The real Van Gogh: The artist and his letters

An exhibition of Van Gogh's letters with a selection of his works is a great success, says Tom Lubbock. But why can't we just let the paintings speak for themselves?

An advert for an art book club once asked: "How would you have reacted to Van Gogh if you had met him? Yes, you would have thrilled to his paintings. But would you have seen this mixed up man as saintly – or squalid? Like the citizens of Arles would you have jeered at him? Or would you have been one of the few who offered him friendship? Why not discover the real Van Gogh by inviting him into your home?"

The real Van Gogh? His art never seems to be quite enough. With almost any art there's a tendency to poke around behind the scenes. The work is only a clue. The life and soul are the story we want. But Van Gogh is especially susceptible to this treatment. His pictures are signs of his madness, a key to his sufferings and struggles. So often he's been brought forward as someone to pity or hero-worship or both – a modern martyr.

You could make a nice little anthology of Van Gogh-ology. There'd be the minstrelsy of Don Maclean, of course, and his "Starry, Starry Night". "Now I think I know what you tried to say to me / How you suffered for your sanity / How you tried to set them free / They would not listen, they're not listening still / Perhaps they never will..."

You'd have the poet Antonin Artaud, too, and his raging monologue, "Van Gogh: the Man Suicided by Society". And you'd have a most unwelcome guest, in the person of Joseph Goebbels, offering a rather similar portrait of the artist. "Van Gogh's life tells us even more than his work. He combines in his personality the most important elements: he is teacher, preacher, fanatic, prophet – mad. In the last analysis we are all mad if we have an idea." Whatever happens in the auction houses, Van Gogh – the real Van Gogh – remains for many the ultimate holy, crazy outsider.

The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and his Letters opens at the Royal Academy on Saturday. It's a marvellous exhibition. How could it be otherwise? Almost any gathering of Van Gogh's paintings and drawings will amaze. It's still astonishing how much he produced in less than ten years, and how much of that, even from the start, was original and exact. But no exhibition is content simply to show. It must tell us too.

This one has a firm agenda. It marks the new full edition of the artist's famous letters, published in English by Thames and Hudson. 15 years of scholarship, six volumes, 2000 pages, 4000 illustrations, £400 to buy, it's an epic production, and it offers to curators a new key. Demythologisation is their theme. Van Gogh's art was not in any way a symptom of his madness. It was not even the spontaneous overflow of his powerful feelings. It was a thoroughly deliberated and self-conscious enterprise, worked out in his letters, executed on canvas and paper. Where possible, corresponding manuscripts and pictures are displayed alongside.

Van Gogh's behaviour, they concede, "was inappropriate at times, and he suffered from what could be called mental derangement, but his output of letters and pictures displays a strong internal cohesion. This double oeuvre cannot be dismissed as the product of a sick mind. On the contrary, it can only be seen as the legacy of a truly great intellect: the real Van Gogh."

Now I must confess here that I did not spend the last month reading those six volumes. I don't have them on my shelf. Perhaps I never will. And if we're going to play "I haven't read", I may as well admit that I have read very little of these letters in any translation, even though people always say that they're terribly good. I'm not quite sure why not: perhaps a fear that in those letters I'd meet a man or an artist who would get in the way of the pictures.

This new version doesn't allay that fear. The scholar-curators may dispel the image of the artist-as-madman. Fine. But they replace it with something equally discouraging: the artist-as-prof. It's often said that we reconstruct the great ones in our own images. Here we meet a Van Gogh who is engaged in a steady and sober course of research, where explaining words and experimental images go in tandem. His work is the art historian's dream, a body of visuals that comes with its own verbal commentary. Or maybe something more radical still is proposed: an inherently two-fold project, in which pictures and letters become a conjoined-twin creation.

But frankly, and granted my shameful ignorance, I don't believe it. The letters are separate and secondary. If in some impossible hypothetical extremity you were forced between wiping out any or all of the pictures, and any or all of the letters, it's obvious – isn't it? – that without a second's hesitation you would decide to save the pictures.

On the other hand, if you choose to make the letters and pictures into collaborators, then the words – especially since they are the artist's own words – are likely to become the primary voice. They will tell you authoritatively what the pictures show and say. The language of the pictures themselves will be submerged. More than that, we take the pictures as objects to be interpreted. But really they are models from which we should learn.

Throughout Van Gogh's short working life, his art exhibits two broad tendencies. They're both present from the start. One you could call iconic, the other exploratory. One imposes shape, designs, patterns on the world. The other responds and is constantly flexible. Both of them show ways of living in the world. Both are very intense. One of them is a bit madder than the other.

The iconic works are generally the more famous. Vincent's Chair, Gauguin's Chair, the Cypresses of June 1889, The Postman, La Berceuse – these things and creatures are defined as cut-out forms with jerky edges. The images make sure of their subjects. They infuse force into these figures but at the same time they keep hold of them. There is implied a conflict between the self and the world. Sometimes the subject is reduced only to neat design.

The exploratory works approach the world quite differently. The clearest contrast is between the famous Sunflowers (still in the National Gallery down the road) and the Two Cut Sunflowers showing here. Sunflowers is comparatively a static cartoon, pinning down the flowers. In Two Cut Sunflowers the paint wants to know all about the structure, the texture, the energies of these organisms.

But the exploratory tendency shows most strongly in the landscapes and particularly in the ink drawings. Look at the Landscape Near Montmajour with Train – look, or rather participate in its activity. The terrain is translated into a vocabulary of pen-notations. The various areas of ground are mapped into various marks – dashes, dots, commas, loops, zigzags – set down with density or openness, modulating from one texture to another, so that the definition of a code is mixed with the flow of nature. The train puffing in the middle of the countryside is both startling and quite natural.

Works like this are miracles. In their clarity and certainty they look plotted, but their complexity and flexibility could only be achieved spontaneously. Every stroke is without doubt, and every stroke is a surprise. The mind, the eye, the hand, are continually improvising and always coming right. Vincent draws how one might wish to live. And it's these inexhaustible, exemplary, encouraging pictures that are the real Van Gogh: that's to say, his irreplaceable gift to the world.

The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters, Royal Academy, London W1 (0844 209 1919) Saturday to 18 April

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions