Socialist Worker

The Real Van Gogh - extraordinary paintings of ordinary life

A new exhibition highlights the democratic spirit of Van Gogh’s art, argues John Molyneux

Issue No. 2187

A letter from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo in 1882, with a rough sketch of his painting Pollard Willow

A letter from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo in 1882, with a rough sketch of his painting Pollard Willow

The Real Van Gogh exhibition offers a brilliant opportunity to see some of Vincent Van Gogh’s finest works and a fair representation of his whole artistic development.

There are 65 paintings and 30 drawings on show at the Royal Academy in London, in contrast to the four or five pictures normally on view in London’s National Gallery.

Van Gogh’s art is distinguished by two main characteristics: its communication of an extraordinarily intense engagement with everyday life – with people, nature and material objects – and its radical democratic subject matter.

He paints The Postman Joseph Roulin and his family, and his own shoes, with the same intensity as he paints himself and the mountains.

The democratisation of the subjects of art, from classical mythology and portraits of the aristocracy to the everyday has been one of the central themes of modern art.

It stretches from Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers in the 19th century through Georges Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières to Andre’s Bricks and Tracey Emin’s My Bed today.


In Van Gogh it is there from the start in his wonderful studies of peasants and weavers in 1884-5 and continues down to his magnificent painting of his simple wooden chair.

But his ability to express his fascination with ordinary experience explodes with his discovery of vibrant colour in Provence in 1888.

This results in works like The Cypresses, The Starry Night, and his fierce self portraits. These make him the founder and greatest exponent of the expressionist tradition that runs through Edvard Munch, Frida Kahlo, Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon and Emin.

Prior to Van Gogh, I know of no artist who painted either their local postman or their boots. Van Gogh painted both again and again.

This raises the much debated question of Van Gogh’s “madness”. Was he mad or misunderstood? Did he make his art because of or despite illness?

Van Gogh had to live in capitalist society. This sat uncomfortably with the passion and integrity he brought both to his early missionary work and to his art. Doing art under these conditions was bound to be hard. Hopefully it could be easier under socialism.

It also means that Van Gogh stands in sharp contradiction to the combination of privilege and profiteering that dominates the art world – and now makes a buck off his work.

This show is billed as The Real Van Gogh. Its selling point is that it features the paintings in conjunction with appropriate letters, mostly to his brother Theo.

In this there is a small element of truth and a large dollop of hype.

It is true that the letters are important documents. They underline that Van Gogh was a deadly serious and knowledgeable artist, not the wild, mad genius of Hollywood myth.

But the letters are not a new discovery, just a new edition, and they add little to the exhibition. They certainly don’t give us the “real” Van Gogh.

Van Gogh is an artist who especially needs to be seen in the original. It is necessary to stand up close and see the individual brush strokes and three-dimensional texture, and also to step back and see the overall effect.

And there are some wonderful pictures here, from the early Weaver to The Yellow House and the Mountains at Saint Remy.

But they are 65 paintings out of over 800 (he painted 70 in the last 70 days of his life!)

This show is no more the definitive Van Gogh than one containing The Starry Night, The Sunflowers, The Night Cafe and Wheatfield with Crows would be.

Finally, the exhibition press pack specifically requests we credit the sponsorship of BNY (Bank of New York) Mellon. I thought Socialist Worker readers would want to know.

The Real Van Gogh: The artist and his letters.
Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London.
Until April 18

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Article information

Tue 2 Feb 2010, 19:19 GMT
Issue No. 2187
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