I’m in the Mac store on Regents Street using the free wifi and listening to Jimmy Cliff with four thousand other people – Easter Monday is like Boxing Day here, it seems, the entire world is out for a bit of a shop. I’ll fill in today later – here’s Saturday and Sunday.
And – I know you’re wondering – it’s not raining. Cold, very cold, but not raining. That’s all that matters.
Saturday. Penny arrived at the flat, and we set off for the Academy of Art, to join the very long queue waiting to see the Van Gogh. After an hour outside in the chill wind but luckily not the rain, Penny had the terrific, generous idea of joining the Academy. She paid a lot of pounds but considers supporting the arts one of the things she likes to do with her money. So suddenly, instead of waiting at least another half hour or hour, we walked in – to the most moving and beautiful exhibit.
“The real Van Gogh – an artist and his letters” is a vast presentation of Van Gogh’s letters, shown with the paintings he references. We see that Vincent was a thoughtful, avid reader and patient craftsman who devoted a great deal of time and energy to mastering his trade. He writes to others, but mostly to his brother Theo, about his efforts, how he is learning and practicing perspective, colour, watercolour, human figures. The letters show how he studied and copied other artists, and how influenced he was especially by Japanese woodblock art. He muses about being an artist and about the books he’s reading, in Dutch, English, French and German – Victor Hugo, Dickens, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Balzac, Guy de Maupassant, George Eliot, Bunyan, Shakespeare and especially Zola, his favourite author. “Books and reality and art are the same thing to me,” he writes. After reading a biography of his artist hero Millet, he writes, “He paints life as we feel it ourselves and thus satisfies that need which we have, that people tell us the truth.
“In all of nature, in trees for instance, I see expression and a soul.”
He writes to the faithful Theo, always including a detailed sketch or two, about the kind of paper and canvas he’s using, the pens and brushes, the colours in his new work … “the house and its surroundings under a sulphur sun, under a pure cobalt sky …” he writes. Yet we learn he didn’t even decide to be an artist until he was 24 or discover the power of colour until more than ten years later, in 1886 after his move to France. The last rooms are unspeakably sad. How could a soul radiating such breathtaking beauty, painting one magnificent canvas after another – he produced more than 70 paintings in his last 70 days – choose death? He shot himself in 1890, at the age of 37.
I learned two vital things from this exhibition. One is that any artist, no matter how much genius is innate in his or her soul, needs to learn the craft, and that is done with repetition as painstaking as that of any journeyman carpenter. And second, that making money has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with great art. Vincent was so unable to support himself, he moved back in with his parents for a while at the age of 30. The hero of this exhibition, besides Vincent himself, is Theo, whose only child, a son, was named Vincent-Willem. “Many thanks for your letter,” the painter writes in many of his letters, “and for the 50 franc note you included.” If it weren’t for the faithful support of his brother, we would have no “Sunflowers,” no “Starry Night,” no other canvases by the supremely unsuccessful Vincent Van Gogh. If Theo hadn’t saved all his brothers’ correspondence, on top of his other loyalties, we wouldn’t have this stunning exhibition.
Vincent died with Theo by his side; there’s a possibility that concern over Theo’s future finances might have pushed his fragile soul over the edge. Theo himself died in England only six months later. His wife managed to bring his body to France, and the brothers are buried together in the small town where Vincent died. There’s a photograph of their simple headstones, side by side. Inutterably moving.
Penny and I spent over 2 hours going through this exhibition in the greatest bliss, and were happy and relieved to be able to go to the classy Member’s Lounge afterwards to rest our weary feet and have a bite. Another extraordinary coincidence, in a friendship studded with them – in the Member’s Lounge was an exhibit of the work of a British artist called Barbara Rae. As longtime blog readers will know, it was the friendship and early death of my childhood pen pal Barbara Rea that led me to her sister Penny. Barbara loved to draw and paint; Penny mused about what kind of artist she might have become.
The sun – yes, the sun – was shining, so we walked through St. James Park through which I’d marched quickly yesterday in the rain, and came back to the flat for another delicious microwaved Marks and Spencer meal and wine, before leaving again for the theatre. And once again, without apologies, I’m going to submerge you in superlatives. The show, “Jerusalem,” is one of the best ever, and the performance of its star, Mark Rylance, I think the single most powerful performance I’ve ever seen on a stage. For a minute there, I thought, this after Vincent is more great art than I can stand in one day. But only for a minute.
I thank the “New York Times,” which ran a brief article on London theatre mentioning this play; I mentioned it to Penny who immediately booked us seats, and good thing to, as it was packed. It’s simply amazing. “Enron” was very good, but this was magnificent – though I do not think this has a future in New York, it’s just too English. It’s the story of Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a ferocious, charming, silver-tongued ne’er-do-well with Romany blood who lives in a trailer on public land in a small country town and plays a storytelling Pied Piper to a bunch of disaffected kids, who smoke and snort his drugs, drink his booze and hang about. He’s not a hero, he’s complex and flawed, as powerfully written a role – by Jez Butterworth – as I’ve ever seen, and Rylance is utterly brilliant. I can’t believe that there are matinees of this show, because surely he cannot do something this emotionally, vocally and physically demanding twice a day.
Rooster’s way of life is threatened by the pettiness of local politics, but the play is about something much deeper – about the loss of the great pagan British gods like Woden, god of the slain, who still claims his day of the week, Woden’s day or Wednesday; about the loss of belief in country traditions and values, ancient legends, myths and folk tales, faeries and demons. It ends with Rooster, almost beaten to death, pounding on a drum and screaming out the names of his Byron ancestors and of the ancient giants and gods he’s calling to his aid. Mesmerising. Absolutely stunning.
One last treat – home through the jam-packed late night streets to sit and jabber over a cup of tea about theatre and gods and performances and direction and what-did-this-mean? While the rain, which we just missed, poured down outside.
Today, Easter Sunday, Penny has gone and I’m feeling a little bit overdosed after the banquet of yesterday. But still, here I am in the heart of London, can’t sit about, especially as it has stopped raining. I was going to go to a chocolate festival on the south bank – be still my beating heart – and to the Tate Modern, but didn’t want to go that far afield on such a bitterly cold morning. Walked down instead to the National Gallery – how I love these free British galleries and museums, so spacious, airy and open. Visited some of my favourites again – the wonderful Botticelli young man I’ve loved since 1971, and this time, I made sure to see not the Vermeers or the Poussins, sorry, Bruce, but the Van Goghs, knowing, this time, what the dates meant – this was a happier time in Provence, this from the outpouring just before his death. As I walked through one gallery, I saw a big canvas at the end of another and thought, that must be Holbein. Sure enough, it was. And later, that must be Gainsborough, that must be Constable. It’s like meeting old friends on a busy street and stopping to say hello.
Back home for lunch (M and S, of course) and to the noisy café with wifi around the corner that I used during my stay last year. This time I knew how to enjoy my time there – I brought earplugs. And then off again to the British Museum, to see an exhibit on ancient West African art. It was wonderful to see African families, including one couple in complete regalia made of gorgeous cloth, the woman in a fine big headdress, looking for once at the stunning work of their own ancestors – the father with a thick African accent, the young son sounding like a Cockney.
Here was fine, detailed, sophisticated work from around 1300, from Ife near Nigeria and Benin in Africa – mostly bronze and copper heads, very beautiful and noble. Some were made in tribute to the gods, and I thought of the play last night – no problem remembering their gods here.
Last time I came to this overwhelming museum I turned left, so this time, after Africa, I turned right, to find a “cabinet of wonders” room full of interesting things. As ever, I was thrilled to find Native Canadian treasures like a Salish spoon. I fell most in love with a statue made in Egypt in 1370 B.C. She’s Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess of healing, and she has fine pussycat ears and very big feet.
Once more, an ambitious plan went awry – I was going to go on to the British Library, and I actually set out – but lost heart as it was in the wrong direction and now late afternoon. Instead I meandered through Bloomsbury Square and very slowly towards home in the sun, yes, the sun. I stopped in Golden Square, a pretty park nearby, to sit in the rare bit of warmth and read the latest, just bought “New Yorker.
And then back here to put my feet up, watch telly and recover from the usual London overload.