Judging from the title, Van Gogh and Britain looked as though it would be, on paper, at least, if not exactly padded out, certainly well-upholstered. Although he did a few drawings during his three-year stay in Britain, he never did one painting, and was not really an artist at all until he was 27, and had long left these shores; the only painting he did of London was based on a print by Gustav Doré of Newgate Prison, entitled The Prison Courtyard, which he executed in the last years of his life while in hospital. The exhibition tries to show how much he was influenced by the art and literature available in London, and, less successfully, how much he influenced a generation of painters. As Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, he was absorbed in the works of Charles Dickens, who had died only three years before he had arrived in London. He particularly liked A Christmas Carol and Hard Times, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beacher Stow, which he returned to time and time again. He was also fascinated by the engraved prints that appeared in such journals as The Illustrated London News, Punch and The Graphic, from which he would snip out and keep, some of which he mounted. Luke Fildes was one illustrator he admired greatly and Doré, albeit a Frenchman living in London, had embarked on a series of prints called London: A Pilgrimage, with 180 engravings, which focused on the poverty of Victorian urban life, for which he was criticised in The Art Journal for ‘inventing rather than copying.’ This side of life patently appealed to Van Gogh, whose sense of injustice and human suffering was awakened by the abject poverty he saw all around him in London.
The star of the show, literally and figuratively, is undoubtedly the immensely popular Starry Night, on loan from the Musée d’Orsay, which still has the ability to wow the viewer. We are told that Van Gogh was inspired to paint the scene, having seen Whistler’s moody Nocturne: Grey and Gold, Westminster Bridge, with the new gas-lights on the recently-built Embankment reflected in the river, and also Gustav Doré’s Evening on the Thames. This may or may not be true, as it is hard to equate a murky and foggy Thames with the Rhône at Arles under a Provençal night sky, but he has taken the motif, and turned it on its head, with a dazzling array of reflected lights under an effervescent constellation of stars. Other paintings are cited as being inspirations for the young Dutchman after he took up painting for the last ten years of his life, like Meindert Hobbema’s line of poplars in The Avenue at Middleharnis from The National Gallery and Chill October by John Everett Millais. Certainly, Van Gogh painted and drew a number of tree-lined avenues, at Etten and Nuenen in the Netherlands, and in The Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and Arles, Cassis and Saint-Rémy in the South of France. There are numerous drawings that have never been displayed in Britain before, including Miners in the Snow, The Dustmen, A Woman Sewing and various Forsaken Women and A Sorrowing Old Man, all of which possess a sense of isolation, desolation and desperation about the human condition. In Church, showing three pews of worshippers in various states of inattentiveness, could reference The Sleeping Congregation by William Hogarth, or, more likely, Our Pew at Church from David Copperfield illustrated by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne), Dickens’s favoured illustrator.
This is where the exhibition begins to get a bit slack, and it feels that the curators have had to ‘fluff the cushions up.’ They have wheeled out a succession of British artists who have been ‘influenced’ by Van Gogh, borrowing his style, use of colour and composition. They include Harold Gilman, one of the founders of the Camden Town School, Spencer Gore, its first President, Matthew Smith, a Fauvist, who studied under Matisse, Vanessa Bell, Augustus John, represented by an insipid oil of trees in Provence, David Bomberg, painting after the Second World War, and Christopher Woods, who was greatly influenced by the outsider painter Alfred Wallis, and understood why people didn’t like the naive dauber. ‘No one liked Van Gogh for a while, did they?’ Roger Fry, who organised Manet and the Post-Impressionists show at the Grafton Galleries in 1910, in which Van Gogh had twenty-seven pictures, took a great deal of flack over the exhibition, particularly about the Dutchman, who was dismissed as ‘mad’, a ‘lunatic’ or ‘insane.’ Bearing in mind that he tried to ridicule Picasso, Matisse and the Cubists, the ultra-traditional cartoonist H M Bateman also poked fun at the Vorticists famously in his drawing Brother Brushes. He joined the critics with a page of Post-Impressions of the Post-Impressionists in the Bystander, where he lambasted the Grafton Galleries exhibition. Walter Sickert was great admirer of Van Gogh and painted a self-portrait in 1908 with more than a passing nod to his style. Roderic O’Conor was a young Irish painter who took the homage a little further, with painting-by-numbers landscapes and still lifes, which only serve to demonstrate what a master of colour Van Gogh was. A whole gallery is devoted to Sunflowers, on loan from the National Gallery, with floral emulations by Frank Brangwyn, the Scottish Colourist Samuel Peploe, Jacob Epstein, Winifred and William Nicholson and Kit Woods. The exhibition ends with some loud, brash paintings by Francis Bacon, which are more Bacon than Van Gogh, but share a common subject in the haunted and lonesome figure on the road to Tarascon.
It is over 70 years since Tate staged a Van Gogh exhibition, and, in the monochromatic austerity of post-war Britain, the people were ‘colour-starved’, and queued round the block in their thousands to see ‘the miracle of Millbank.’ They will doubtless do the same this time round, as, partly because he personifies the public’s notion of the archetypal artist, and ticks all the right boxes, namely being bonkers, cutting off his own ear during a row with his fellow painter Paul Gauguin, never making a sou out of his paintings in his lifetime and dying young by his own hand, Van Gogh occupies a sentimental place in their hearts and minds. With Julian Schnabel’s new film on release about Van Gogh At Eternity’s Gate with William Dafoe, one is reminded of just how embarrassing films about artists can be, with a (mercifully) short clip of Kirk Douglas as the tortured artist in Lust for Life. Not wishing to miss a trick, Tate has come up with a predictable range of Van Gogh-inspired products, including Starry Night tote bags and cushion covers, Van Gogh crochet dolls and keyrings, Van Gogh tea towels, trays, espresso sets and pocket mirrors. This is nothing to the range of tasteless tat available at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, but at least they and Tate did not stoop so low as to stock pink Van Gogh Earasers.