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It's no wonder that Vincent couldn't paint straight

A major exhibition of Van Gogh's work and letters has just opened at the Royal Academy in London. But a trip to Amsterdam might offer another clue as to what inspired the artist's familiar wonky lines

My Secret Life: Billy Childish, artist, 50

My parents were ... an aspirational Conservative son of an able seaman, who became a graphic designer and was arrested for drug smuggling, and the daughter of a dockyard worker who worked on the haberdashery counter at Lefevres department store in Gillingham, Kent.

Sarah Sands: The great British blockbuster – big, bold and brilliant

As I skipped to the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy last week, I experienced that first-day-of-the-sales feeling, excitement hardened by determination. Not only was I going to see one of my favourite painters, but he was everyone else's favourite. The world was converging in its taste, if not in its pronunciation. It was a blockbuster.

Ann Dumas: My Week

A curator at the Royal Academy recounts the preparations needed for the new Van Gogh letters exhibition

Traveller's Guide To: Van Gogh

On the opening day of the first London exhibition in 40 years dedicated to the work of this artistic genius, Cathy Packe paints a picture of the man, his life and his travels

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?

Vincent on Vincent: New edition Van Gogh letters give searing insight into artist's breakdown

Even today, when Vincent van Gogh's international reputation is higher and wider than ever, we have intense difficulty understanding how he managed to paint such a sustained series of masterpieces. After mutilating his ear and struggling to retain his sanity in an asylum, this vulnerable young Dutchman dreaded the sudden onset of each new bout of epileptic seizure. But somehow, he carried on painting for another turbulent year, producing his finest work before succumbing to suicide in 1890.

Great Works: Still Life with Open Bible (1885), Vincent van Gogh

Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam

The best books for Christmas

Boyd Tonkin introduces our experts' guide to seasonal treats in print

Best art books for Christmas

Art books need to be useful, informative and visually ravishing. One of the most useful and delightful this autumn is a companionable new reference book from Thames & Hudson, Understanding Paintings: Bible Stories and Classical Myths in Art (£19.95). No one is equipped to understand paintings in the Western tradition without some grounding in scripture and classical mythology. This book takes apart, spread by spread, over 200 of the greatest Old Masters on classical or Christian themes by the likes of Titian, Raphael and Durer, quotes the relevant texts, and then explains their stories to us.

First Night: Red, Donmar Warehouse, London

Dostoyevsky thought that if Christ were ever to return to Earth, we would crucify him all over again. Perhaps so, but it's a safe bet that, before we got round to that, hot fashion designers would be competing to recruit him as poster boy for some major new underwear campaign. High spirituality and low commerce are easy bedfellows these days. This was not the case, though in 1959, which is the date-line for Red, John Logan's new play set in the Manhattan studio of the great Abstract Expressionist artist, Mark Rothko.

Parmalat man’s secret £90m hoard of masterpieces is seized

Italian tax investigators have seized works by artists including Van Gogh, Picasso and Cézanne in raids on properties belonging to a disgraced businessman judged to have been largely responsible for Europe's greatest ever corporate bankruptcy.

Best art books of 2009: From Darwin to Warhol, Van Gogh to Blake, these fabulous tomes chart the progression of life itself

How big do stockings run? I ask only because this year's must-have Christmas art book is XXL and then some: the magnificent, six-volume Vincent van Gogh: The Letters (Thames & Hudson, £325). Yes, I know it's a lot of money in mid-recession. But this scholarly collection of Vincent's jottings is a once-in-a-lifetime event – part diary, part immaculately reproduced sketchbook, and at least 40 years' worth of reading for any real van Gogh devotee. That's £8 a year, or 15p a week. You know it makes sense.

Harry Weinberger: Emigré painter whose work was partly inspired by his love of masks and icons

The artist Harry Weinberger was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Berlin. His father, an industrialist, moved the family to Czechoslovakia in 1933 soon after Hitler's accession to power. From the window of his parent's house Harry had seen the Reichstag burn. In 1939, after the Kristallnacht pogrom of early November 1938 and the consequent setting up of the Kindertransport, Harry and his sister Ina caught the final train leaving Czechoslovakia for England. In his 80s Harry was delighted to make contact with Nicholas Winton, its organiser, to whom he felt he owed his life.

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