Almost as much as his work, the myths and legends surrounding Vincent Van Gogh keep him alive and present. We all know the tales: He cut off his ear and mailed it to a prostitute, he fled Paris in mental anguish, and, finally, e shot himself in the chest, standing in a field, an unfinished painting propped on an easel before him. But a new exhibit at London’s Royal Academy of Arts is putting the man before the myth, forcing a reappraisal of the popular image of the mad, self-destructive original who has become as close as a rock star as a 19th-Century Post-Impressionist can get.
Opening this weekend, “The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters” a chancy title for an exhibition if ever there was one — offers new insight into the painter who died penniless, only to have his works break records at international auctions a century later. Once only available to scholars, 35 of Van Gogh’s letters in French, Dutch, and, somewhat surprisingly, English, do not echo the image of a deeply tortured soul popularized through high-school Art History classes and the movie “Vincent & Theo”. The correspondence reveals a thoughtful, detail-oriented technician who is less prone to romantic screeds than he is to offer analysis of the which reeds make the best pencils. While moments of poverty, hopelessness, and, yes, madness, seep through the letters, it is the artist’s clear writing, technical sketches of paintbrushes, and other, less sensational pieces of his daily life that dominate. The romantic image of Van Gogh creating the hallucinogenic swirls of light in “Starry Night” in a fevered fit of genius give way to a balanced take on a dedicated, if depressed, professional.
If that sounds less than exhilarating, consider this — in offering these letters, in presenting Van Gogh as a conscious craftsman as well an artist, The Royal Academy rescues his originality and technique from the notion than an inspired madness was responsible for his innovations. Once again, Van Gogh becomes the author of his works — a talented painter instead of a gifted and burdened thrall to his demons and angels.
To delve even deeper into Van Gogh and other great artists, pre-order “Art + Travel Europe: Step into the Lives of Five Famous Painters”, our forthcoming guidebook that traces the steps of these geniuses, where they worked, where they lived, and where to see the best of what they created. Available March 16th.
“The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters”
January 23rd through April 18th, 2010
The Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Piccadilly
Image: Vincent Van Gogh, “Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear and Pipe”, 1889