Gatecrashing the press view of the Royal Academy’s Spring blockbuster ‘The Real Van Gogh – the artist and his letters‘ (23 Jan-18 April) it struck me that Vincent was an ideal How To Be Unemployed poster boy.
1) He recklessly abandoned ‘proper job’ to become an artist, jacking in careers as an art dealer and then a missionary to take up painting at 27.
2) He displayed an overdeveloped work ethic, but still considered himself a failure – In just 10 years he produced more than 800 paintings and 1,200 drawings. In the last 70 days of his life he produced more than 70 canvasses.
3) He repeatedly tapped his younger brother Theo for cash and materials.
4) He entered a house share with another temperamental artist (Gaugin), which ended in breakdown and the ‘ear incident’.
5) He displayed a marked tendency to look on the dark side of life – In a letter to Theo on 31 July 1882, describing his watercolour ‘Pollard Willow’ he writes: ‘where the black is darkest in this little sketch is where the greatest strengths are in the watercolour.’
6) Painfully lonely on account of working from home and harboured ambitions of setting up a community of like-minded artists.
7) But mainly because he puts most contemporary columnists and bloggers to shame with his frequent correspondences, particularly those to his brother.
Though this exhibition has its share of bold, colourful, energetic paintings, it is these exquisite letters that are the star. Illuminated almost like medieval manuscripts with sketches and diagrams, letters finished on the backs of drawings, drawings made on the backs of envelopes, long words curled round the ends of lines to avoid hyphenation, erudite musings on life, literature and art, and prose as smooth as butter, whether he’s writing in Dutch, French of English. Letters which are not the ramblings of a mad man but a of an educated man studying hard, perhaps destructively hard, in order to master something for which he has an all-consuming passion. Read Margaret Drabble writing in the New Statesman on the subject.
The exhibition includes, quite movingly, the last letter he ever wrote, dated four days before he shot himself, six before he died from his wounds.
Sadly the six volume box set of his letters (published by Thames & Hudson) are, at £395, beyond the resources of most HTBU readers (you should have caught the Radio 4 serialisation for free), but I urge you to book tickets for the exhibition now.
If you don’t believe me, read art critic Ossian Ward’s far more insightful review here.
They are clearly expecting crowds (the security guards were being tutored in queue control when I went) so get one over on all those people with proper jobs and go on a weekday.