Self Portrait as an Artist, 1888 / © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Was he actually crazy or did he just have moments of frenetic artistic activity when he lost touch with reality? This is the question explored in the exhibition through the words and images contained in his correspondence with family and friends. The letters reveal a persistent and consistent artist, far removed from the image of unstable and erratic genius that has evolved in novels and films. The Real Van Gogh appears as a creative, conscientious and meticulous man, a voracious reader with an immense hunger for culture.
The exhibition does not attempt to deny the the outbreaks of madness that may have occurred during his artistic creation; instead it tries to put things in perspective and show them as sporadic outbursts rather than a determining factor of his genius. The Royal Academy exhibition reveals a multi-faceted Van Gogh: it shows us the hearty fellow drinking in the tavern with the Arles postman, as well as the intellectual pantheist who read the Bible and reflected on metaphysics. We see, too, the friend of Gauguin and Seurat, and also the man who was completely dazzled by the countryside bathed by the burning light of southern France.
To achieve this re-appraisal, the exhibition - London's first major exhibition on Van Gogh in over 40 years - hinges on the artist's letters first published by his widow in 1914 and now re-published in their entirety in a new edition after fifteen years of research and investigation by art world experts. Around forty letters are on display, including the two that the artist wrote to his brother Theo on the eve of his suicide and another bleak epistle he had with him when he killed himself. Alongside them are around 30 drawings and 65 paintings, the majority from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam supplemented with others from the National Gallery and MOMA.