Van Gogh and Britain: The Pioneer Collectors (5 stars)

  • 27 July 2006

This article is from 2006.

In 1888, Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo (an art dealer, ironically): ‘I cannot help it that my pictures do not sell.’ This has been one of his most enduring myths. Similarly, it has been assumed that the British did not have the taste for avant-garde art at the turn of the century. Pioneer Collectors dispels this myth. The excellent exhibition of the master’s work is the first in Scotland for nearly fifty years, and the first ever to focus on how Van Gogh was collected here.

The chronological arrangement gives us a mini-retrospective of Van Gogh and a cross-section of the drawings, prints and oils produced in France during his finest years. A parallel story is told of the collectors, their personalities and the history of the paintings after Van Gogh put down his brushes. Now in the National Gallery of Scotland, the writhing ‘Olive Trees’ outside Van Gogh’s asylum was bought by Michael Sadler, whose obsessive collecting was, we are told, like ‘a drug to keep depression at bay’. The vibrating orange and green ‘Two Crabs’ was bought in 1893 for £17, but nine years later it sold for only £8. In the display of letters and catalogues, there is a ‘confidential’ price list annotated by the director of the National Gallery and, fascinatingly, a flower piece exposed as a fake in 1927.

Scotland was an important centre for Van Gogh collecting, and two fiery portraits of his Glaswegian friend Alexander Reid are reunited for the first time since the 1880s. Dundonians got the taste for Van Gogh through the Colourist works they already owned. Landscapes show pale Impressionist flicks of light, the brooding winter skies of Paris, or fields with murky green swirls thick as mustard, The star of the show is ‘Wheatfield, with Cypresses’ from the National Gallery (the first to enter a British public collection) - a gorgeous, glowing rendition of billowing clouds and the contorted hillside near St-Rémy. ‘Oleanders’ from the Metropolitan Museum, NY, is absolute success: the heavy blooms fight against the spiky leaves, teetering on the edge of the table against a jade, impasto abyss. (Ailsa Boyd)

Dean Gallery, Edinburgh until 24 September

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