Bit of a hoo-ha with our attempt to see the Van Gogh and Britain exhibition at the Tate – we decided to meet outside the gallery but, when it came to it, three of us were at Tate Modern and only one of us had got it right and was at Tate Britain. Gah!
Half an hour and a pricey journey across central London later, and we were reunited in front of some great canvases. But, actually, not that many great canvases.
Tate Britain has done that naughty thing of dangling a famous name, adding a theme and then stuffing the exhibition with also-ran works and a tiny smattering of the promised artist’s efforts. So yes, here was Starry Night – but not the one you’re thinking of. This one was the bridge version, not the explosion of nuclear-looking suns. Fair enough, there were the boots, and they were juxtaposed with Gertrude Jekyll’s knackered old gardening shoes, which was interesting. And there was a self portrait of Van Gogh streaked with highly disturbing electric blue, from his phase in Paris just before setting off for his fateful trip to the south of France. So there were a few good things.
I’m sure exhibitions like this get through the planning stage on the basis that they provide lots of context for the artist in question, they can explain the reasons behind their creation of famous works, and show us the influences that went into the mix before something spectacular came out. But I’m afraid it all looks like a cheap way to throw together an exhibition, and a bit of a cheat. Borrowing and insuring Van Goghs has to be an expensive business, getting in a load of Victorian prints much less so.
Van Gogh was only in London for three years, and apparently one of his major influences when he was here was Gustave Dore – who was French. Yes, Van Gogh also read a lot of Dickens. But who didn’t?
I wasn’t blown away by this exhibition. I think there should be some sort of threshold for mishmashes like this – a certain percentage of the promised artist’s work. Otherwise you risk sending your punters away unhappy, even if they’ve got the right branch of the Tate in the first place. I admit this was our fault, but getting people to pay £22 to see a lot of editions of Dickens is cheeky. Admittedly, there were versions of the glorious sunflowers here – but juxtaposed with other people’s much less good sunflowers. What was the point of that? It just diluted the power of Van Gogh’s curling, twisting stems.