Van Gogh and Britain: Pioneer Collectors
it is the unfamiliarity of these images, untainted by the aesthetic cudgel of mass reproduction, that allows us the privilege of feeling as though we are engaging with this behemoth of art history for the very first time
We're all familiar with the tabloid version of Vincent Van Gogh's life and times. Birth, poverty, absinthe, madness, more absinthe, sunflowers, ear, death is probably the aggregate of most people's knowledge of the man. But thankfully the major new exhibition at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh offers us the chance to see past the shibboleths and half-truths and engage with the only legacy that is really worth a damn – the pictures themselves.
On first inspection one may feel that that this exhibition seems a little incomplete – no Sunflowers, no self portraits, no Chair, no Starry Night are to be found here – and yes, their absence is strongly felt. And yet it is precisely the unfamiliarity of these images, untainted by the aesthetic cudgel of mass reproduction, that allows us the privilege of feeling as though we are engaging with this behemoth of art history for the very first time. The exhibition guide sagely suggests that you 'put yourself in the position of a visitor from 1910' - and a temporary suspension of our modern sensibilities is indeed the most profitable way to engage with this show.
Of course, all this is perhaps being a little too kind to the curators. You can't really go very far wrong with 32 Van Goghs at your disposal, but the heavy focus and exposition on the identity and background of these exclusively British collectors is at best extraneous and at worst positively distracting. The details and chronology of these acquisitions serve to illuminate nothing of the artist himself – only the relationship with his almost-doppelganger Alexander Reid providing a brief insight into the painter's personal affinities. Some will inevitably leave the gallery longing to have been told more about the discord of his personal life.
Thankfully Vincent put so much of himself into his pictures that there is no chance that the viewer will go home without feeling that they have learned a great deal about this patriarch of twentieth century art. Thatched Roofs (1884), executed quickly in ink, pencil and gouache, is a beguiling wee image – showing the artist in transition between a more traditional drawing style and the gestural, expressive confidence of his mature work. It's far from laboured, but when we compare it to another drawing in the show – an image of a garden viewed from the window of his asylum in St-Remy – the contrast is extraordinary.
In this later image any naturalistic tendencies are abandoned - even the trunks of the trees bend and dance to the tune of the painter's passionate (and some would say haunted) vision. It's such a radical image that one could well argue that it was the work of a painter on the road to even more daring abstractions. In moments such as these it is easy to appreciate the force of the shockwaves felt by those artists who followed him, and the reasons that his genius was initially branded as 'the art of the insane'.
The highlight of the show is Peach Blossom in the Crau (1889), one of the last paintings that Van Gogh completed before he entered the psychiatric hospital at St-Remy. Here is a picture which vibrates with energy and feeling; the artist's hugely unorthodox brushstrokes giving character to every aspect of the landscape, bringing it to life in a manner that no artist before him had managed to achieve. This picture, like much of Van Gogh's best work, is imbued with a childlike sense of wonder towards the natural world – the penniless painter nourishing himself, and us, through the simple act of applying paint to canvas.
Dean Gallery, Edinburgh until September 24
Admission £6.00 (concessions £4.00); free to children under 12.