Lucrezia Walker | Van Gogh: Sunflowers, Letters & Life | The National Gallery, London

Lucrezia Walker | Van Gogh: Sunflowers, Letters & Life | The National Gallery, London

Hello, everyone, very nice to see you here
to look with me at van Gogh’s Sunflowers, to think about what it was that was behind
these and the two versions that we’ve got on show at the moment, one of several and
a little picture here of identical twins with their van Gogh Sunflowers bags and with the
two paintings, the one on loan from the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam with our own, for
the first time actually since 1947 and probably they won’t be seen again together like this
in our lifetime. But they are so very much more than a simple sunflower painting; they’re
a symbol of all sorts of things. They’re a very unrestful still life, more than a pretty
still life. And for the artist who painted them, for Vincent van Gogh they were something
akin to a holy icon, they had a kind of significance that took them way beyond the realm of simple
painting, of a still life but said much more about him, his aims, his hopes, that this
masterpiece which we’ll look at together – we learn through the way he painted this,
the number he painted this, the letters he wrote about this of what he wanted with these
sunflowers. You’ll recognise, many of you who are regular visitors to the National Gallery,
room 45 is usually like that. If we’re ever taking a group in for – I don’t know – a
guided tour or something like that we’ll, by and large, try to miss this room for obvious
reasons; it’s absolutely jam-packed with people wanting to do homage. Again, regular
visitors of you will have noticed that there are queues in line right out sometimes onto
the street to stand in line and pay homage to those two Sunflowers, to worship at the
temple of van Gogh. But it wasn’t always like that, as many
of you will know and this painting is kind of born of a tragic meeting and misunderstanding
with another artist, Paul Gauguin, who we’ll also think about as we go along. So here it
is, the National Gallery, perhaps the best and a kind of signal work that is as famous
– nearly – as the Mona Lisa but it’s one of those paintings we all know like maybe
Franz Hals’ Laughing Cavalier, maybe The Swing by – no, more famous than that, more
famous perhaps than The Kiss by Klimt; a very famous painting that people come to pay tribute
to. It’s strangely shadowless, is it not, and glowing; it’s immediately recognisable
for what it is; a group of 14/15 blooms in a vase. And at the same time it’s expressionist,
it’s using bright, strong colour and a distinctive bright, strong way of applying paint. And
when you go – and some of you will have been already but when you go and have a little
look you will notice that beneath the very expensive non-reflective glass there seems
to be a feeling of almost three-dimensionality; part of you almost wants to get your little
fingernail and scratch at the top or feel it with your fingers. It seems in places to
be almost sculptural in the application of impasto paint. But at the same time, this
isn’t overall; at other times the paint is very thinly applied indeed and in certain
places you can even see the canvas below, which doesn’t mean it’s not finished.
Indeed it was finished and we know it’s finished because by that very remarkable – shoom
– cobalt blue line is the distinctive blue signature of Vincent’s name – his first
name, not his last name – on the vase; blue against this contrasting yellow, almost like
it’s part of the vase itself. There aren’t many artists who sign with their first name
and I think for Vincent it was a practical and expedient thing to do. As many of you
will know, the name Vincent van Gogh is pronounced in Dutch as Von Choch. Now, if you’re living
in England as Vincent had been and if you are living in France as Vincent also did,
it’s not an easy sound for either English people or French people to master and I think
Vincent didn’t even want you to try, it was much easier to be Mr Vincent or Monsieur
Vincent. But I think the result is that we feel towards him as – I don’t want to
put this too strongly but perhaps as a friend; we know him by his first name and know him
we do. I don’t think there are many artists who we know so much about in terms of personal
life as we do of Vincent van Gogh because he wrote so many letters to a number of people,
but particularly to his younger brother, Theo. Well, he came to Paris in the spring of 1886
to be with his younger brother Theo who was a rather successful dealer in paintings and
Vincent by this time, Vincent was 32 years old. He was born in April, 15th April in 1853.
He’d done quite a lot fairly unsuccessfully, I would say. He had left school early, he’d
gone to be a dealer in paintings and books working for his uncle’s firm. He had then
come to England to mainly London, Brixton, Isleworth but also Ramsgate where he’d been
teaching, little bit of lay preaching and where he contracted – as some of you may
have learnt when you saw the play Vincent in Brixton, if any of you did – where he
contracted from his landlady depression, which never left him; just a theory there. But he
arrived in – do I want to say relative good health? I don’t know but he left it in some
sort of turmoil and really he never quite regained a kind of even stasis of mind. But
he arrives in Paris in the spring of 86 saying in a letter that he wanted, he needed – I
have to, I insist, he said, upon spending a year in Paris working, drawing, painting,
looking, visiting exhibitions. And here is an image of the roofs of Paris seen from an
eminence, seen from the high points of Montmartre looking down over the very kind of bohemian,
exciting kind of landscape there of Paris. Well, he went to live, in 54, Rue Lepic. This
is where the brothers lived and this is a shot of, which shows you something of its
charm and postcard-size; you can see the hotel, the Boulangerie Viennoise over there. Got
another one that follows it to give you a bit of a feel of how Vincent might himself
have felt as he was arriving to stay with his younger brother, younger by three-and-a-bit
years, over there. The two brothers, sons of a reformed churchman;
the Reverend van Gogh had two sons and two daughters. I should say, actually it occurs
to me now to mention that Vincent was the child to his parents who’d had an earlier
but dead brother, Vincent so Vincent van Gogh had had an earlier, elder sibling who died.
I know that sometimes people find that interesting and slightly unnerving but it was not unusual
to name a child after a dead child. I should also say in case I forget now that Theo really
is one of the unsung heroes. He was the one supplying money to his younger brother, he
was the one that keeps things afloat and is a kind of, not only a financial support to
his elder brother but also a moral support, a huge, hugely valued figure in the life of
the troubled Vincent. Here he is aged 13. One of his sisters and other cousins had noticed
that he didn’t seem at ease with himself. It was said he felt, he looked as though he
was someone who felt uncomfortable in himself, as though he didn’t quite fit into his own
skin so that was noticed by the closer and the wider circle of friends. And here we are,
back to Rue Lepic and something of the windmills of Montmartre. This is a blown-up size of
a postcard and just here the site where they lived and on the right-hand side the blow-up
inscription that tells you proudly now that in this house Vincent van Gogh lived with
his brother Theo from December – from 1886 to 1888. Time was that people would have been
probably glad to get rid of Vincent. And I just thought I’d include a few images
here to remind you of what it was that Vincent saw when he arrived in Paris and what it was
he painted. He saw the light, bright Impressionist palette that artists like Monet, Pissarro,
etc, were using and their light touch with the brush. He also was attracted by their
scenes of everyday life, people walking, strolling in – well, in this case the Luxembourg Gardens;
little punctuation points of contrasting red paint against the green there. You’re seeing
this much larger than it actually is. And here a view of the vegetable gardens at Montmartre.
Remember that until, ooh, well into the 20th Century Montmartre was this self-sufficient
part of, like a village, of Paris where there were gardens, there were windmills, there
were bars, clubs, etc. And van Gogh here’s painted the vegetable garden and it was here
in the late summer that he picked up some discarded sunflowers from what had been left
in the market garden and began to paint them a number of times. So around about August,
September he looks out – and of course, you’re looking at this much, much larger
than it really is – these sunflowers, kind of fascinated by the shape that the central
part of a sunflower makes, this kind of geometric arrangement; fascinated also – and he from
this Dutch tradition would have known this – by the cycle of life that Dutch artists
so often paint in their images of flowers that blossom, flourish and fade and a way
of reading that as a kind of symbolic kind of echo in the way that we too, like the flowers
and the fruit of this world, we have our moment, we blossom, we flourish and we fade. So he
makes a series of these; here’s one and here is another, a kind of close-up look at
the head of the sunflower just at a point of decay and shown against this very vibrant
blue background. He was interested in and had full knowledge
of the kind of scientific discoveries that were being made in Paris at that time; people
like Charles Blanc or Eugene Chevreul were writing on the contrast of colours and how
that worked, how that affected our eye. The Impressionists were interested in just that.
Van Gogh was too and this one here, two cut sunflowers, a much more breezily-painted image
here with the full-on kind of very wide Impressionist brush-stroke. And here the withered sunflower;
they’ve blossomed, they’ve flourished and they’re now on their way out and there
are four of them, fully withered. So he is looking at this, thinking about the sunflowers
and looking closely at them in his rendition of them. He looked a little bit earlier with
his sunflowers with roses in a pot here. Now, by painting the same thing again and again
and again he was doing what so many other artists were doing at that time, making these
series paintings. And I put these four painted by Pissarro, Camille Pissarro because the
top-left one some of you may recognise from having looked at in our collection here, the
Boulevard Montmartre at night but also the Boulevard Montmartre in twilight, in rain
or in lighter times; different weather conditions and this is what Pissarro and Monet particularly
were doing, looking at the same thing again and again and again and again; different seasons,
different light conditions, different times of day; to see how light affected colour.
I don’t mean to sound cynical about this but it is worth thinking about that what was
a kind of – do I mean intellectual? Let it stand – a kind of intellectual observation
by an artist was also of very practical use for a dealer because it worked very well for
dealers to be able to sell parts of a series. If someone said, oh, I really wanted noon,
he or she doesn’t want to be told, oh, well, the artist can do you a copy, because you
feel you’ve lost the kind of authentic thing that you want. But if the dealer says, well,
noon has gone but I can get you morning or twilight, you might be quite happy to buy
into a series so it worked very well, it was something that worked very well for dealers,
they were very keen to encourage artists to work in this tradition. And I just put a couple up here by Monet who
painted the façade of Rouen Cathedral again and again and again; all sorts of weather
conditions, all sorts of times of day. And interestingly, van Gogh said a bit critically
of Monet, I’d rather paint the eyes and the faces of people than the façades of the
cathedral – or of a cathedral; because I think that van Gogh felt that Impressionism
was all very well and good and interesting but he was slightly worried about perhaps
being led on a decorative path or towards somewhere that was just charming. He wanted
something more symbolically resonant in his work. And as he works and thinks about what
it is he’s going to do – ba-boom – this man appears on the scene, this man being Paul
Gauguin. Now, Paul Gauguin was very much the avant-garde artist/pilgrim, the one who had
recently returned from a trip to Martinique in 1887 and who was very free in his painting,
very kind of like – well, Vincent called him the kind of high poet of painting. He
had a kind of freedom about him in his way of working but also in his personality. And
when Paul Gauguin walked into the Restaurant du Chalet in November of 1887 he saw the work
that Vincent van Gogh himself had organised and shown. It was called the work of the petit
artist of the petit boulevard, the artist of the petit boulevard and it was a series
of works hung inside this restaurant. It got very poor acclaim indeed and mostly people
just didn’t like it at all. But for Vincent van Gogh to learn that Gauguin had, number
one, been; number two, seen; and number three, didn’t really like anything he saw except
for Vincent’s work; that was a huge kind of – oh, validation of his own work. It
meant he was going in the right way if a man that he – an artist whose work he admired
admired his own. And I think what perhaps Gauguin admired about Vincent van Gogh’s
work was the way in which with those sunflowers that I’ve just shown you he was kind of
keying in to this heightened Impressionist palette but giving a kind of muscularity that
had come from this Dutch tradition. So they spoke and Vincent was absolutely delighted,
as I said, to have this validation of his work. I thought you might like to see the
sort of thing that Vincent admired in the work of Paul Gauguin. It’s not the moment
to be talking about Gauguin, who has a dramatic story himself, but he was painting in faraway
places, he does die eventually in exile in Tahiti but before that he’d been painting
in Martinique, painting with these very vibrant, very bright colours and painting in a kind
of, what certainly Vincent felt was a kind of high poetic style. And it’s worth reminding
ourselves, the year before arriving in Paris Vincent had been painting this kind of painting.
Now, when I say this kind of painting I mean that he’s looking at the working peasantry
of his native Holland, looking at the hardships of their life. And remember, he had been kind
of artist-preacher himself, he’d been working with the miners in the Borinage area of Belgium,
trying to help them there. He’s here looking at the hard lives of the potato-eaters and
look at the palette; it is, it’s kind of Whistleresque, isn’t it? It’s grey, it’s
dark, it’s shades of kind of monochromatic, low colour. How different then when he arrives
in Paris and is hit by the bright, strong colours that he sees being used by the Impressionist
artists. Now, during the 19th Century in particular
all sorts of changes came about in science and art which resulted in a whole stream of
new colours, particularly cobalt blue, viridian green and cobalt – this chrome yellow and
chrome yellow was, came from mineral that was mined in Siberia and kind of came into
the art market around 1809 and Vincent loved it, this yellow was his favourite colour.
Let us also remember – oh, we can do that with the next image here – that Vincent
– well, actually anyone working from after 1841 – was the beneficiary of this new invention
of paint in collapsible tubes with resealable lids that meant you could go outside and paint
as easily as you could – almost – inside so a reminder of just that. And also the oil
that co-mixed the pigments was much butterier, much thicker so if you wanted – you didn’t
have to and Gauguin didn’t want to – you could really slap it on with this Expressionist
kind of impasto way that Vincent liked to work. And this is from the Vincent van Gogh
Museum in Amsterdam and it shows you a box that Vincent had which contained skeins of
wool because Vincent liked to look at the contrast of various colours using wools, it
was a useful thing to have. And as he began to work and as he was in Paris at this time
he begins to think about a sort of significant way of self-expression and the image I’ve
got here is one of the last images that he had taken of himself as a photograph. From
this point onwards he wants to say something about himself or investigate things about
himself using the painting or the canvases themselves. So for example here he is with
a self-portrait and he and Rembrandt are two of the greatest artists who make the greatest
number of self-portraits. He’s looking at himself on canvas, sometimes painting a self-portrait
and other times painting – and he painted these boots again and again and again – the
kind of honest soles of the workmen’s boots. And I think in that he’s going back to another
tradition, a Dutch tradition which he knew a lot about and that is how emblems worked,
emblems which said something about the outside world beyond. Remember that with the Reformation came this
strong look at the Second Commandment about not making any graven images and how in 17th
Century Reformed Church Holland there began to come out of this society books of emblems
where different flowers or objects would have some kind of significance. And the sunflower
was one, the sunflower as an emblem of, let’s say, God, the idea that we turn to look at
the bright thing in the sky, so this kind of godly, this religious metaphor was there
and we also know that there were framed images of these emblems in the house of Vincent’s
parents. So this is something that we might also want to be keeping in mind when we think
of what happens next. Well, what happens next is that Gauguin decides he will go off to
Brittany. Gauguin is always looking for a primitive place and by primitive Gauguin meant
something that was kind of uncorrupted by civilising forces. I mentioned he’d come
back from Martinique; he was to go off to the South Seas again and end his days in Tahiti
but while he was in France he thought he would go to Brittany because that had the kind of
raw, primitive religion, way of life that he wanted. So he goes off north and almost
as soon as he has gone Vincent heads south. I’ve put this here. What Vincent was thinking
about and looking for was to go south, to almost kind of follow the – once he got
this sunflower metaphor in his head, to follow the sun, thinking that if he could go to the
south of France he could maybe find there in the kind of, looking around him at the
bright, strong sun, a new direction, a new kind of clarity of thought and of vision,
he could go there, he could find himself and build a studio of the south. So on 19th February in 1888 he leaves the
cold, the mist, the greyness of northern France, of Paris, he goes to the Gare de Lyon and
he heads south, he follows the sun to the south and he settles in Arles. And he very
much likes the look of the façade of this house in the Place Lamartine and thinks that
this is what I’ll do, I’ll stay here and I will rent this four-roomed house, which
is what he did, thinking that this would be the centre of the studio of the south; it’s
yellow like a sunflower. And the idea will be that he will work on and begin to develop
almost like a kind of, a mission, a place where artists can congregate, talk about life,
work, ideas, work together in this southern place successfully. It has got this heightened
colour. Most of it is this chrome yellow with this contrasting dark blue of the sky and
he paints some of the signal works that you will know. He paints his bedroom in Arles,
again a kind of symphony in yellow here. He writes about what his aims are to his brother
Theo and he would make these sketches. Many of you, I know, will have been a couple of
years ago to the show at the Royal Academy of Vincent van Gogh, his life and letters.
And after making a painting Vincent would then sketch it and write to a friend or to
his brother, writing about what he’d done and what he wanted to have done in the particular
painting. Here again you can see how he’s writing; the script over there sometimes in
Dutch, sometimes in French. They were trilingual, able to write in many languages and express
themselves – probably actually, probably four languages; probably could do the same
in German. And I thought I’d show you very briefly other works that he was painting during
that year in 1888, working very, very strongly – those five months he’s making a painting
a day, working very, very quickly, very fast, trying to make a body of work that is going
to impress Gauguin, to whom he has written in May of 1888, inviting him to come out to
the studio of the south, saying, there is a place for artists who want to live like
a monk – whatever that might mean – to work together, to discuss at the studio in
the south. So he’s really thinking a bit like a kind of anxious schoolboy, making a
body of work ready to show when he comes – he’s confident that Gauguin will come – the work
that he has been producing at that time; strong yellows and greens and reds, these primary
colours, sometimes on their own, sometimes mixed. The café terrace at night; and I heard
someone go, mmm. There is this kind of mmm about some of these and the stars, his kind
of expressionistic use of the stars, almost like we’re looking at the halos here, a
kind of mindscape in some way. Or the café, the night café at Arles; contrasting reds
and greens with an almost eye-searingly strong yellow accent there. And he starts to make a series of flowers
so ignore that three there and just concentrate on sunflowers, first version. That is in a
private collection. He’s looking at the sunflowers, this time three sunflowers with
a fantastically contrasting turquoise background, a very, very bright viridian green upper part
of that vase and then to, I suppose, approximate the condition of maybe a tablecloth of some
sort, this broken brushwork that gives this kind of mosaic effect. This is the so-called
Lausanne sunflowers and it was purchased by an unidentified collector, a New York dealer
in 1996 for an undiscovered sum. And the last time it was exhibited – oh, it was in 1948,
long time ago; and is meant to be in excellent condition but we don’t see it, it’s privately
owned. But over here I thought – oh, we’ve got the text up there for you; exhibited three
times for a total of just six weeks in Paris. We don’t know where it goes, it’s not
been seen very much but Martin Bailey – and you’ll see the cover of his book coming
up – has given us the best likely image so it’s secret, no-one knows. This one here
was destroyed in enemy action in – probably not, no – in war action in 1945 so this
is just taken from a photograph of the original, which it isn’t possible to see any longer.
But he’s working; this time he’s got more sunflowers. You’ve got three, four, five,
six in various states of blooming, just past bloom, decay and hardening. And here, third
version, one that lives in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich and getting towards our own National
Gallery one, of this grouping of more sunflowers grouped together, one sort of wilting, going
on down a little bit. Note also that the background – and you’ll see this in our own National
Gallery one that follows – this kind of – it’s not, the background isn’t painted
all in one kind of campaign but these criss-crossing that give a kind of sense of variation of
texture here. And then with this one here, the fourth version, which is the one that’s
in the National Gallery with a grouping of – now I’m going to do a little count here
because sometimes you read it as 14, other as 15. But one, two, three, four, five, six,
seven, eight, nine, ten, 11, 12, 13, 14 – I make it 15. Interestingly he writes in his
letters that he’s going to be making – writes to Theo and to Gauguin that he wants to make
a series of 12 blooms – of 12 paintings of 12 blooms. He’s thinking, I think, in
religious ways here and we know quite a bit about how he’s kind of working and what
he’s thinking about, not only religious but in terms of his composition here. We can
see with an x-ray how – this is put up there as a kind of contrast to make you think that
it was all kind of splashily made. There is a kind of truism of van Gogh just going at
it with a kind of wild abandon. That’s not the case. He’s carefully considering the
composition and you will have noticed that the sunflower on the left and right are not
there. These are later – these are added the following day or so, so he’s thinking
about the composition, weighing it up, thinking about where it is he’s going to go and how
he’s going to get there. I put this letter up here, letter to Theo;
now that I hope to live with Gauguin in a studio of our own I want to make decorations
for the studio, nothing but big flowers. Next door to your shop in the restaurant you know
there was a lovely decoration of flowers, I always remember the big sunflowers in the
window there. If I carry out this idea there will be a dozen panels so the whole thing
will be a symphony in blue and yellow. I’m working at it every morning from sunrise on
for the flower fades so soon and the thing is to do the whole in one rush. Perhaps it’s,
the whole to do on one rush makes people think that he was kind of rushing at it but I think
he’s speaking about his enthusiasm. He said he attacks these like a Marseillaise attacking
his bouillabaisse with kind of gusto and with vigour. Well, back to the yellow house, a
four-roomed house that was to be the place that was to be the studio in the south. And
finally, mid-October, Gauguin arrives but just before that, thinking about the symbolism
of 12, I want to say something and that is that Vincent, having mentioned 12 blooms,
12 paintings, goes on to buy 12 chairs. He really seems to be thinking almost that this
will be – I might go back one – that the yellow house will be the abbey, the mission
place with the disciples of 12 and the paintings, the 12 paintings of 12 sunflowers will be
a new way of kind of connecting with the religious moment. And he buys a special chair for Gauguin.
Gauguin is to be the abbot, if you like. It’s worth saying that Gauguin has no idea at all
about Vincent’s plans for him, he has no idea that he’s going to be the abbot of
this religious enterprise with himself at the centre and van Gogh as kind of chief priest.
In fact – let’s have an image of him – he’s not thinking about that at all. He has been
living and working, as I mentioned, in Brittany where he’s very much a big cheese to a group
of slightly younger artists who he’s heading up; people like Bernard and so forth who were
saying, should I do it like this, Paul, is this the way, should I, like this, like this,
what do you think? So he was very much seeing himself as the
master with a group of younger, rather admiring students and he is a charismatic figure, is
Gauguin; he has presence, I suppose we’d say. He’s ruggedly handsome, he’s quietly
contained and powerful and this is something that he wanted to key into. He’d had, in
the middle point of his life, a very kind of traditional way of living his life. He
had married a Danish woman and he had become a stockbroker, had five children and then
given it all up to become a painter. Wife and children safely back in her native Copenhagen;
one of the children put into boarding school in France; he was free to kind of live out
the dream in Brittany. He said as soon as he felt his clogs on the granite ground he
felt his primitive, atavistic, Peruvian side reach on up into his body. And I mention this
Peruvian thing because Vincent gave two of those sunflower paintings that he painted
in Paris to Gauguin. Gauguin was aware of the compliment, was aware that this was something
that was very nice to get from a fellow artist and these artists were giving each other their
paintings. But it also keys into something else and that is the fact that Gauguin himself
was from Peru and it was from Peru that the sunflower originated in the late 16th Century
so there’s another extra symbolic key there that’s working. Well, Gauguin’s plans are decidedly not
the same as those of Vincent and really when he arrives he arrives, I think, in an opportunistic
moment in Arles, thinking, do I really want to be with Vincent? – not really – but
his brother Theo is going to provide food, lodging and he’s a dealer in Paris, why
not, I’ll go up for a couple of weeks. I think that’s the thought in the mind of
Gauguin when he arrives and he does arrive, mid-October in Arles. And immediately he arrives
the thing he mentions is that there is disorder, he says, disorder everywhere. And Vincent’s
all kind of excited at him coming, you know, really kind of tense, waiting, he’s got
the bedroom all ready with paintings of sunflowers, you know, his best work to show to Gauguin,
to make the room look nice, to kind of show what he can do as well as it to be a welcoming
place. And actually Gauguin is complimentary about the sunflowers but he’s not complimentary
about the disorder. Although he is a bohemian he doesn’t like mess and around him he sees
nothing but mess and he says to Vincent, what a mess, you know, look at everything and look
at your paint-box and why are you squeezing from the middle, why not from the end and
why don’t you tighten the top and why are you painting what you see, wooh, you’re
meant to be doing… And so there is this kind of fight perhaps between them and I wonder
if in this painting made by Gauguin of van Gogh painting the sunflowers there is something
here that we can read as a criticism of Vincent. Vincent is painting those sunflowers, he is
looking at the sunflowers in the vase and painting them on his canvas. That’s not
what you’re meant to do. For Gauguin it was important that the imagination had free
reign and to look at the motif in a post-photographic, or a photographic age was in some way a kind
of arid transcription of what was in front of you instead of going into the imaginative
realm, which was not the way that Vincent worked. I think for Vincent, stepped in a kind of
religious moment, to look at something was in some way to praise God’s goodness, which
was completely different from the way in which Gauguin seemed to be encouraging him to work.
And in fact Vincent writes, ooh, abstraction – these are his words – it’s very tempting
but so bewitching and kind of terrifying. And I think there is some kind of criticism
here and also as you look at the figure that Gauguin has painted of van Gogh, it looks
rather like Gauguin himself; the two have in some ways become one. Look at the way that
van Gogh paints Paul Gauguin; usually – and you’ve seen at least one earlier portrait
– Vincent paints his figures face-on, full-on, we see them fully-on or maybe slightly to
one side. But here there’s almost a kind of surreptitious look, we’re looking at
the artist from behind; make of that what you will. I think Vincent was under huge stress
for all sorts of reasons. If you are 32 and you really have not sold a single painting,
if you haven’t kind of made a straight road for yourself, if you are aware of the anxiety
this is causing your parents, if you are supported financially by your younger brother, you don’t
feel terribly good. If your teeth are kind of wobbling around in your gums, if you’re
hungry, if you’re suffering from depression, possibly schizophrenia, all sorts of other
aliments, epilepsy, if you have possibly Merniere’s syndrome where you feel that there’s a kind
of mixture of tinnitus in your ear, this kind of moving in your – sound in your ear coupled
with nausea, you’re not in a very good place. And I think the fighting, the ongoing fighting
with him and Gauguin was leading to mental turmoil. Vincent felt that friendship – he said,
he wrote – that friendship wasn’t about something kind of quiet and balanced, it was
about passion and he thought that a friendship needed to be all the time reengaged with so
he wanted to get up in the morning and argue productively about painting. And really for
Gauguin it was just something he could have done without and as the months went on – well,
the weeks went on; mid-October to two days before Christmas – went on, the arguments
were getting more intense, Vincent was getting more stressed and they’d go to a bar and
Vincent would kind of fight and they’d shout and sometimes Vincent would just pick up a
glass and throw it at his interlocutor and then the next day would say, oh, my dear friend,
I think I may have offended you. The friend would say, oh, just a bit, yes; dodging the
glass. Plus apparently, according to Gauguin so it may not be gospel here but Gauguin said
that Vincent would sleepwalk and he would wake up to find Vincent looking down at him;
all this was very, very scary. Anyway, Gauguin writes that Vincent during December was getting
increasingly – let’s say crazed, for want of a better word, and would go into bars,
into dives, into cafes with a bible under his arm like a kind of Christ-like figure
and begin to preach, if you like, getting more and more and more intense. And then the
rains came. Then two days before Christmas – and again we’ve only got Gauguin’s
words for this – when the rains come in Arles – actually we don’t have only Gauguin’s
words for this. When the rains come in Arles they just come down as strongly as a kind
of monsoon and the two men were trapped in this house together, unable to get out. And Gauguin wrote that he felt he needed some
air and that he walked across the square when he heard behind him the distinctive sound
of van Gogh’s boots on the cobbles and said that he turned around to see Vincent brandishing
a cutthroat razor, at which point he thought, I’m not going home to spend another night
under the same roof as that crazed Dutchman, I’m going off to the brothel. Off he went
to the brothel, Maison du Tolerance, numero deux, which poor Theo had to fund. He had
to fund not only paint, board and lodging but trips to the brothel for his younger brother
and his friend. Anyway, off Gauguin went to the brothel. Meanwhile Vincent returned home.
He knew that Gauguin was going because they’d been, he said, I’ve got to – Gauguin said,
Vincent, I’ve got to go, I can’t stay any longer, this is all too much. Gauguin
had written to Theo saying, we just disagree, I can’t stay any longer. And then Vincent
had ripped out a piece of paper on which it said, the murderer takes flight; insisting
that Gauguin was – or suggesting that Gauguin was the murderer who’d murdered his ideals.
Vincent back at home slashes with a razor at his ear for reasons we’re never quite
going to know and then takes it over to the brothel to give to a prostitute called Rachel
to give to Gauguin, maybe saying – I don’t know – was he the victim of… is he suggesting
that he is the bull vanquished by the great bullfighter, Gauguin, and there you are, there’s
the ear, you’ve won, you’ve murdered my ideals? We don’t know. He goes back home
and he bleeds and is taken for dead, is eventually found, taken to the hospital where over the
next days his ear is bandaged. Gauguin goes off, he never sees Vincent again,
the two men never are to meet. Vincent paints himself with the bandaged ear. This one is
at Courtauld, several of you will know it well. This one here, another one; there he
is with his pipe, his bandaged ear, his hat; dramatic dark reds against this green of the
coat, heightened colour. And then when Vincent returns home to the yellow house there’s
a letter from Gauguin saying, oh, by the way, can I have the Sunflowers? You know, the one
that we’ve got in the National Gallery. And to paraphrase here, Vincent says, no,
actually you can’t. But what he does say is that I’ll paint you another one; and
the next three slides show you pairings. And so we’ve got over here two sunflowers in
a vase on the left from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and on the right a repetition of this,
the one in Munich. So he’s thinking about what Gauguin has said, thinking about, okay,
I don’t need to have it in front of me, I can make a kind of imaginary – look, I’m
moving away from the thing into somewhere else, a kind of symphony of colour here. And
here we’ve got our version on the one side and then the van Gogh on the other and as
I walked down onto the podium someone who I do know said, make sure you mention – what
did he say? He said something about the red; it’s important, very important, the way
he adds the touch of the red. So I thought, okay, keep it in my mind and mention it. He
has added the touches of red and it is – of course, it’s very hard once you’re in
front of these not to do a whole kind of spot-the-difference but we will be doing just that because it’s
impossible not to when you have the two. We haven’t got the cobalt blue line going
there but a red one, which isn’t broken. This is a much more – deliberately showing
you the hand of the artist, it’s not all joined; something more dramatic going on.
The signature isn’t so bold and isn’t so stand-out and it’s below the – oh,
I’m doing a s-the-difference; stop, stop, stop. I’ll stop, you can do that for yourselves
when you go on but you might also like to look at another version, repeated in the Japan
Museum of Art, which is up on the – I’ve put it there for you – the 42nd floor of
a Tokyo skyscraper. They’re slightly more orangey but are we thinking here that he’s
not so happy with it? He hasn’t signed it, he doesn’t write about it at all in his
letters. There’s no documentation on it. Was he perhaps feeling not so happy with it?
Who knows? Well, we know a lot about what his plans were and in a letter to Theo he
says that what he wants to make is a kind of religious painting of it with la Berceuse
– I’m about to show you that in a minute – flanked by two sunflower paintings. Here
is la Berceuse and on the right-hand side the letter that you saw back there; a way
of thinking about motherhood, a kind of modern, contemporary Virgin Mary, mother figure flanked
by the sunflowers either side. And this is exactly how these were at the van Gogh Museum,
the Amsterdam and the National Gallery either side of the Berceuse in a kind of modern triptych,
if you like. Well, this image – and some of you will
have been to the van Gogh Museum, will have seen the kind of recreation of the yellow
house and the studio – this is a kind of approximation of Gauguin’s room at Arles;
the bed and then the two sunflowers there as a decorative element here. And where was
I going with this? Oh, I’ve gone backwards, yes. But in Martin Bailey’s book he writes
all about this very thing, the sunflowers are mine, that this, van Gogh said, was his
own appropriation of the sunflower, this he’d made his masterwork, his masterpiece. He went
on to paint the landscape of Provence in the following summer and writes about just that
to his brother Theo, writes much. But in July of 1890 he comes to the end of his life. This
is the last letter he wrote, four days before his death and he wrote that I have put my
mind and my life in jeopardy working for my aims, my intentions in art. And on 27th July
in 1890 he goes out into a field and shoots himself and 48 hours later dies. Well, this
is an image of his sister-in-law, Johanna or Johanna Bonger who marries Theo and there
she is with her little son, baby Willem. And I’ve put her here because she’s the woman
who begins to advance the career, the posthumous career of her brother-in-law. She contracts
Eugene Boch – and this is a portrait of him – begins bit by bit to make his work,
make van Gogh’s work known, Vincent van Gogh’s work known, because six months after
the death of her brother-in-law her husband Theo dies. And the process works very well;
she becomes, she learns how to become an art dealer, how to lend judiciously, how to write,
how to get critics interested; so much so that a whole van Gogh enterprise begins of
fakes and a book on les faux van Gogh is out there, you know, false sunlight, sunsets at
Arles, false still lifes, etc. And it becomes more and more famous, this kind of tribute
to the growingly great Vincent van Gogh. And Gauguin himself begins to think, well,
perhaps I can key in to this market and writes, I undertook the task of enlightening him,
an easy matter for I found a rich and fertile soil, my van Gogh made astonishing progress
and the result was a whole series of sunflowers upon sunflowers in full sunlight; kind of
trying to take credit of himself as teacher. And perhaps – here she is again, advancing
the career – but perhaps with this work here, it’s a reminder of a homage that Gauguin
was to pay to Vincent. He had himself posted from Paris sunflower seeds which he grew and
then has painted here, kind of keying in to this sunflower image, and reputation grows
and grows. And in 1923 this is exhibited here and the reputation of van Gogh has grown and
grown and grown, it is a fantastic story by now, people become interested in the 20th
Century of what for them becomes the quintessential artist, an artist who is suffering for his
art, puts every comfort aside in order to follow his dream, a dream that isn’t realised
during his lifetime, only after his death. This really kind of keys in to what people
in the 20th Century want for their artist. Picasso said, it’s the torment and the anguish
of van Gogh that we respond to. And the National Gallery asks Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, please
could we buy that Vincent van Gogh Sunflowers painting? Absolutely not, it’s not for sale,
it lives in our house, it’s very important. They make another impassioned plea; how great
it would be to get the information about van Gogh out there, to put a painting like this
in a public place, Madame van Gogh. And eventually she agrees and the painting
is acquired in 1924 for the gallery, where it becomes one of its greatest masterpieces,
one of its stand-out works. And a reminder that – exactly so – apparently there are
100 products in the gallery shop and the head of… the buyer says that there are all sorts
of things, you know, from mouse mat to phone cover to tie to pendant to watch, mug, etc.
There it all is. And the thing that they sell most of are the postcards so the – was it
1,300? that was paid for the work had netted just, I think, in postcards alone £2 million
for the gallery. So we’ve got this kind of extraordinary, tragic irony, have we not,
between the artist who in his own lifetime sold but one painting – has after his death
become the artist whose paintings sell for the greatest sum of money ever. And we might
think about that as we go up and look at the Sunflowers. Thank you.

17 thoughts on “Lucrezia Walker | Van Gogh: Sunflowers, Letters & Life | The National Gallery, London

  1. lovely presentation young lady,,enjoyed it very much with my supper alone, and i share Vincent love of art too and followed him, in that i have painted all my life unknown

  2. Just to set the record straight, Vincent Van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, not April 15, 1853.

  3. Lucrezia, thank you so much for your highly interesting lecture, I learnt a lot from you !
    The National Gallery, thank you as well !

  4. Very fine talk but I would prefer to listen to the voice while looking at the paintings that is talked about and it would be wonderfull if the paintings were shown full screen most of the time. The paintings talk so much and so strongly of life that the history of van Goghs life is an interesting knowledge but his art is everything – show the art more in talks like this

  5. Very interesting, thank you so much,
    Dear Madam,a large number of famous great painters (during difficult days), reproduce and sign works of other great painters who sold well, for the purpose of subsistance.
    Had Vincent Van Gogh reproduce a few works of this kind and sold them until the arrival of Theo's money? Merci beaucoup

  6. I am a painter. I would’ve have liked paint you during your talk. The jacket is interesting color with unique buttons.

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