LONDON – An exhibition that explores Vincent van Gogh’s relationship with British culture, his influences and how he later left his stamp on emerging artists of the time previewed at Tate Britain on Monday, the gallery’s director Alex Farquharson said.
The “EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain” has brought together 45 works by the Dutch artist from collections from around the world showcasing works that were influenced by his time spent in London between 1873 and 1876.
“It’s little known that Van Gogh spent three and half years in London,” Farquharson told EFE in an interview.
The Dutch artist arrived in the UK as a young art dealer and letters he wrote to his brother tell of how he immediately fell in love with the sprawling city as he became exposed, for the first time, on a large scale to both historic and contemporary art.
“What this exhibition does is it tracks the influence of what he saw, what he encountered in London, in art, in culture, also in the city itself to the very end of his career,” the Tate Britain director continued.
“The second half of the exhibition looks at Van Gogh’s influence on 20th-century British art, from the 1910’s to the 1950s. It leaves off at a time when Van Gogh has become the immensely popular figure he has become today from a position of absolute obscurity,” Farquharson added.
The show ends with various Francis Bacon canvases of a lost Van Gogh painting called “The Road to Tarascon.”
When the budding young artist arrived in the UK, he immersed himself in the British art scene, visiting exhibitions, reading literature and exploring graphic art and social reforming print-making.
He was particularly drawn to the moody watercolors of landscape painter John Constable (1776-1837) and John Everett Millais (1829-1896), the author of perhaps the most well-known Pre-Raphaelite painting featuring a drowning “Ophelia,” a reference to William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” play.
In literature Van Gogh was particularly influenced by Charles Dickens and the author’s candid depiction of Victorian London.
An impoverished artist, he nevertheless amassed a large collection of some 2,000 engravings of prints that were featured in magazines.
The content you would encounter in these publications of the time often addressed the issues and predicaments the poorest in society faced.
“What Van Gogh really responds to is the lives of the poor people he saw in London,” Farquharson said. “London was a very crowded place, it was the biggest city in the world, it was the most industrialized city in the world and with that came great hardship.”
In Victorian London, many of the city’s poorest dwelled in slums worked in factories, and these became a central subject matter for Van Gogh’s work throughout his life.
“It is one of the things we associate with Van Gogh, the way he ennobled the ordinary person in the hardest circumstances,” the director continued.
The Dutch painter returned to these prints – many featured in the show – towards the end of his career when he painted his only London canvas “Prisoners Exercising,” (1890) based on an 1872 Gustave Dore print of prisoners walking in a circle in the confined yard of Newgate prison.
Van Gogh painted his version when he was in the Saint-Remy asylum and probably related to the predicament of the prisoners, Farquharson added.
Even though the exhibition spotlights, in particular, the influence British culture had on him, one cannot forget the huge impact some of his contemporaries had on him, with post-impressionist Paul Gaugin at the forefront.
Colorful Japanese woodcuts, which contrasted with the monochrome British prints hugely, also heavily informed van Gogh’s paintings with the Dutchman even coining a term to describe his obsession: Japonaiserie.
For Van Gogh, Japanese art forced him to refocus on nature, a recurrent theme throughout his work, evident in his most iconic piece “Sunflowers” (1888), which has been loaned by The National Gallery in London for this special exploration.
“Flowers before Van Gogh were considered a quite lowly subject for painting, it existed in the 17th century but it was not considered an elevated subject,” the gallery director said.
After his emblematic series of the huge orange and yellow flowers, blooms inundated Britain’s art scene from 1910 onwards.
“The use of the motif is incredibly strong, the head of the sunflower takes the place of the human face, it’s almost like a group portrait, and it’s a very psychological image,” Farquharson said.
A key aspect of the research behind the exhibition was the lasting impact Van Gogh’s experience of London had on him, apparent through his letter writing and reproductions of which have been made available for the Tate Britain show.
Through these letters, many written to his brother Theo, the huge influence of what he saw becomes apparent as well as an unrequited experience of falling in love with his landlord’s daughter which greatly affected his mental health.
“It seems to have been a big emotional disappointment for him,” Farquharson told EFE.
“He seems to have reacted quite strongly and it affected his mood deeply. I don’t know if it was the first emotional crisis of his life, of which there were many, but if it wasn’t the first it was certainly one of the first,” the director added.
The show has been curated by Tate Britain lead curator Carol Jacobi and Chris Stephens, director of Holburne Museum in Bath with Van Gogh specialist Martin Bailey.
“EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain” runs from March 27 to Aug. 11 at Tate Britain.