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'Van Gogh and Britain' Review - Tate Britain

27th March – 11th August 2019

Standard Ticket - £22

Concession - £20

Tate Collective - £5


Van Gogh’s name has deeply permeated the contemporary art consciousness, and rightly so: his paintings are bold, expressive and occasionally gut-wrenchingly beautiful. However, he has so deeply permeated our consciousness that it feels as if any exhibition focused on him and his art would be celebrated. Consequently, it is necessary that this one is interrogated.

The exhibition has two major flaws: it completely over-exaggerates the influence of London on Van Gogh and it is packed with work that feels tiring and irrelevant. There is a redundant number of etches and painting from other artists: half the amount would have created the same impact. If you are able to look past these though, it is an accessible and delightful exhibition that is well worth going to – if only for his work alone.

Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night over the Rhone, 1888. Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France

Tate Britain has drawn tenuously strong connections between him and Britain. The artist spent time in London between 1873–1876, and while his years there may have significant, the portrayal of its influence, however, is represented to an unrealistically strong extent. One such instance of this, claiming that Starry Night over the Rhone was influenced by the Thames, is worthy of a good shake of the head in shame. The painting itself, on the other hand, is breath-taking: yellows ripple against blue; the light is almost wafting over the water.

Putting aside these shortcomings, it is an incredibly worthwhile display. It is generous with information about Van Gogh’s life and the progress of his work. Giving engaging features of his historical background, it shows older works that are unrecognisable from his distinct style and even, remarkably, displays paintings that influenced Van Gogh directly. To draw comparisons and see the forces of inspiration behind his art, as well as his responses to other work, is a marvellously insightful experience.

Vincent Van Gogh, Path in the Garden of the Asylum, 1889. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands

Critically, this exhibition gives you the chance to see some lesser-known, and equally as beautiful, paintings which one might not be able to see otherwise. One in particular that stood out, on loan from Moscow, is The Prison Courtyard. This depicts a group of downtrodden men lined up and stuck walking in a circle that feeds into itself. It is a portrayal of wretched and isolated individuals, rendered in dark tones of greys, blues, and smeared with dirty oranges. This is also, in fact, the only painting that Van Gogh made of London.

A thread that runs throughout this exhibit is the clear development of his work. It is remarkable to see how Van Gogh's style shifts over time and with differing influences. The cracks of his earlier, more overtly dark and tense, work appears in paintings such as Path in the Garden of the Asylum, with the recognisable looser style and use of colour. Another painting that felt noteworthy within this transition was Sorrowing Old Man (or At Eternity’s Gate), which shows an individual hunched over, head in hands. The soft blues of the man’s garments sit sharply against their navy lining, the clarity of brush strokes creating an abstract sense of motion in his clothing. Van Gogh’s later paintings show him as an artist with astonishing command of colour, where only up close do individual brush stroke expose themselves as explosions. The weaving and curling of thick, loaded paint brushes is mesmerising.

Vincent Van Gogh, At Eternity's Gate, 1890. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands

The true magic of Van Gogh is in the quiet moments alone with his paintings, in the time to put your eye up to the glass and scour every brush stroke. It can be truly revelatory. This, however, will be nearly impossible with the foot traffic that this exhibition will inevitably get. So, if you are going (which I recommend you do) book and get up early: be at the door of the Tate Britain for 10am!

Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor

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