A brush load of life – Van Gogh review

The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain Tate Britain, 27 March – 11 August 2019

Stuart Bush Studio Blog Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) L’Arlésienne, 1890, Oil paint on canvas
650 x 540 mm, Collection MASP (São Paulo Museum of Art) Photo credit: João Musa

Van Gogh arrived in London in 1873 at 20 years old and spent just under three years as an art dealer’s assistant. Although he didn’t start painting until four years after he left, this exhibition proposes that London had a significant impact on his art and influenced many of his works. I went along to take a closer look at Van Gogh’s paintings and to see what I thought of the exhibition claims.
London in the 1870s was an exciting place to obverse people and places. It was overtly brimming with life.  Van Gogh regularly made drawings of London on his way home from work from Covent Garden to Brixton.  Seeing the sooty scenes across the Thames, rowdy drunken men laughing in the pubs and women having bitter quarrels in the streets was a valuable experience. It created a stark contrast to the rich and opulence life he also saw.  Charles Dickens, who was one of Van Gogh’s favourite writers, wrote about London, “[the] streets and courts dart in all directions until they are lost in the wholesome vapour which hangs over the house-top and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined.”

A brush load of life – Van Gogh review

Picasso paints what see rather than what he knows
When Van Gogh started painting, he knew what he wanted to portray; an equivalent of the way that Dickens wrote.   Along with building a personal collection of black and white prints that he also sold as an art dealers assistant, like Gustave Doré’s drawings, From London: A Pilgrimage, (1872).  Van Gogh knew he wanted to be a social documenter; a painter of working people’s lives.
It is interesting that Van Gogh’s earlier work shows the usual traditional approach to drawing and painting that I would expect from that period.  I wonder what his teacher from that time thought of his art when Van Gogh felt the need to move past the traditional habits that he had learnt.   I think it is highly likely that traditional tuition would have been suffocating for Van Gogh’s expressive style as there would have been an encouragement to stay within in the confines of established conventions, instead of exploring expressionism.
Stuart Bush Studio Blog Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) Path in the Garden of the Asylum, 1889 Oil paint on canvas 614 x 504 mm Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

A brush load of life – Van Gogh review

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This exhibition clearly shows he was a natural genius at by the end of the 1880s with many paintings dated 1888-9 like, ‘Path in the garden if the asylum Saint Remy,’ (1889) and ‘The Prison Courtyard Saint-Remy’ (1890) to his credit.
It is perhaps not surprising that Van Gogh is mainly a self-taught artist.  I’m sure he would have found it difficult to listen to advice that was stifling his approach. He even ignored his brother Theo’s advice.  After a short term of concise art training, nothing stopped him from painting in rippling flows of paint on a springy canvas. Van Gogh was able to be at one with what he felt was important. He moved artistically to where he was entirely at one with his inspirations and to be able to create a strong presence in his paintings.

A brush load of life – Van Gogh review

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As he broke new ground in his work Van Gogh must have realised he needed to be aware of how he stood and the way his arm was angled to give him the flexibility to create movement on the canvas.  He didn’t know what was right or wrong; he didn’t have any judgemental glasses to take off.  While in the flow of painting, his actions in front of the canvas unlocked a process of natural development without self-criticism. Van Gogh’s paintings are like a controlled explosion; an exhilarating performance where he was intensely aware of every stroke.
I’m not saying Van Gogh didn’t have self-doubt, after-all it is believed that he cut his ear off and later committed suicide due to his mental illness at aged 37.  The point I am trying to make is that to achieve what he did on a canvas I suspect that when Van Gogh was in front of the fabric with a brush in his hand, he only focused on the present moment. In the moment of conception, Van Gogh had a strong and deep urge to communicate his emotional feelings.

A brush load of life – Van Gogh review

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Stuart Bush Studio Blog

Van Gogh In Britain, Tate Britain, March 2019

Van Gogh used a carefully chosen palette of colour which was intentionally contrasting. He used a clean brush with the fresh pigment to prevent muddy colours.  Van Gogh was without the usual self-doubt of an artist developing a new style. He put his full attention and observation into what he was doing; nothing more, nothing less.
If ten people saw an identical view and were asked to paint that view, every painting would be different. We each bring our own unique mix of life, history, judgement and experiences forward when we do anything. Everyone has their baggage and subjective view of the world. We all notice that what we feel is essential.  Van Gogh didn’t look at things as they were. He looked deeper, not to what they looked like, but to what only he could see.  He went to great lengths to use a thick impasto style that captured emotions more than any painting had achieved before.  Feelings and emotions were directed into the process of applying paint.  The paintings could not have been made without extreme self-control and concentration in every moment in front of the canvas. For me, Van Gogh prized the importance of his relaxed focus above all else.

A brush load of life – Van Gogh review link

Van Gogh Museum
I found that one of the highlights of the show is ‘Hospital at Saint-Remy‘ (1889). Who would have thought that marks on a canvas could make such an impression!  Van Gogh made the painting while admitted to the hospital. He had a natural ability to be able to record what he felt.  His swirling impasto technique with a loaded brush of buttery paint is a delight. He is at one with every stroke.  He reminds me that it so easy to make a mistake by trying too hard.  My successful paintings have come when I haven’t been trying; when my mind is calm and relaxed.
Stuart Bush Studio Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) The Prison Courtyard, 1890 Oil paint on canvas 800 x 640 mm © The Pushkin State, Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Reproductions, photos and film, as well as words, do little to explain the shivering and whirling skies, the crackling and rippling glints of light, the gleaming stars, and the exhilarating flames of summer. Warm colours of yellow, orange and red are in the low part of the canvas.  They play against the cold shades of greens, blues and purples in the top of the painting.  Then Van Gogh uses the lower colours gradual up through the picture. It causes the expressive brush marks to come alive.

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The London experience gave Van Gogh life experience.  I’m sure Dickens had an impact as well as the black and white reproductions by giving him the inspiration he needed to bring emotions and feels to the fore.  However, at the end of the show, I was only partly convinced that London directly inspired Van Gogh expressive work.  Nevertheless, I am thrilled to have a Van Gogh exhibition in London. I have had the chance to digest and appreciate a genius at work.
Van Gogh wasn’t trying to depict what most people see while looking at the world. Van Gogh instead was feeling strong emotions. He had the ability, the skill and the genius to wrap his feelings up in paint; to record them. Van Gogh’s spirit is on his canvases.  He shows us a profound truth about the human condition, in a full and proud statement, so thick it creates a three-dimension effect.
They were more than just paintings to Van Gogh. If you want to see a picture with a brush that is load with life in every stroke, this exhibition is a must see.  Van Gogh completely puts himself in jeopardy for his art.
Stuart Bush Studio Blog, Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) Olive Trees, 1889, Oil paint on canvas, 510 x 652 mm, National Galleries of Scotland

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I wish I could paint everyday

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