The Real Van Gogh Exhibition

Its April in London, it’s raining (obviously) and the frost is biting at my finger tips, which have turned a wonderful shade of egg blue, yet that hasn’t deterred me or the hundreds of people queuing belligerently outside the church-like monstrosity that is The Royal Academy. It seems every citizen in London is eager to meet the ‘real Van Gogh’. The Royal academy has kindly homed the artists letters and selected paintings for four months allowing the intrigued to get to know the intricacies of the man who decided to lop off one ear.

Luckily I have a pass (ha) so I jump the queue and make my way inside to join what looks like a silent conga dance. Over 35 original letters, rarely exhibited to the public due to their fragility, are on display; together with around 65 paintings and 30 drawings that express the principal themes to be found within the correspondence. The first major Van Gogh exhibition in London for over 40 years, this is a unique opportunity to gain an insight into the complex mind of Vincent van Gogh, yet I cannot get close enough to the wall to see anything. I spend five minutes inspecting the back of a sexagenarians head whilst listening to the audio tape translating the first letter to Van Gogh’s brother Theo. Van Gogh’s life story is riddled with tragedy caused by his struggle with mental illness. His affair with art was short lived, he began to paint in 1880 at the late age of 27, unfortunately just 10 years later he would be dead having shot himself one afternoon in a southern French cornfield in 1890, an unfinished letter still in his pocket. He personifies the cliché of a ‘tormented artist’ but yet these letters do not reveal a man disheveled, he is eloquent and seemingly aware, of his difficulties, his surroundings, his art.

I decide enough is enough and push my way through the crowds to the enigmatic, heavy brush-stroked brightly coloured oil paintings that is Van Gogh’s trademark and find it shocking how his art reveals so much more of his state of mind than his letters do. Here the plagued man is on display for all to see, encaptured not just in what he paints but how he paints it. It is not lack of control that is apparent but rather the opposite, Van Gogh is compulsive in character, a perfectionist, his paintings demonstrate this. His work brings to mind visual imagery of a man vigorously dobbing away on a canvas, or in his case anything he could get his hands on (he was at times driven to use tea-towels for canvas). However like Van Gogh’s career, my stay is short lived as karma catches up with me and someone nudges me back into the sea of people all hungry to have their 3 seconds absorbing the intensity these paintings emit. Even though getting to know ‘the real’ Van Gogh was impersonal and near on impossible it leaves you with an afterthought, are we intrigued simply by his art? Or by his turbulent life story? If the latter applies then the feeling of voyeurism is overwhelming when considering his work, which in some respect gives an autobiographical account of his last living decade.