(The) Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968) was one of the most influential albums of the 1960s. Released by the Scottish psychedelic folk rock band, The Incredible String Band, it’s title suggests the beauty of the afterlife. This concept may go somewhere to explaining the love affair the British have with Van Gogh.
Van Gogh in Britain at the Tate seems to epitomise this feeling ‘after the pain’. Yes, Vincent Van Gogh came to Britain for three years from 1873, yet he was not painting in those years, and, yes he influenced much art of the twentieth century. But, it is as a stretch that this period influenced the artist to the extent that the Tate curators believe and, by 1910 Britain was so immersed in the colour of Impressionism and its subsequent post impressionist ideas that influence by Van Gogh alone is probably an illusion.
However this is a thinkers exhibition and in his guide, Ben Okri, The Nigerian novelist, posits that our love affair with Van Gogh tells us more about ourselves than it does about the artist. Van Gogh came to London with employment at the art dealers, Goupil & Son, and love, with a Lambeth girl. London was the leading industrial and capitalist powerhouse of the day, and in his letters to his brother, Theodore, the young Vincent anticipated the stay with much excitement. He left three years later with no employment, no amour, and a failed attempt in the priesthood; it could be said that London beat him. But he was absorbed by the images he saw of ‘ordinary’ things and the literature of the likes of Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stow (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), editions of which he has included in his portrait, The Arlésienne.
The journey to the Madhouse in Provence, the frantic paintings, the reverence of the ordinary and his remote death may well have had their roots in the darkness of the Britain he found.
But to the exhibition.
The Tate has provided the relationship with Britain (London) in two halves with very expert curation. Firstly Van Gogh’s time here leaning heavily on the influence of the illustrator, Gustave Doré, and the literature of the likes of Dickens. Star of this section is The Arlésienne, the 1890 portrait of the Station Cafe owner in Arles, above. While in London he bought several contemporary prints and his The Prison Courtyard (1890) is a virtual copy of Doré’s Exercise Yard at Newgate Prison (1872).
The second half of the exhibition relates to Van Gogh’s influence on twentieth Century British artists. This is where the exhibition is a little weaker but does show some very fine examples of post Impressionism in Britain such as Roderic O’Conner, and the Bloomsbury Set.
Sunflowers, of course, are the great representation of the ordinary and a homage to Van Gogh’s great painting in the National Gallery comprises one room with various twentieth century versions. One in particular I liked is by the sculptor Jacob Epstein. You will either love or loathe this room! The Guardian called it a a mausoleum!
All in all, though, a very enjoyable day out. Van Gogh exhibitions now look much deeper into the artist’s life than previously. This interesting idea, that he was greatly influenced by his time in Britain, if a stretch of imagination, has been well presented. It does make you think about yourself, though.
If you can stand in front of Vincent’s Chair (1988) or his (peasant’s) Shoes (1886) without feeling emotion you have no soul! The hangman’s daughter is indeed beautiful.
“Van Gogh in Britain” is at the Tate Modern in London until 11th August.
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