will be able to dwell on. Then I look at the floor and walk back towards the exit. I need my last looks, I need my final vision, to be one of beauty and hope and truth. I need it to be of my choosing and not the curators. I need to have felt that deep connection to the artist, to their world. I need to feel. I need to leave with that sense of wonder in my heart I felt as a child. All too often we lose that sense of wonder, of exploration, of openness. Art is a way back to it, to the pureness of expression, of impression. Perhaps that is why I have always loved Van Gogh so very much.
I will take away from this exhibition a renewed love of an artist and style I have always admired, along with a wish to see more of his work. That trip to Amsterdam needs to happen. One day. One day.