Words into images

Royal Academy show reveals a thoughtful and reflective Vincent Van Gogh.

Margaret Drabble wrote a couple of weeks ago in the NS about Van Gogh's letters, ahead of "The Real Van Gogh: the Artist and his Letters", a major exhibition just opened at the Royal Academy in London. Here, our art blogger Anna Maria Di Brina looks more closely at the relationship between that correspondence and the paintings on display at the RA.

 

More than 35 original letters, mostly addressed to Vincent Van Gogh's brother Theo, are on display in this exhibition, alongside 65 paintings and 35 drawings. Together, they offer a unique view of the artist's creativity and inner world.

"He was not the mad, tormented genius we used to think," says Ann Dumas, curator of the exhibition. "He was instead a thoughtful, reflective, highly educated man, who thought very carefully about the aim of his work. The letters give a much more rounded view of him than the clichéd image we have."

A review of the show in the Independent takes it for granted that the juxtaposition of words and images is risky, as if the viewer were being told how to experience the paintings. Van Gogh's letters, devotedly preserved by Theo's widow, are certainly full of detailed descriptions of his pictures and his thinking about them. However, instead of lessening the ability of the paintings to speak for themselves, words and colours seem to act in harmony, offering an extraordinary insight into Van Gogh's work. The letters get us to focus our attention on details that were important to the artist, with the result that we get what Ann Dumas describes as a "direct line from his mind into understanding the paintings".

Take The Pollard Willow, for example. Van Gogh's description of "a sky in which the clouds are racing, grey with an occasional gleaming white edge, and a depth of blue where the clouds tear apart for a moment", far from telling us what to see, instead offers poetic clues that enhance our pleasure in the watercolour. When, in another letter, Van Gogh points out to Theo the "very red face" in the Portrait of a Peasant Girl in a Straw Hat, something similar occurs. These remarks help us to concentrate on the sun's reflection caressing the overheated cheeks of the seated young woman.

 

Vision of Arles

"A meadow full of very yellow buttercups, a ditch with iris plants with green leaves, with purple flowers . . . A little town surrounded by countryside entirely covered in yellow and purple flowers. That would really be a Japanese dream," writes Vincent to Theo, describing his recently painted View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground.

The artist's enchantment with nature is contagious. Watching the oil painting hanging beside these lines, it is impossible not to imagine Vincent standing in an open field, the sun burning his face, enjoying the colourful view. It's almost as if we are seeing things through the painter's own eyes.

It is interesting to notice how words and sketches are juxtaposed and intermingled in the letters. The mixture highlights the fever and excitement of self-expression and creation (something one sees elsewhere, in Frida Kahlo's visual diaries, for example). The same hand writes and draws. Lines from the drawings occasionally leak out into the text. Likewise, the text, particularly when the artist is short of paper, continues on the backs of drawings. At times, the words end up becoming images themselves -- the word "joune" (yellow), for instance, handwritten on a sketch of a field of buttercups in the letter accompanying View of Arles.

Even though Van Gogh's work would resonate without any textual accompaniment, his words nonetheless open new perspectives on its meaning. But all the same, there's no chance of the letters ever getting in the way of the paintings. As he wrote in one of his last letters to Theo, "These canvases will tell you what I can't say in words."

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism