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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood