One hundred and twenty five years ago, in a cornfield of raucous crows, Vincent van Gogh shot himself. On 15 October I am exploring the Van Gogh phenomenon in a public lecture, ‘Starry, starry night: looking at Vincent van Gogh’, Soundings Theatre, 6 pm. This is being presented on behalf of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands as part of the anniversary commemmorations. I won’t spoil what I say for anyone who plans to be there, but here are seven points to help us understand the Van Gogh phenomenon:
- Van Gogh was an artist’s artist, a hero figure to early 20th century modernists. Picasso said: ‘The individual adventure always goes back to the one which is the archetype of our times: that is Van Gogh – a solitary and tragic adventure’. He even impressed older artists who outlived him. Camille Pissarro recalled predicting ‘this man will either go mad or outpace us all. That he would do both, I did not foresee’. Expressionism and Fauvism wouldn’t have happened when they did and how they did without Van Gogh.
- Van Gogh was (and is) the people’s painter. We don’t call him ‘Van Gogh’ but ‘Vincent’. Do we call Bacon ‘Francis’ or Picasso ‘Pablo’? No way. Vincent changed minds, hearts and lives. Over 80 years after his death, he provided the inspiration for folk-rock singer Don McLean’s million-selling record ‘Vincent’, whose unforgettable opening line is ‘Starry, starry night…’
- Art historical pedants, take note. It shouldn’t be ‘Starry, Starry Night’ but ‘The Starry Night’; no, he didn’t cut his ear off; no, he wasn’t poverty-stricken (think of all that paint and canvas he devoured!); no, he wasn’t critically ignored and derided (especially not in his final years); and no, he wasn’t shot by naughty boys who later confessed all.
- In his time, he was a complete embarrassment. You’d cross the road to avoid him. He boozed, shouted, smoked and smelled. He was a freeloader. And he had little or no sex appeal. To call him ‘beautiful’, as Don McLean does, is soppy hippie sentimentality. What emerges from any life of Van Gogh is the kindness of those who had to put up with him, especially his brother Theo, Dr Paul Gachet, Emile Bernard, Camille and Lucien Pissarro (Paul Gauguin considerably less so but that’s another story).
- He was a late developer. His early efforts at conventional art aren’t that great. But then, out of seemingly nowhere – whaam! (to quote Roy Lichtenstein). No great academic art historian can satisfactorily explain what happened even if they try.
- His art says ‘Look at me!’ You don’t forget it in a hurry. It isn’t particularly intellectual, deep or theoretical: it doesn’t need to be. Every brushstroke and every colour counts. Van Gogh ‘discovered’ sunflowers and the starry sky, like no-one else before him. And just look at that Self-portrait with bandaged ear and pipe (above). That’s just got to be a mid-20th century Mark Rothko painting immediately behind him, and yet the painting pre-dates the transcendent American’s birth by fourteen years! Is there nothing Vincent can’t do?
- His art shows how exciting art really was in the late 19th century, more so than 100 years later (but as Curator Historical International Art, I would say that!) We can relate Van Gogh to French and Dutch Social Realists including our own Van der Velden, to Seurat’s and Gauguin’s Post-Impressionism, to Japanese woodblock prints, and to Art Nouveau. Van Gogh used and shaped all of these ingredients to create something uniquely his own. To quote the late Robert Hughes, ‘In the four years from 1886 to 1890 he had changed the history of art’.