Van Gogh and Britain @ Tate Britain

Before I went I’d read some disparaging reviews of this exhibition – but I found it really interesting, thought-provoking, full of wonderful paintings and prints and drawings, and making all kinds of unexpected connections. And big, much bigger than I expected.

The premise is simple: Vincent van Gogh came to live in England in 1873, at the age of 20. He lived in London for nearly three years, developing an intimate knowledge of the city and a great taste for English literature and painting. The exhibition:

  1. explores all aspects of van Gogh’s stay in London, with ample quotes from his letters to brother Theo priasing numerous aspects of English life and London – and contains several rooms full of the English paintings and prints of contemporary urban life which he adored
  2. then it explores the development of van Gogh’s mature style and the many specific references he made back to themes and settings and motifs he had first seen in London, in London’s streets and galleries
  3. finally, the exhibition considers the impact van Gogh had on British artists
    • as a result of the inclusion of his pictures in the famous 1910 exhibition Post-Impressionist Painting
    • between the wars when van Gogh’s letters were published and fostered the legend of the tormented genius, the man who was too beautiful and sensitive for this world
    • and then how van Gogh’s reputation was further interpreted after the debacle of the Second World War

Gustave Doré

The first three rooms deal with the London that van Gogh arrived in in 1873. Among the highlights was a set of seventeen prints from Gustave Doré’s fabulous book London, a pilgrimage, which had been published only the year before, 1872. All of these are marvellous and the first wall, the wall facing you as you enter the exhibition, is covered with an enormous blow-up of Doré’s illustration of the early Underground.

The Workmen’s Train by Gustave Doré (1872)

Frankly, I could have stopped right here and admired Doré’s fabulous draughtsmanship and social history, as I looked at the wall covered with seventeen of the prints from the book which we know van Gogh owned and revered.

It’s the basis of the first of many links and threads which run through the show because, many years later, when van Gogh had developed his mature style but had also developed the mental illness that was to plague him, during his confinement in a mental hospital, he was to paint a faithful copy of Doré’s depiction of inmates in Newgate prison but in his own blocky style, to express his own feelings.

The prison courtyard by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Social realism

Van Gogh had come to London because he had got a job with the art dealing firm Goupil, which was part of the fast-growing market for the popular prints and art reproductions which were informally referred to as ‘black and whites’.

VanGogh ended up with a collection of over 2,000 of these English prints, and admired them for their realistic depictions of contemporary urban scenes, especially among the poor. I was fascinated to learn that there was a set of socially-committed artists who all drew for The Graphic magazine, including Luke Fildes, Edward Dalziel, Frank Holl, and Edwin Buckman. The exhibition includes quite a few black and white social realist prints by artists from this circle and, as with the Doré, I could have studied this stuff all day long.

A London Dustyard by Edwin Buckman, from the Illustrated London News, 1873

The curators related these blunt depictions of London life back to the novels of Charles Dickens, who we know van Gogh revered (in this instance the rubbish dump motif linking to the dust yard kept by the Boffin family, the central symbol of his last, finished novel, Our Mutual Friend). As Vincent was to write during his first year as a struggling artist:

My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes and these artists draw.

But these illustrations by numerous London artists are also here because Vincent copied them. Next to the Buckman image of a dustyard is a graphite sketch of dustmen by Vincent. Next to a Luke Filde image of the homeless and poor, is a van Gogh drawing of a public soup kitchen.

A Public Soup Kitchen by Vincent Van Gogh (1883) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Other images include one of surly roughs waiting for the pub to open and a hooligan being arrested. Next to them all are van Gogh’s own earliest sketches and drawing, including a series he did of a homeless single mother begging on the streets, Sien Hoornik, who he took in and fed and had model for him (fully clothed) in a variety of postures of hopelessness and forlornness. And variations on the theme of tired, poor old men.

This is the Vincent who set his heart on becoming a vicar and did actually preach sermons at London churches, as well as crafting skilled sketches of churches in the letters he sent to brother Theo, and which are displayed here.

The example of old masters

But it wasn’t just magazine and topical illustration which fired Vincent’s imagination. The curators have also included a number of big classic Victorian paintings – by John Constable and John Millais among others – to give a sense of what ‘modern’ art looked like to the young van Gogh.

He was not yet a painter, in fact he didn’t know what he wanted to be. But the curators have hung the sequence, and accompanied them by quotes from letters, to show that, even in his early 20s, he was an acute observer of other people’s art, not only Victorian but other, older, pictures he would have seen at the National Gallery.

The Avenue at Middelharnis by Meindert Hobbema (1689) © The National Gallery, London

Several of these classic paintings depict an open road between a line of trees and, as the room progresses, the curators have hung next to them van Gogh’s later depictions of the same motif, showing early versions of the motif done in a fairly rudimentary approach, the oil laid on thick and heavy and dark…

Avenue of Poplars in Autumn by Vincent van Gogh (1884) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

And then next to these, suddenly, we have the first works of his mature style in which his art and mind have undergone a dazzling liberation.

Path in the Garden of the Asylum by Vincent van Gogh (1889) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

The triumph of distortion

One of the things you can see evolving is his depiction of faces. Early on, he’s not very good. There’s a set of faces of what look like jurymen, as well as individual portraits of working men and women, and often they are either expressionless blocks, or a bit cack-handed, a bit lop-sided. Even the numerous sketches of Sien Hoornik are better at conveying expression through the bent posture of her body, than through facial expressions which are often blurred or ignored.

Similarly, you can’t help noticing that the early landscapes like the avenue of poplars, above, very much lack the suave painterly finish and style of his models (Constable, Millais).

But what happens as you transition into room four – which covers his move to Paris to be near his brother in 1885 – is a tremendous artistic and visual liberation, so that the very wonkiness and imperfections in his draughtmanship which were flaws in the earlier works, are somehow, magically, triumphantly, turned into strengths. The blockiness, the weakness of perspective, the lack of interest in strict visual accuracy, have suddenly been converted into a completely new way of seeing and of building up the image, which feels deeply, wonderfully emotionally expressive.

Sorrowing old man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’) by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Room four makes fleeting reference to the community of like-minded artists he found working around Paris, and in particular to Pissarro, exponent of what was being called neo-Impressionism.

It seems quite obvious that van Gogh was very influenced by the Frenchman’s experiments with chunks and blocks, and spots and dabs and lines of pure colour. The painting above combines the strong formal outlines redolent of the black and white Victorian prints he revered so highly, with a new approach to filling in the outlines – not with a consistent smooth finish à la Millais – but a completely new idea of filling the space with disconnected lines of paint, the artist quite happy to leave blanks between them, quite happy to let us see them as isolated lines all indicating colour and texture.

The curators link this technique back to the cross-hatching used to create volume and shape by the Victorian print-makers and illustrators. So one way of thinking about what happened is that Vincent transferred a technique designed for print making to oil painting. What happens if you don’t create a smooth, finished all-over wash of colour, but deliberately use isolated lines and strokes, playing with the affect that basic, almost elemental short brushstrokes of mostly primal colours, create when placed next to each other.

It has a jazzy effect, creates a tremendous visual vibration and dynamism. the image looks like it is quivering or buzzing.

The Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition

To be honest, by this stage my head was buzzing with the fabulous images of Doré and Fildes and the other British illustrators, and van Gogh’s similarly social realist depictions of the poor, the old, prostitutes and so on and the way the early social realist paintings had morphed into a series of paintings of outdoor landscapes. I felt full to overflowing with information and beauty. But there was a lot more to come.

Suddenly it is 1910 and room five is devoted to the epoch-making exhibition held in London and titled Manet and the Post-Impressionists by the curator Roger Fry. As with Doré’s underground image at the start, the curators have blown up a page from a popular satirical magazine of the time, depicting the dazed response of sensible Britishers to the outlandish and demented art of these foreign Johnnies and their crazed, deformed, ridiculously over-coloured paintings. A number of Vincent’s paintings were included in the show and came in for special scorn from the philistine Brits.

This amusing room signals the start of part two of the show which looks at van Gogh’s posthumous influence on a whole range of native British artists.

This second half is, I think more mixed and of more questionable value than the first half. We know which British artists and illustrators van Gogh liked and admired and collected, because he included their names and his responses to their works, in his many letters.

As to the influence he had after his death, this is perforce far more scattered and questionable. Thus room six introduces us to paintings by Walter Sickert, leader of the Camden Town school (whose work I have always cordially hated for its dingily depressing dark brown murk), to Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (bright Bloomsburyites), and to Matthew Smith, Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman.

The Vineyard by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

It’s impossible to place any of these artists on the same level as Vincent. Amid the sea of so-so also-rans, the scattered examples of works by van Gogh ring out, shout from the walls, proclaim the immensity of his genius, the vibrancy of design, colour and execution. Like an adult among children.

That said, there’s quite a lot of pleasure to be had from savouring these less-well-known British artists for their own sakes. I was particularly drawn to the works of Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore. Here is Gore’s painting of Gilman’s house. It doesn’t have a lot to do with van Gogh, does it, stylistically? Apart from being very brightly coloured.

Harold Gilman’s House at Letchworth, Hertfordshire by Spencer Gore. Courtesy of New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester Arts and Museums Service

Similarly, I really liked Gilman’s picture of the inside of a London caff, focusing on the decorative wallpaper and bright red newel posts, and a sensitive portrait titled Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, 1917. The curators relate this latter painting back to Vincent’s vivid, warts-and-all portraits, which also contain highly decorative elements and stylised wallpaper, a garish brightness which scandalised critics of the 1910 show.

Maybe. It’s a good painting, he conveys the old woman’s character in a sober, unvarnished way and the use of decorative elements is interesting. But only a few yards away is hanging one of five or six drop-dead van Gogh masterpieces of the show, the Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889), and there is absolutely no competition.

Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Hammer Museum collection

Good God, hardly anything you’ve ever seen before explodes with such power and vibrancy as this painting. The brown earth, the green grass, the writhing trees and the very air seem to have burst into flames, to be erupting and leaping with energy, fire, ecstasy, fear, manic force.

Although there are a number of other, milder, more discreet landscapes by Vincent, when he is in this manic mood he wipes everybody else off the table, he dominates the dancefloor, he takes over the room, while the others are playing nice tunes on their recorders, he is like a Beethoven symphony of colour and expression, full of tumult and vision.

The impact of sunflowers

Emotionally and intellectually exhausted? I was. But there’s more. A whole room devoted to sunflowers. Pride of place goes to one of his most famous paintings, the sunflowers of 1888, and I was fascinated to learn from the wall label that van Gogh’s still lifes contributed to a major revival of the art of painting flowers. There are ten or a dozen other paintings of sunflowers around this room, by a whole range of other artists (of whom I remember Winifred and William Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Frank Brangwyn and Jacob Epstein). One of the Brits is quoted as saying that the painting of flowers had been more or less dismissed by the moderns, as having come to a dead end in Victorian tweeness and sentimentality. Until Vincent’s flower paintings were exhibited in the 1920s.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh (1888) © The National Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s flower works showed that flowers could be painted in an entirely new way, blazing with colour and passion, wildly undermining traditional canons of beauty, revealing the passionate secrets implicit in the shapes and patterns of nature.

In a work like this you see a pure example of his exploration of colour for its own sake, a post-Impressionists’ post-Impressionist, the sunflowers not only being a blistering depiction of the flower motif, but a highly sophisticated and daring experiment with all the different tones of yellow available to the artist in 1888. So much to do, so much to paint, so much experience implicit in every fragment of God’s beautiful world!

Van Gogh’s reputation between the wars

By the 1920s van Gogh’s works were being exhibited regularly in Britain and snapped up by private collectors. He became famous. The process was helped hugely by the publication in English translation of his vivid, passionate and tormented letters. The life and the works became inextricably intertwined in the myth of the tortured genius. The curators quote various writers and experts between the wars referring to Vincent’s ‘brilliant and unhappy genius’.

However, this room of his last works makes a simple point. For a long time it was thought that the painting he was working on when he shot himself on 27 July 1890 was ‘Wheatfield With Crows‘. Forests have been destroyed to provide the paper for oceans of black ink to be spilt publishing countless interpretations which read into this fierce and restless image the troubled thoughts which must have been going through the tormented genius’s mind on his last days.

Except that the display in this room says that the most recent research by Vincent scholars have conclusively proven that it was not Van Gogh’s last painting! The painting he was working on when he shot himself was a relatively bland and peaceful landscape painting of some old farm buildings.

Farms near Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh (1890) © Tate

The point is – there’s nothing remotely tormented about this image. And so the aim of the display is to debunk the myth of the ‘tortured’ artist and replace it with the sane and clear-eyed artist who was, however, plagued by mental illness.

Phantom of the road

This point is pushed home in the final room which examines van Gogh’s reputation in Britain after the Second World War. All his works, along with all other valuable art had been hidden during the war. Now it re-emerged into public display, including a big show at Tate in 1947.

In the post-war climate, in light of the Holocaust and the atom bomb, the legend of the tormented genius took on a new, darker intensity. The curators choose to exemplify this with a raft of blotchy, intense self-portraits by the likes of David Bomberg which, they argue, reference van Gogh’s own striking self portraits.

But this final room is dominated by a series of paintings made by the young Francis Bacon in which he deliberately copies the central motif of a self-portrait Vincent had made of himself, holding his paints and easel and walking down a road in Provence.

Bacon chose to re-interpret this image in a series of enormous and, to my mind, strikingly ugly paintings, three of which dominate one wall of this final room.

Study for portrait of Van Gogh by Francis Bacon (1957) Tate © The Estate of Francis Bacon

They are, in fact, interesting exercises in scale and colour, and also interesting for showing how Bacon hadn’t yet found his voice or brand. And interesting, along with the Bomberg et al in showing how the legend of tormented genius was interpreted in the grim grey era of Austerity Britain.

And they show what a very long journey we have come on – from the young man’s early enthusiasm for Charles Dickens and Gustave Doré right down to his reincarnation as a poster boy for the age of the H-bomb.

A bit shattered by the sheer range of historical connections and themes and ideas and visual languages on show, I strolled back through the exhibition towards its Victorian roots, stopping at interesting distractions on the way (some of Harold Gilman’s works, the big cartoon about the Post-Impressionist show, some Pissarros, the Millais and Constable at the beginning, the wall of Dorés), but in each room transfixed by the one or two blistering masterpieces by the great man.

Even if you didn’t read any of the wall labels or make the effort to understand all the connections, links and influences which the curators argue for, it is still worth paying to see the handful of staggering masterpieces which provide the spine for this wonderful, dazzling, life-enhancing exhibition.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1888) Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo © RMN-Grtand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski

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Sheer Pleasure: Frank Brangwyn and the Art of Japan @ the William Morris Gallery

Frank Brangwyn was born to English parents in Bruges in 1867 and spent his childhood there soaking up a stylish continental atmosphere and the feel of his father’s design workshop. In 1874 the Brangwyns moved back to England where young Frank used to skive off school to hang round his father’s London workshop or go sketching at the V&A. In his teens Brangwyn was ‘discovered’ by the artist Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo, who recommended him to the William Morris workshops. Here he proved an outstanding student and developed advanced skills not only in the fine arts but in practical crafts like ceramics, the design of furniture, fabrics and stained glass windows.

As his career went from strength to strength in the 1890s and 1900s, Brangwyn never forgot his debt to Morris or Morris’s basic tenet that art should be for everybody. When he heard that a William Morris Gallery was being set up in Morris’s childhood home, the grand Georgian mansion Water House in Walthamstow in the 1930s, Brangwyn enthusiastically supported the project and donated a sizeable number of works his own oeuvre and from his private collections – with the result that the WMG holds the second largest collection of Brangwyn’s work in England, after the British Museum.

Music (1895) by Frank Brangwyn

Music (1895) by Frank Brangwyn

And which is why the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Brangwyn’s birth with a small but lovely selection of his works. The curators have chosen to focus on Brangwyn’s lifelong enthusiasm for Japanese art, which comes in about five forms:

1. Brangwyn’s collection of classic Japanese woodprints Brangwyn himself made a notable collection of the Japanese woodprints which became so fashionable in western Europe from the 1850s onwards. So we have a dozen or so Victorian prints of classic Japanese woodprints, including Mount Fuji by Hokusai, one of the Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō by Hiroshige, a courtesan by Gakutei, a half dozen prints depicting the ‘floating world’ or ukyo-e by Utigara Kumisada, and a couple of ‘pillar prints’, slender portrait size subjects.

Katsushika Hokusai, Simplified View, Tago Beach, [near] Ejiri on the Tokaido Highway (c. 1830–1834)

Simplified View, Tago Beach, [near] Ejiri on the Tokaido Highway by Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1830–1834)

These are priceless, inspiring examples of the delicacy and atmosphere of classic Japanese woodprints.

Pictures of the floating world by Utigara Kumisada

Pictures of the floating world by Utigara Kumisada

2. In 1917 Brangwyn collaborated with the Japanese artist Yoshijiro Urushibara on a series of woodblock prints. Brangwyn had already made etchings or watercolours of the subjects and the exhibition goes into some detail on the technicalities of creating one of these woodprints, with a number of preparatory studies showing how they were built up a layer at a time. The results are wonderfully atmospheric, combining Brangwyn’s own strengths as a terrific draughtsman with the spooky delicacy of the Japanese sensibility.

Bruges by night: Frank Brangwyn & Yoshijiro Urushibara

Bruges by night by Frank Brangwyn & Yoshijiro Urushibara

3. Ceramics There are several display cases showing a number of ceramics, pots, ashtrays, cups and saucers. I don’t feel qualified to evaluate these, as I have little or no feeling for this kind of thing.

4. Exhibitions There is a poster for the 1910 Anglo-Japanese Exhibition which ran for 6 months in London and influenced wider taste for all things Japanese. Through his extensive collecting Brangwyn became friends with the Japanese shipping magnate Kojiro Matsukata. Brangwyn was commissioned by Matsukata to design a massive art gallery to be built in Tokyo, to be called The Sheer Pleasure Art Pavilion (hence the title of this exhibition). On display are some of Brangwyn’s detailed architect drawings which make it look vast and sleek in a very Art Deco style. Sadly, Tokyo was hit by an earthquake, followed by an economic crash. Matsukata’s business ran into trouble, the gallery was never built, and his enormous collection was dismantled and sold off.

Courtesan by Yashima Gakutei

Courtesan by Yashima Gakutei

5. His own works There are three massive oil colours on display, two by Brangwyn – Music (the first image in this blog post, above) was commissioned in 1895 by the Parisian art dealer Siegfried Bing to decorate the exterior of his Galerie L’Art Nouveau in Paris; and The Swans, his 1921 masterpiece. I love the firmness of line and design, as well as the wonderful depiction of spots of daylight through foliage and the brilliantly colourful orange nasturtiums. Strong outlines and bright gaudy dappled colouring.

There’s also a big portrait of Brangwyn himself, painted by his friend James Kerr-Lawson. Note the big Japanese screen behind him. This is also included in the exhibition and is a beautiful work in its own right.

Conclusion

So it’s a smallish show but full of beautiful things, wonderful prints and paintings you would just love to own and hang on your own walls. And after all this mental globetrotting to Tokyo and Paris and so on, it is quite ironic that arguably the most haunting and effective piece in the show is titled Bournemouth by moonlight.

Bournemouth by moonlight (1928) by Yoshijiro Urushibara

Bournemouth, moonlight (1928) by Yoshijiro Urushibara


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Frank Brangwyn and the First World War @ William Morris Gallery

Frank Brangwyn

Frank Brangwyn was born of English parents in 1867 in Bruges, where he grew up and acquired a strong feel for the local people and culture, before his parents moved back to England in 1874.

Brangwyn had no formal training as an artist, though his father, an architect, encouraged his artistic leanings. When he was still in his teens he was ‘discovered’ by the artist Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo, who recommended him to the William Morris workshops. Here he proved a keen student and absorbed Morris’s gospel that an artist should seek to beautify all aspects of life.

Brangwyn was a prodigiously talented jack-of-all-trades and began winning competitions and exhibiting as young as 17, going on to build a reputation as not only a painter but the creator and decorator of stained glass, furniture, ceramics, table glassware, buildings and interiors, as a lithographer and book illustrator.

The Great War

At the start of the First World War, more than a million Belgian refugees fled the advancing German armies and some 250,000 came to England – one of the largest groups of refugees this country has ever received. Local relief committees formed all over the country, raising funds for the exiles.

‘Britain’s Call to Arms’ by Frank Branwyn

War posters

Brangwyn almost immediately joined in this relief effort by designing posters aimed at publicising the plight of the refugees and raising money for them. This small exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, north London, takes its title from a poster he made for the Belgian & Allies Aid League titled, ‘Will you help these sufferers from the war to start a new home: Help is better than sympathy’.

'The Retreat from Antwerp' poster by Frank Brangwyn, lithograph 1915-1916: copyright David Brangwyn

‘The Retreat from Antwerp’ poster by Frank Brangwyn, lithograph 1915-1916: copyright David Brangwyn

Civilian suffering

Brangwyn was so prolific that the style and design of his posters became virtually synonymous with First World War propaganda. Though patriotic in tone they aren’t as sanitised or simplistic as many other WWI posters. The figures aren’t heroic, if anything they are often rather grotesque and gargoyle-like.

As with much popular art of the period the images are made of strong, thick lines, confidently sketched in a bold extrovert style but with an unusual intensity of light and shade, of chiaroscuro, which gives them a tremendous dramatic immediacy.

Brangwyn didn’t become an official War Artist when that scheme was set up, and so never actually visited the Front; his subject was the destruction war wreaked on Belgium’s historic buildings and the suffering of innocent civilians.

The zeppelin raids: the vow of vengeance’, drawn for The Daily Chronicle by Frank Brangwyn

The final blow

Wars tend to get more violent and more pitiless the longer they go on and the longer your enemy stubbornly refuses to give in and surrender. Who, at the start of World War II, would have believed the virtuous Allies capable of firebombing Hamburg or dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima? The Great War is one of the horrible proofs of this rule – by the fourth and final year the mood on both sides was bitter and unforgiving.

This is the background to the most notorious poster, Put strength into the final blow, which depicts an Allied soldier bayoneting a German in the neck. Legend has it that the image was so incendiary that the German Kaiser put a price on Brangwyn’s head – but it was also criticised here in Blighty for its bloodthirstiness.

‘Put strength in the final blow’ by Frank Brangwyn (1918)

Frank Brangwyn at the William Morris Gallery

The exhibition is being held here at the William Morris Gallery because Brangwyn never forgot his debt to the Morris workshop for starting his career. He sympathised with Morris’s visionary aims, that the artist should be a craftsman capable in multiple mediums and should make art to beautify all aspects of life. Thus, when Brangwyn heard that the museum was being set up to promote Morris’s life and work, he donated a number of works to help it get started. As a result the WMG holds the second largest collection of Brangwyn’s work in England, after the British Museum. This explains why numerous other, non-war-related works of his, are hung in other rooms and corridors around the museum, including the wonderful Swans (1921).

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