The Real Van Gogh, Royal Academy of Arts

Nahla Ink Stars - 5 out of 5!


The letters of Van Gogh have always provided an amazing insight and mirror reflection of the man behind the incredible Art that the world has admired for over a century and are now almost an institution in themselves. He left as legacy almost a thousand letters written mostly as correspondence to his younger brother Theo but also including many others addressed to his sister Wil and artist friends.

In fact, it was as early as 1914, that Van Gogh’s widowed sister-in-law Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger published the first edition of the letters almost in full that Theo had kept; and, accordingly, they always played a large part in shaping Van Gogh’s posthumous reputation as they deliver a phenomenal explanation of what the artist went through personally and what major themes influenced his work.

Truly, to understand Van Gogh, one must look at the way he expressed himself not just through his sketches, drawings and vivid use of oil colour on canvas; but, also, through the word medium that he used mainly in Dutch and French. For he took this quite as seriously: “There is the art of lines and colours, but the art of words that will last just the same.”

What this exhibition at the Royal Academy does so well and almost in poetic fashion is how it relates some of Van Gogh’s letters to the key developments in his art – as he included a lot of information in the correspondence about his various paintings and added many sketches or “scratches” of them to indicate progress on a subject or a finished product. So you will be able to see this internal and external thought process of the artist throughout the show.

In total and on display, you will be able to peruse over 65 paintings and 30 drawings that are spread (with the 35 original letters) over the seven galleries. These are further grouped according to the underlying passions which drove Van Gogh. From his great love of depicting landscape and peasant life, to his penchant for collecting Japanese prints, to portraiture and to his avid reading of Literature, you really begin to understand what affected this truly extraordinary character and you will leave with a sense of awe.

Among the greatest highlights (though I hate spoiling a surprise), you will find in perfect preserved condition: “Self-Portrait As An Artist,” “The Yellow House,” “Van Gogh’s Chair,” “Still Life – With a Plate of Onions” and “Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles.” For these alone, I would say it is worth the one and a half hour queue up at the door - for you will not be disappointed.

Note – None of this of course would have been possible without the generous sponsorship of BNY Mellon and the incredible work behind the scenes. To bring this exhibition together, the curator of the Royal Academy Ann Dumas worked in collaboration mainly with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to bring to London the first major Van Gogh exhibition in over forty years. There is also the parallel achievement of the latest publication of “Vincent Van Gogh – The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition” (By Thames&Hudson October 2009) that you will be able to purchase from the RA store. At the Royal Academy of Arts, London – Until 18 April 2010