The hero's journey

The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain, Tate Britain. Reviewed by Nikki Hall.

When I am feeling melancholy, I sometimes journey to the National Gallery in London to see Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers and The Chair. Why? There is a disturbing, voyeuristic comfort seeing masses of people congregating around the artworks of an impoverished, prolific artist. Maybe that is a reason Vincent van Gogh is a ubiquitous artist; we can use him as a mirror for our greatest fears and desires. 

Thankfully, the Tate Britain exhibition, Van Gogh and Britain, complements this spectatorial narcissism. The exhibition’s labyrinthine combination of artefacts, documentation and possessions from Van Gogh’s English life, to the new artist genealogy that he started, places us in a precarious position. Should we continue to indulge in his tortured artist mythology, or joyfully embark on his hero journey from answering the ‘call’ to a foreign country in May 1873? The choice depends on our mood and disposition. 

Although Van Gogh loved London, his letter to his brother Theo in 1873 suggested otherwise. He found London life ‘very expensive’, and complained about the cost of rent, and having to have dinner in the city. The malaise (of which he was aware and called the ‘blues’) underneath his initial contentment is one of life’s universal struggles to maintain our basic needs of food and shelter, while trying to find meaning. 

The exhibition, itself, quietly wrestles between meaning and sustenance, by (unsuccessfully) resisting the urge to portray the artist as the ‘lost ideal version of ourselves’. In its first half, Carol Jacobi’s curation exalts Van Gogh as a discerning reader of Victorian literature, a collector of over 2,000 British graphic prints, a self-taught artist, and an empathic observer of human and botanic nature. And of course, not an obsessive compulsive hoarder with a propensity to self destruction, loneliness, and idealism.

Quite absurdly, although the second half from Room Five focuses on Van Gogh’s influence, it repeatedly exploits Van Gogh’s ‘madness’ – undoing the enobling curation of the previous rooms. Why? It is here the sadness endures. Beneath the inspired works of others such as Vanessa Bell and Francis Bacon, the championing of his mad genius, outsider status at the 1910 Manet and the Post-Impressionist exhibition, the vast literary and culture output about his life, and the 1947 Tate Exhibition that left the gallery floors worn, we are reminded of Van Gogh’s unprosperous obscurity despite his intelligence, and supreme dedication to his craft and peers. 

The exhibition’s highlights are Van Gogh’s self portraits from 1886-1889. They are a documentation of an evolving identity, and a mirror of his own suffering. With his abundance of symbolic blues, animated brushwork, and stark gazes, these works almost come alive with anxiety and torture.

With this aura of tragedy clinging like a limpet to the show it fails to try and dismantle the creativity-mental illness paradox. Instead, it complicates it. Does constantly bringing something new to existence cause distress? Or does one create to relieve suffering? Visitors cannot expect Van Gogh and Britain to provide answers. 

The exhibition is at Tate Britain, London until 11 August 2019. 

Reviewed by Nikki Hall, a Masters graduate of Goldsmiths, University of London, in Comparative Literature.

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