As regular readers may recall, a couple of blogs ago I took a journey away from the capital to go to investigate the strangely strange yet oddly normal, youngish-oldish new town that is Milton Keynes and, more specifically, to check out the freshly revamped spaces of its recently revivified MK Gallery. And here, amongst all the various prints, paintings, sculptures and a lot of other less obviously arty flotsam and jetsam that had been gathered together to form the peculiarly eclectic contents of the new gallery’s inaugural show, I made passing reference to the inclusion of a pair of tatty old working boots. The inclusion of these curious utilitarian relics was presumably part of a deliberate attempt to try to imbue the exhibition with a kind of additional ambience of background contextuality. Which is fair enough, although I’m not sure that the balance between trying to achieve this not entirely unreasonable aim and the danger of slipping into a sort of archly tongue-in-cheek gimmicky form of curatorial practice was altogether avoided.
As for the actual boots, well, these were not just any old pair of daisy roots but the well-worn and ruggedly distressed gardening kickers owned by the grand dame of horticultural endeavours, Gertrude Jekyll, though whether they or she had any great connection with Milton Keynes seems unlikely and, anyway, went unremarked on any of the accompanying explicatory labels. Then again, since the exhibition was more widely concerned with a vague kind of Post-Modernistic exploration of the punningly titular theme of The Lie of the Land, I suppose their inclusion as some sort of totemic representation of how the natural landscape might be altered by dint of human intervention, carried with it just about enough plausible relevance to make it generally acceptable.
Anyway, today I am now far from the crystal clear bucolic air of the Miltonian Keynsian countryside and back inhaling the more familiar nitrous fumes and particulated percolations of our own dear capital city, making a return visit to Tate Britain which is currently hosting its summer blockbuster exhibition entitled Van Gogh and Britain. So why, you might reasonably ask, have I spent a couple of opening paragraphs wittering on about the decrepit footwear of Monty Don’s granny? Well, imagine my happy surprise when, turning a corner around the halfway mark of the Van Gogh show, I come across a perfectly rendered still life picture of the exact same pair of boots that were on display in the MK Gallery! Not that said painting was created by the famously neurotic Netherlander but rather was the work of William Nicholson who, as the accompanying text informs, had been commissioned to paint a portrait of Jekyll but, being unable to persuade the old dear to put down her bucket and spade, exit the shrubbery and sit for him, eventually decided to produce his slightly comical symbolical study instead.
So, quite an amusing anecdote and actually not a bad piece of painting but, again, it rather begs the question as to what is the picture doing in the middle of the Van Gogh show? At which point the curatorial response is to point to the nearby painting which is indeed the work of the one-eared wonder and is a rough sketch of…a pair of old boots. Now, I dare say that those with a particular specialist knowledge and interest in artistic cobblers will be enthralled at the opportunity to compare and contrast the soles, lacings and other stylistic features of the two pairs of footwear on display. Some of us with a slightly more cynical frame of mind, however, might well suspect that the inclusion of the Nicholson picture was unprompted by any art theoretical, art historical or other art aesthetical judgement but was merely a bit of a desperate wheeze by the curators to find a way of filling up a bit of space on the gallery walls and generally helping out with the pictorial padding of the show as a whole.
And, indeed, the overall concept behind the exhibition seems to me to be subject to the accusation that, once again, the battle between the gallery’s academics and its marketing departments for control over the construction of the artistic programme has been won by the latter. Next to Picasso and Monet, I think that Van Gogh must probably be the artist with the highest ranking when it comes to name-recognition and any show with his illustrious appellation in the title can be absolutely assured of bringing the crowds cramming into the gallery. But then the practical problem arises as to what kind of a Van Gogh show can Tate Britain realistically be expected to manage to stage. Of course, everyone would love to be able to put on a full retrospective with a chronological display showing the artist’s evolution from early amateurish daubings through his dark depressing period – his introduction to Impressionism, and then the development of a brighter palette and more confident brushwork that was the precursor to the final manic explosive bursts of creativity that led to him producing all his most impressive and iconic artworks. Such a show could easily include a couple of hundred paintings, fill a dozen rooms at Tate Britain, and be wildly popular with both public and critical opinion alike (assuming the curators weren’t completely cack-handed in their presentation). The problem with that scenario, however, is that it would mean having to try to borrow dozens of major artworks from galleries and private collections around the globe and, more importantly, emptying out most of the contents of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and so, for rather obvious reasons, this curatorial pipe dream is unlikely to be happening any time soon.
I suppose that other academically acceptable alternatives might be to make a very specific selection of maybe a dozen or so paintings, either to illustrate key turning points in the artistic autobiography or else as a way to highlight certain specific recurrent themes or characteristic stylistic idiosyncracies within the artistic oeuvre. But then these kinds of show might only need to take up a single gallery space and how could then one justify the price of an extravagant admission ticket?
Sadly, inevitably an uncomfortable compromise must be made and behold, the result is Van Gogh in Britain. And it’s not an utterly disreputable failure of a show but will, I think, be just a little bit disappointing for anyone expecting to be presented with either a sensible in-depth intellectually stimulating entertainment or just a good comprehensive eyeful of their unhappy hero’s favourite works. I didn’t take the trouble to do an actual headcount but I think that there are probably about twenty or thirty paintings dispersed through the nine rooms of Tate Britain and, of these, Starry Night is perhaps the only one real stunner. Frankly, there’s quite a lot of duff early works, from the time when Van Gogh was still desperately trying to learn his craft, and only a handful of the much better later paintings when the artist finally began to find and exploit his looser personal signature style and then went on to start expressing his inner feelings of trial and torment and…well, I’m sure you know most of the story already without me needing to rehearse all the tragic details.
So, how does the Tate manage to fill up all the other empty wall space that appears in the many large gaps between the actual presentations of Van Gogh’s own pictures? Well, it’s an awkward story of two halves. First off, the idea seems to be to try to illustrate what the artist may have seen during the two or three short years that he actually spent living in London – not that he was ever an artist during any of this period of time but rather worked as a junior assistant in Goupil’s commercial art gallery before being sacked and ending up as some sort of a not very successful lay preacher. So, there are scenes by contemporaries, most specifically the prints of Gustave Dore, that illustrate the poverty, desperation, daily grind and occasional blessed light relief of living in a heaving metropolis as it crashes through the consequences of its industrial revolution boomtime. And then there are the prints and paintings that he would have seen at work and at other commercial and public galleries, including examples by Constable and Millais which are also on show at the Tate. Doubtless Van Gogh was affected during his brief London years by what he saw – both in reality and on canvas – but just how much impact this imagery had on him during his later career as an artist is not at all obvious. And, perhaps unfortunately, when some of his landscapes are actually shown up against similar versions by other artists, it’s usually the Van Gogh ones that look the weaker of the two.
As for the second half of the show, this then reverses the initial conceit and instead of trying to show the impact that London and its art had on Van Gogh, the idea is to try to show the impact that Van Gogh had on the art and artists of London. The starting point for all this is the famous show of 1912 (a couple of decades after Van Gogh’s sad demise) which not only introduced the term Post-Impressionism to the artworld vocabulary but also provided the first opportunity for most British artists and critics to see the developments that had occurred since Impressionism had first crashed through Europe (and while this country was, for the most part, still stuck wandering around its own Pre-Raphaelitic cul-de-sac). It’s an excuse to drag out a whole mixed bunch of artworks from the dainty flower pictures of Winifred Nicholson and a winsome portrait by Duncan Grant through to the fearsome flurries of Matthew Smith, the rugged landscapes of David Bomberg and the existential cris des coeurs de Francis Bacon. I’m sure all would have been very familiar with the work of Van Gogh and some even influenced by his Expressionistic vigour but I’m not convinced that any of them would ever really have considered themselves to be in any way his particular followers, let alone wished to be seen as the torch bearers of his artistic legacy. And while these displays are not uninteresting, they’re not Van Gogh.
On both the occasions that I visited the show all the rooms were, unsurprisingly, full of visitors so neither time was a great viewing experience. But at least being a Tate member means getting in for free (well, sort of…one does, after all, have to pay out the initial annual fee of £76) so a few return visits are probably worthwhile. But any non-members thinking of visiting might be better off saving the £22 entry charge and buying a Van Gogh picture book instead.
Finally, having just checked the Tate’s website, I discover that there are, in fact, apparently over 50 works by Van Gogh in the exhibition – to which I can only add that it definitely doesn’t feel that way.