Portrait of an artist…

as a young man, not the James Joyce novel but Tate Britain’s summer exhibition, on Vincent Van Gogh and his time in in south London. Van Gogh arrived at the age of twenty in 1873 and lodged in Brixton ( though it’s described here as Stockwell ) where he fell in love with his landlady’s daughter. He worked for two years at the offices of Covent Garden art dealers Goupil, before turning to both teaching and preaching, when he was dismissed from his job.

Any number of Impressionists and post-impressionists fetched up south of the Thames at some point in their lives ( usually during the Franco-Prussian War and the time of the Paris Commune ). So his was a path well-trodden, by his almost contemporary Pissaro in Norwood, Sisley at Molesley, Monet at the Savoy or Tissot in St John’s Wood (okay, that’s north of the river).

The exhibition is a large one, with nine rooms, containing Van Gogh paintings, drawings and washes, but also many works of contemporary, or near contemporary, artists who were living in London at that time or which Van Gogh would have seen while he was here.  It includes works and prints which Van Gogh owned and there is cross-over here with the Tate’s winter exhibition of 2017/18 The Impressionists in London.

The Van Gogh also includes later, British artists clearly influenced by him.  So, for example, his Sunflowers, in Room 7, is juxtaposed with paintings of sunflowers by William Nicholson, Frank Brangwen and Jacob Epstein, among others.  I very much enjoyed these – the whole is joyous and up-lifting.  I enjoyed too the paintings of later artists, like those of the Camden Town School and David Bomberg and Francis Bacon, who acknowledged their debt to Van Gogh ( see study, by Bacon, left, of his painting of Van Gogh in the sun-bleached landscape of the south of France ).

I am insufficiently knowledgeable to be able to draw any but the most obvious of parallels between Van Gogh and the artists who influenced him while he was here.  That the river-scapes of Whistler, with their floating fogs and twinkling lights, had an influence, especially in the depiction of lights in the Rhone, doesn’t surprise me and there are obvious links to be made with Pre-Raphealite paintings like those of Edward Millais.  Some of the other connections are less obvious, indeed they may seem tenuous to the untrained eye, though I have no doubt that the scholarship behind this exhibition is excellent.

That Van Gogh adored Dickens and his works was new to me, though it fits, some of his portraits have the gnarly yet fluid quality that one perceives in some of Dickens’ descriptions of his characters. That he collected British prints and reproductions – the ‘black and whites’ – over 2,000 of them, often of modern subjects, like the workhouse, the prison or the deprivations of the poor, also feels fitting.  As he said ‘I often felt low in England… but the Black and White and Dickens, are things which make up for it all.’

The exhibition is at Tate Britain and runs until 11th August.  It is very popular, we visited at 4 o’clock on a Friday, when we thought it would be quiet, yet it was anything but.  Afterwards a steward told me that, in relative terms this was quiet!  So beware the crowds.  Entry costs £22, with concessions for students, seniors etc. and if you are not a member you will have to book.  It’s well worth a visit.

For more on art and exhibitions see            Soane and Kapoor          Art on the Underground                 John Ruskin, The Power of Seeing

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