Went to the Van Gogh exhibition today. Queued for an hour outside the Royal Academy and the crowds inside were crushing. And yet, and yet.. what an extraordinary show.
In the seven rooms of the gallery, there were plenty of paintings that didn't really speak to me, the early work for example or some of the portraits. But when you stood in front of Cypresses or Hospital at Saint Remy, The Olive Trees or Flowering Garden with Path or even Head of a Woman, you were simply standing in front of some of the most individual works of art ever created by the hand of man. This is what struck me time and again - that nothing is captured in reproductions, not even the finest colour prints can do justice to the sheer physicality of Van Gogh's canvases. The sculptural quality of the pigment lying almost half an inch thick in places! the violence of the strokes always superbly controlled whether a daub or a dot.
By the time I reached the final couple of rooms, it was clear even to a non-specialist like me that by the end of his life, Vincent had achieved near-total mastery of his medium. In those last paintings, there is no effect he cannot pull off, no mood he cannot capture, no style he cannot pursue to a swashbuckling conclusion. White sail of a boat, irises in a country garden, swirling petals of a rose, oranges in a bowl, shining fields of wheat, pair of poplar trees in Provence, those crazy whorls in those cypresses, and that mad unforgettable dark blue burning sky - it was all there. It was all there for me to see and soak in.
Van Gogh painted over 70 canvases in as many days just before his death. I stood in front of one of them - Ears of Wheat - and could not move. It was so intimate, in so many shades of green, as if Vincent had dived headfirst into the field and painted with vivid truth what he saw around him. It was one more amazing moment among many such today.
First Van Gogh exhibition in London in 40 years. I'm glad I did not miss it. What is obvious now of course is that I must visit those magical places one of these summers - Arles and Saint Remy and Auvers-sur-Oise...