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Thursday, 6 June 2019

For those not born yet

Recently we went to Tate Britain to see their exhibition of Van Gogh and Britain. The first section focuses on Van Gogh’s fairly miserable life in Britain and on the writers and painters that influenced him. The second section focuses, in turn, on the British artists who were  later influenced by him, their paintings hung in close proximity to his.  One critic was fairly sniffy about it, but I loved the fact that it was relatively uncrowded and you could get to within nose touching distance of each painting. I also loved the fact that it introduced you to paintings I had never seen before, even if their influence on Van Gogh is open to debate.

I had never seen Constable’s Valley Farm before.

 For Van Gogh, it is one  of the very few ‘autumnal’ paintings to be found amongst the ‘old masters’. But the one that really caught his eye, and mine, was Millais’ Chill October. I read afterwards that resonated with the then melancholic Van Gogh suffering from the solitude of his London boarding house, his unrequited love for his landlady’s daughter, and alienation from his employer and family.

But, standing in front of it, the scene seemed more than alive, as though you could step into it. A reviewer for the Illustrated News explained why when he wrote about it being ‘deeply saturated . . . with the sad and cold, lonely foreboding sentiment of Autumn.’ He pointed out the ‘tactile rendering of swaying grasses’ that sweep the eye into the depth, the diminishing layers water, trees and distant birds to a far horizon. He pointed out the ‘dull earthy palette’ adding to the sombre tone and how the water illuminated the dying day. I wished, I’d read that at the time, as I said, I just felt I could step into it.  

A week or so after our visit to the Tate, we saw the magnificent ‘At Eternity's Gate’ starring the equally wonderful Willem Dafoe, an actor I first came across in Mississippi Burning in 1988 playing an earnest FBI agent.  In At Eternity's Gate’   Dafoe brings Van Gogh alive. It’s a mesmerising performance, reinforced by superb casting and intuitive camera work – though critics disagree on that last point. There is a lovely portrayal of Paul Gauguin, the perfect foil to Van Gogh, and my ears pricked up when I heard this:

“The painters I like all paint fast in one clear stroke,” Van Gogh says.

Gauguin responds. “You paint fast and then you over paint – the surface looks like its made out of clay. It’s more like sculpture than painting.”

Two great talents with diverging views, and it struck home after seeing Van Gogh and Britain.  

We were able to get so close to the pictures and understand Gauguin’s observation, and the truth that no one is wholly right in art.
And no one has emerald streaks on their faces, but it works for Van Gogh

In a later, poignant remark to Mads Mikkelson playing a well meaning but stupid priest, Van Gogh sums it up. When the priest holds up one of his paintings in puzzled disgust, Van Gogh considers and then responds: ‘Maybe I’m a painter for those not born yet.’


Maria Zannini said...

re: ‘Maybe I’m a painter for those not born yet.’

I'd not heard that quote before, but it was absolutely prophetic.

In my youth (and ignorance) I didn't appreciate Van Gogh. I felt as though he tried too hard.

Later, with a little more wisdom behind me I realized he was actually pulling his paintings from the womb of canvas. That's why they look so sculptural.

Mike Keyton said...

Sorry for the delay, Maria. Life is sometimes faster than I'd like. I take your point about chaniging
in time. I used to hate Thelonious Monk. Now I love him :)