I have always had a deep appreciation for art galleries, even though I don't "understand" them in the typical sense. My struggle has always been in the interpretation. I, like many others, have no idea what that painting is or why it's important; I never was able to take an art history course in university, and my MA in Museum Studies focused more on collections management than Cézanne. When I visit galleries, the plaque adjacent generally only provides the name, date, and materials, which I generally find entirely unhelpful. Yes, Manet is a master, but why? Yes, I can see how his style differs to Monet, but why should I care? But despite all that, I found an illogical and purely aesthetic connection to Van Gogh, which made me curious enough to do my own research into his life and art style. Though I am far from an art historian, I deeply enjoyed the Van Gogh and Britain exhibition at Tate Britain.
This exhibition is in two parts: the first describes Van Gogh's three years living in London and his inspiration from Britain, and British books and prints. The second is his reception in Britain after his death, and the inspiration his work provided for British artists. They had examples of his favourite English writers. Van Gogh knew four languages, including English and read works by famed authors Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot. He wrote to his closest brother Theo, "reading books is like looking at the paintings... one must find beautiful that which is beautiful." He did have a fondness for Dickens, especially in his portrayal of Britain's working class which was a frequent subject of Van Gogh through his lifetime.
The overall narrative of the exhibition was clear and structured through large introductory panels, paintings, and some relevant objects. Supported by examples of what Van Gogh would have seen, read, or experienced, each theme made a clear connection between why it mattered to Van Gogh and how it influenced his art. What really stood out for me was the labelling. Though they included the classic name, date, material and style labels, most of them were followed by a second label (no more than 250-300 words) which gave context.
Each contextual label reiterated the relationship between Britain and Van Gogh. From a woodblock print about dustman, echoing a letter Vincent wrote to Theo, to a study painting of a cast he owned, 'The Torso of Venus,' which he first saw at the British Museum. Art is about personal interpretation and appreciation, but to be presented with context that described Van Gogh's experiences made me understand and adore his interpretation of reality even more.
Van Gogh painted a Gustave Dore print of a prison scene from a book, 'London: A Pilgrimage' while he was in a mental health institution in Saint-Rémy, France. They displayed his actual copy of the print with his paining side by side- with interpretation describing why he knew and cared about his print- then why he painted it at Saint-Rémy as it echoed his life in the hospital. I found myself going between the print and the painting, analysing the details of the bricks, how he applied colour to a black and white image, and the replication of the facial expressions on the prisoners and guards. Because they were able to place inspiration directly next to creation. When looking at it, I could almost see what he was thinking, his approach and understanding; then considering he painted this in hospital, the added layer of confinement, constraint, and empathy gave me a better understanding of this piece. I saw what he saw, and I felt what he felt. Art, to me, is emotions transported through time.
The last half of the exhibition described Van Gogh's first shows in London, which galleries acquired which pieces as he started to build momentum in the 1920s as a modern master, and how he inspired others. In one label, they stated:
"The [Second World War] and it's aftermath encouraged the idea of Van Gogh as a tragic and alienated artist whose art expressed the human condition.”
After many years, Van Gogh has become the token, the stereotype of struggling for one's craft. Though sadness is a universal theme, and perhaps this view of him is what relates most to people, to society. Perhaps with a modern sympathy, we can see Van Gogh as more than his illness. Though he did have legitimate mental health problems, he, like many others in the same boat, are so much more than just our struggles.
Not only did the interpretation give me a fantastic art history lesson, but I walked away with a better understanding of a person I have so much respect for. I appreciate his art and the inspiration he took from his time in London and his love for Victorian British culture. This exhibit is excellent for art lovers and beginners alike. It's a brilliant example of the way art galleries can go beyond a simple label to add to the visitor experience, and provide opportunities for meaningful, emotional connections beyond simply aesthetics, for people without an art history degree. Loving Van Gogh made this an easy exhibition to enjoy, but the Tate outdid themselves by giving me a deeper connection to an artist I adore.
This exhibition is on until 11 August 2019. It is suggested to book tickets in advance, as there may only be a limited number available on the day.
Bio: Emily Friesen is an Interpretation Assistant working in Exhibition Design and writes for her own blog, Exhibits Etcetera (emilymfriesen.wordpress.com). She completed her Master’s degree in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester in 2018, and has previously worked in Visitor Services, Education, and Collections Management in Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyMarisa_ and Instagram @EmilyLikesMuseums