Ben Chu: In praise of the artistic blockbuster

They might be crowd-pleasing, but this one was not dumbed down
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Where should we stand on blockbuster art exhibitions? A couple of years ago Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery, announced that these extravaganzas had had their day. He predicted that squeezed loan budgets, rising transport costs and hefty insurance bills would make them less attractive to galleries, no matter how much they raised in revenues.

Penny also presented this as a shift we should embrace, acidly noting that "there's something comical about having a line-up of the Virgin and Child. It's not a beauty competition." Quite right, I thought; enough of the dumbing down.

So when my mother suggested going to the Royal Academy last week to catch The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters (a blockbuster if ever there was one) before it closes this Sunday I was less than enthused. And I'm happy to admit that it wasn't just the Penny principle that was putting me off.

I thought of the expense, the queuing and the crowds. And for what? To see some of Van Gogh's letters that I'd already heard read out on Radio 4? To see an artist whose work is well represented in the National Gallery, just down the road in Trafalgar Square?

In the end, though, I decided to stifle my scruples and brave the crowds. And, well, I'm afraid the Penny has now dropped. Progressing through the rooms of the Royal Academy wasn't like participating in a fatuous beauty contest: it was to witness one of the great artistic journeys. As Tom Lubbock said of the show in this newspaper: "Every stroke is without doubt, and every stroke is a surprise".

I thought I knew a little about Van Gogh before I went to this exhibition – post-impressionist, inspired by the landscape of Provence, cut off his ear, sold a solitary painting in his life – but I came out far better educated about this man's artistic ambitions, his social background and, above all, the extraordinary manner in which he applied paint to the canvas. Few paintings translate well in flat reproduction; with Van Goghs they might as well not bother. Crowd-pleasing these shows might be, but this one was certainly not dumbed down.

What's more, though the huddles around the paintings were three deep in the first room, by the end they'd virtually disappeared and I had the most stunning late works almost entirely to myself. When I reached the letter that Van Gogh had on his person when he shot himself, I was able to examine it without a soul breathing down my neck. A bit like poor old Vincent, many visitors seem to burn themselves out early.

The blockbuster still has its place. Perhaps there should be fewer of them. And galleries and museums should be discouraged from becoming too reliant on these crowd-pullers for funding. After all, no one wants an interminable roadshow of famous Old Masters and familiar Impressionists. But with the right artist and the right works, the blockbuster does seem to me an ideal format. One piece of advice though: start in the last room and work your way backwards.