A couple of weeks back, Radio 4’s Book of the Week featured sensitive readings by Mark Rylance and Julius D’Silva from the new edition of Van Gogh’s letters, published in 6 volumes by Thames and Hudson. If only I had a spare £300! However, there is the excellent website which covers the same ground.

This new edition of Van Gogh’s letters is the culmination of the extensive Van Gogh Letters Project: fifteen years of research into his correspondence by the Van Gogh Museum, crowned by a special exhibition, the launch the website encompassing the complete research results and the publication of the six volume book. Various aspects of Van Gogh’s letters are also highlighted in the Van Gogh blog.

Now today Jonathan Jones writes in The Guardian that the Amsterdam exhibition is coming to the Royal Academy in London. In the piece, Jones writes about the personal impact of reading the new edition of the letters:

In the last few weeks I have been overwhelmed by the relationship ­between Van Gogh’s biography and his genius. The curators of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have worked for years on a new edition of his letters, five volumes of them, with facsimiles, English translations, copious illustrations: in short, such a complete insight into Van Gogh’s life that it redefines him for this century. An exhibition, The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and his Letters, opening at the Royal Academy on 23 January, celebrates this publication.

Reading the new edition of Van Gogh’s letters from cover to cover turned out to be a shocking, upsetting, at times frustrating experience that destroyed my previous idea of this great artist. I had previously formed an almost reassuring view of Van Gogh as an intense, troubled, tragic, yet at the same time inspiring man. The sheer mass of peculiarities and sadnesses makes him uttely real and – for all his genius – less easy to empathise with. His achievement was not to conquer illness, but to drag something out of its isolating darkness.

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, 1890
Van Gogh, Wheatfield wih Crows, July 1890

The monumental landscape Wheatfield wih Crows was not quite the last work Van Gogh painted, but it always seems to bear premonitions of the mortal injury he inflicted upon himself in a field like this outside Auvers on 27 July 1890. Yet, in the grandeur and magnificence of the landscape, the painting also communicates something powerful and life-affirming.

On Thursday, 10 July 1890, Vincent wrote from Auvers-sur-Oise to Theo:

Once back here, I too still felt very saddened, and had continued to feel the storm that threatens you also weighing upon me. What can be done – you see I usually try to be quite good-humoured, but my life, too, is attacked at the very root, my step also is faltering. I feared – not completely – but a little nonetheless – that I was a danger to you, living at your expense – but Jo’s letter clearly proves to me that  you really feel that for my part I am working and suffering like you.

There – once back here I set to work again – the brush however almost falling from my hands and – knowing clearly what I wanted I’ve painted another three large canvases since then. They’re immense stretches of wheatfields under turbulent skies, and I made a point of trying to express sadness, extreme loneliness. You’ll see this soon, I hope – for I hope to bring them to you in Paris as soon as possible, since I’d almost believe that these canvases will tell you what I can’t say in words, what I consider healthy and fortifying about the countryside.

In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones concludes:

In Auvers-sur-Oise, a village near Paris, the good Dr Gachet keeps an eye on him. He goes on painting, painting so well. Deep blues and blacks and vegetable greens. The colours of the north, now – the colours of rain. He includes a sketch of one of his new paintings, showing the garden of the landscape artist Daubigny, in a letter he sends to Theo on 23 July 1890. In a postcript after the “Yours truly, Vincent” he adds an account of the colours in his painting for Theo to imagine them:

Foreground of green and pink grass, on the left a green and lilac bush and a stem of plants with whitish foliage. In the middle a bed of roses. To the right a hurdle, a wall, and above the wall a hazel tree with violet foliage.

Then a hedge of lilac, a row of rounded yellow lime trees. The house itself in the background, pink with a roof of bluish tiles. A bench and three chairs, a dark figure with a yellow hat, and in the foreground a black cat. Sky pale green.

In French the last words are “Ciel vert pâle” and then a brown ink full stop. Three days after sending this, his last letter, he shot himself under the pale green sky.

Van Gogh, Daubigny’s Garden, June-July 1890

There’s an excellent essay by Finun Guner in Standpoint, An End to the Myth of the Tortured Soul, in which Guner writes:

In all, 819 letters written by Van Gogh survive, the majority of which were addressed to Théo, some to his younger sister Wilemien (Wil), and others to a handful of artists, including Gauguin […]

Yet even during his slow and horrifying mental disintegration, words somehow continue to sustain him. No other artist has ever produced such an intimate record-eloquent, revealing and often desperately moving- of his life and his thoughts about art. He vividly “paints” his descriptions with an artist’s eye before he ever puts brush to canvas. […]

The letters reveal that Van Gogh was not altogether the sensitive dreamer of popular myth. There was certainly something of the innocent soul about him, but he was also clearly irascible, brusque and plainly irritating. This is one side of Van Gogh that dedicated readers of the letters will always have known about, of course, but with the new translation we get closer to Van Gogh’s real voice and tone and to his sometimes more meandering thought processes: the new translations don’t finish off his sentences, or they include previously censored material.

Brash fields crude crows
In a scary sky
In a golden frame
Roped off
Tourists guided by
Tourists talking about the madhouse
Talking about the ear
The madman hangs in fancy homes
They wouldn’t let him near!
He’d piss in their fireplace!
He’d drag them through Turbulent Indigo
Joni Mitchell, Turbulent Indigo

When Vincent was found, mortally wounded in the field at Auvers, an unfinished letter to Leo was discovered in his pocket:

Ah well, I risk my life for my own work and my reason has half-foundered in it.

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