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August 04 2012

Van Gogh to Kandinsky; Edvard Munch: Graphic Works; Picasso and Modern – review

Scottish National Gallery; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

There is a painting in the Scottish National Gallery so ominous one cannot immediately shrug off the memory. It shows a grey stone colonnade in some nameless place stretching away into infinity. An esplanade on the right is depthless and deserted, more like dark water than land. The interior of the colonnade is an open tomb. The painting puts you on the spot, confronts you with its eerie perspective beneath a rain-laden sky that is not quite day and not quite night. But where exactly are you?

This startling watercolour is by the Belgian artist Léon Spilliaert. It was painted in 1908 in Ostend. You might wonder, as some have, whether it has something to do with those murderous times, when millions of Africans were slaughtered during Leopold I's reign in the Belgian Congo. And perhaps it carries deep overtones of horror and sorrow.

But it may also come from Spilliaert's own experience as a chronic insomniac who walked the streets of Ostend by night to distract himself from the pain of a stomach ulcer. His scenes are silent, monochromatic, empty of all human presence except his own wretched solitude; this is the art of a noctambulist.

Spilliaert's work is not often seen outside Belgium. Indeed many of the names in the tremendous Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 may be unfamiliar, since symbolist art of any sort has had mixed fortunes, and symbolist landscapes in particular. Indeed this is the first pan-European show, to my knowledge, and not the least thrill of it is the sight of the continent stretching out before you, from the Scandinavian fjords to la France profonde, from the ravines of Mallorca to the dark forests of Bavaria.

The facts of a landscape are never supposed to be the point for these artists – "don't paint the thing itself, paint the effect it produces" wrote the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé – but one cannot help relishing the sight, and not just the sense, of place; the lakes of Finland, bright as mirrors, and the blue snows of the Eiger even in high summer.

As for the effect produced, it is almost overwhelmingly intense. More than a hundred paintings have been borrowed from museums across Europe, including masterpieces by Van Gogh, Munch, Arnold Böcklin, August Strindberg and James Ensor, and the mood plunges and soars by the room. It rises to ecstasy with Ensor's great vision of Christ Calming the Storm, in which sea and sky appear to unite in radiant meltdown; and it sinks into the most plangent gloom with the German painter Franz von Stuck's Evening Landscape, in which dark trees glower against the fading twilight.

Light, to adapt Manet, appears to be the main protagonist of the symbolist landscape. Indeed it is hard to see what else connects the works in this show. Symbolism is such a vague term – especially when it is made to stretch all the way from the Victorian visions of GF Watts to Paul Signac's pointillist arcadias – that it may be worth ignoring altogether in Edinburgh. It is self-evident that these landscapes are more than descriptions; that you're not just meant to admire the view.

But while it may be very clear that Léon Bakst's aerial view of an Aegean archipelago struck by lightning while a Greek statue breaks into a sinister grin must have the decline and fall of ancient civilisations in mind, it is less obvious that Spilliaert's art can be understood in terms of colonial politics. German symbolism, for instance, is routinely diagnosed as a reaction to Bismarck's modernised materialist state, but that doesn't begin to explain the immense variety of these German landscapes, from von Stuck's opalescent puddles at dusk to the island graveyards of Böcklin.

There are some real surprises in this exhibition. The reclusive Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, master of the mysterious interior, steps out into the streets of Copenhagen to paint Amalienborg Square in the queerest of filtered brown shadows: out of time. There are passionately beautiful treescapes by Mondrian before he turned to abstraction. August Strindberg's harried surfaces seem to prefigure the art of Anselm Kiefer just as surely as many of the artists in the Silent Cities section get there before Giorgio de Chirico.

And there is a show within a show here, as well – a survey of landscape painting at its wildest. Vertical versus horizontal, near against far, the effects of close-up and cropping, of vantage points high above, or way below, with a disappearing horizon or a double focus or no focus at all; it is a masterclass in radical landscape painting.

These are pictures to send shivers down the spine, and even to fill one with dread, above all in the case of Edvard Munch. In Winter Night, the great shape-maker coins a bat-black tree with its branches out-flung like a cloaked figure before an immense frozen waste as night falls. The tree is as frightening as the dying light: will we get away before darkness overwhelms us?

The Scream counts, I suppose, as a symbolist landscape plus figure. It is also on view in Edinburgh in the form of a hand-coloured woodcut in Edvard Munch: Graphic Works From the Gundersen Collection at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Munch's prints are as articulate as his paintings – sometimes more so – and this show of 50 works goes as deep, in its incisive way, as the superb tribute to the exuberant old miserabilist currently on show at Tate Modern.

The big festival show at the SNGMA, Picasso and Modern British Art, originated at Tate Britain in February. It is more successful in Edinburgh than it was in London. This is not simply because the rooms in Edinburgh, with their natural light and human proportions, are a better place to look at paintings than the subterranean galleries at Millbank, but because this version is so well edited.

The idea is to look at three artists who paid sharp attention to Picasso without being overwhelmed – Wyndham Lewis, Francis Bacon, David Hockney – plus several more who fairly swooned. In London the comparison was often cruel, but some of the weaker painters (the Bloomsburys) have been cut back here and the main trio given much clearer representation. The show becomes a concise evolution of British modernism in which the influence of Picasso now looks more like learning and less like theft.

Picasso himself springs alive in zany photographs and drawings from the collection of the British surrealist Roland Penrose at the SNGMA, and, of course, in many stunning pictures, including the Tate's Three Dancers and his beautiful portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter in blue moonlight. It is also excellent to see those two Scottish mavericks, the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde in the cubist context. Look out for MacBryde's aggressive cucumber and apocalyptic, wild-eyed kipper.


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August 02 2012

Edinburgh art festival - in pictures

From Mickey and Minnie tapestries to movie screenings for monkeys, Edinburgh art festival has the lot. Plus, new and rare works by Susan Philipsz, Vincent van Gogh, David Hockney and Dieter Roth





July 31 2012

Why Picasso's Joker trumps Van Gogh and Cézanne

While others were besotted with beauty, Picasso showed a radical appetite for ugliness in his painting of the bohemian, Bibi la Purée, which has just gone on display at the National Gallery

Pablo Picasso's portrait of Bibi la Purée stands out bizarrely in the post-impressionist room at London's National Gallery where it has just gone on view. The horrible complexion of this absinthe-drinking former actor, painted by the 20-year-old Picasso in Montmartre in 1901, is an uneasy interloper among Van Gogh's Sunflowers and Cézanne's Bathers. Even in this youthful work, the shocking radicalism and daring of Picasso glares from the wall like the awful flower in Bibi's jacket.

Grotesque, ugly and monstrous, this man could be an early design for The Joker or a junk-addled clown. Clearly the young Picasso was fascinated by the low life of Paris and drawn to the demi-monde where art met absinthe. If Bibi la Purée seems to belong to the world of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that's because Toulouse-Lautrec was Picasso's hero when he first encountered the art and atmosphere of Paris. The 20-year-old Spanish visitor here tries his hand at painting like the chronicler of Montmartre's dancers and prostitutes. Being Picasso, his attempt at emulation turns into a work of uncomfortable originality.

Seeing Picasso in the National Gallery, which has got the portrait of Bibi la Purée on long-term loan from a private collection, is tremendous. He belongs here. His art exploded out of the European traditions of art this museum exhibits, and all his life he engaged with the masters of earlier centuries as rivals, enemies, models. It is in the context of such a collection that you see his audacity to the full.

This painting, in this collection, reveals Picasso's revolutionary appetite for ugliness. Next to Bibi la Purée, the nearby paintings of Van Gogh and Cézanne seem besotted with a cult of beauty invented by the Renaissance. Their colours harmonise and they exult in nature. Picasso instead delights in coarsely ill-matched colours and a face pale and diseased from modern city life. He is really on to something here, in 1901, as he sees discord as the art of modern life. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is just six years away. He will paint it in a studio in the same Montmartre where he met Bibi la Purée.


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June 26 2012

Van Gogh's Starry Night recreated in dominoes – video

The Canadian YouTube user FlippyCat recreates Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night using 7,000 dominoes





March 30 2012

Vincent van Gogh's The Pink Peach Tree

Jonathan Jones is bringing us the artworks that best celebrate the new season. Step forward Van Gogh, whose rendering of a peach tree in Arles burns with life force



March 24 2012

Vincent van Gogh's house in London for sale - video

Jonathan Jones visits the house in south London where artist Vincent van Gogh lived in 1873. The property is on the market for the first time in 65 years



March 23 2012

Vincent van Gogh's London home up for auction

The Brixton house where the artist lived as a young man is all the better for being in need of modernisation

"I'm getting on well here", Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in January 1874. "I've got a lovely home ..."

On Tuesday that very home – in Brixton, London SW9 – will go under the hammer, having been put on the market for the first time in 65 years. The Guardian went to view the property at 87 Hackford Road on a crisply sunny spring day that would have delighted Van Gogh himself.

In the letter, he advised Theo: "Do go on doing a lot of walking and keep up your love of nature, for that is the right way to understand art better and better. Painters understand nature and love her ..."

Amazing that Van Gogh probably wrote those words in this suburban house where dry unkempt plants – like something from one of his tangled paintings of the asylum garden that would later become his only patch of nature – contrast with the flaking white paint of the house front, and the ceramic blue of its proud plaque declaring that Vincent van Gogh, painter, lived here 1873–1874.

Inside the Grade II listed building, yellowing sheets from ancient editions of the Salvation Army's newspaper, the War Cry, float on battered floorboards. Cobweb-covered plastic fruits hang in the kitchen. Ceilings on the upper floors hang down, ruptured, revealing slipped roof timbers. But everywhere you look amid the decay, traces of Vincent van Gogh impose themselves

The house, as Savills auctioneers put it in their catalogue, is "in need of modernisation". Yet the fact it has never been converted into a plush modern home means that raw Victorian archaeology survives just beneath the rotting linoleum and decrepit wallpaper.

The shape of the interior from the Victorian days when Van Gogh lived here is clear in its layout of front and back bedrooms, each with its own cast-iron fireplace. Van Gogh must have warmed himself before these fires after his winter walks.

Presumably he also made his way to the outside toilet, which survives in all its glory. There are some (modern) gardening tools propped up next to the vintage porcelain receptacle, ready to make some inroads on the overgrown, matted garden of nettles, shrubs and a few little blue flowers.

Again, the colours of a Van Gogh painting come to mind – and in fact, in one of his letters home from Hackford Road, he describes planting flowers and shrubs in this very garden. Could a couple of these plants be descended from his seedlings?

Van Gogh came to work in London for the art dealer Goupil & Cie in 1873. He was 20, with his mature life as an artist years in the future. The dealers' premises were in Covent Garden, and he walked home from work every evening, for he was a lifelong lover of romantic pedestrianism.

But the idyllic life he seems to have enjoyed for a time in this house was not to last. Its black iron fireplaces and large sash windows witnessed his first great heartbreaking experience of love.

The intense and romantic Dutch lodger was deeply attracted to Eugénie Loyer, the 19-year-old daughter of his landlady. His love spills over into his letters as he transcribes Keats's poem of love and desire, The Eve of St Agnes, and an even more heated Romantic work by Michelet on the Mystery That Is Woman.

But his interest was totally unrequited and became deeply embarrassing. Van Gogh's sister Anna moved in with him, but soon both Van Goghs were forced to leave for new lodgings in Kennington.

It's a shame a film company can't rent the house before it is sold to make a drama here, for the exact layout of the Victorian house in which the 21-year-old Van Gogh suffered the agonies of unrequited love is preserved.

Entering a front bedroom with its austere fireplace and timeworn sunlit floorboards, you can easily picture the redheaded lodger standing in the doorway, asking Miss Eugénie if she has read Keats's poetry, and if she would care for a walk in the afternoon sun. On the stairs, a view through the window of newly budding March trees against a pale blue cloud-ruffled sky is just like a painting – one Van Gogh must have seen every day when he lived here.

Van Gogh always dreamed of a happy home. When he moved into the Yellow House in Arles years later, he would fill it with simple furniture – a wooden chair, a wooden bed – and decorate it with paintings of sunflowers. His lodgings in London, just like the Yellow House where he was to rage at his guest Gauguin, brought him both joy and suffering.

Imagine restoring this house and giving it the yellow walls and wooden furniture that he makes so magical in his paintings in Arles. You could have your very own Vincent's Room. It's expected to fetch more than £400,000 at auction on Tuesday evening. It would be amazing to bid. Instead, on the way out, I pluck a flower in his memory.


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January 17 2012

Becoming Van Gogh

How difficult can it be to recreate a relatively straightforward painting such as Van Gogh's Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear? There's only one way to find out

My first thought on seeing these painstaking photographic recreations of famous paintings was, "Why would anyone want to do that?" But my second thought was, "Right – give us a go, then."

The rules on Jeff Hamada's Remake project stipulate that only classic works of art should be staged, and that no post-production effects are employed. Some of the interpretations are literal, some are loose, others have been updated or toyed with.

My choice, Van Gogh's Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, from 1889, was pretty straightforward, or so I thought: coat, hat, bandage, done. Van Gogh cuts a pitiful figure in the portrait, painted just after he cut off his left ear lobe. He was in and out of hospital, plagued by hallucinations and despair. He looks cold, too. I figured I could fake all that.

Recreating a painting in a photograph, however, presents all kinds of challenges – of composition, of colour, of depth and perspective. I knew I didn't look much like Van Gogh – I'm not complaining, by the way – but in my efforts to reproduce the painting as faithfully as possible, I encountered a number of unexpected problems. For example:

1 It is an odd but surprisingly persistent tradition that men's coats button up on the right side and women's on the left. Van Gogh, of course, painted himself using a mirror, which is why his coat buttons up the wrong way. My coat was of no use.

2 He may have done a mirror-image portrait, but the background is the right way round. You can tell by the figures in the Japanese woodcut behind him, Geishas in a Landscape. Finding a decent copy of the print at short notice would be difficult – Van Gogh's print was nicked from the Courtauld in 1981. I tried printing one off the internet, but the result was too small. Besides, Van Gogh had messed with the composition for his painting, cutting out a seated figure to the right. In the end I drew my own with pastels – an approximation of Van Gogh's impressionistic rendering. It didn't take that long, because I didn't have to do the bit obscured by his head.

3 I had an easel of my own, but the top of it was nothing like Van Gogh's, so I fashioned a fake top out of scrap wood and lashed it to the easel with duct tape. The canvas I had lying around the house.

4 Van Gogh's painting has a sickly, yellow cast, which accounts for a lot of its pervasive melancholy. I tried to reproduce the effect by climbing out a window and draping a yellow duvet cover over the kitchen skylight, but this wasn't terribly successful.

So, with my wife's coat, a borrowed hat and some bandages from the first-aid kit, I set about arranging the scene. The position of the door on the far right corresponded to an actual door in my house, but it wasn't a good match. An old Ikea shelving unit worked better.

5 The little tail of hat fur peeking out from behind the bandage is in fact an ear belonging to a small stuffed rabbit, which is stuck down my the back of my collar. The forlorn expression and the sallow complexion, I'm sorry to say, are the model's own.


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October 18 2011

Did Van Gogh kill himself? It shouldn't really matter

A new claim that a bizarre accident caused the artist's death has no bearing on the severe emotional troubles evident in his letters

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam counsels visitors not to interpret his last works as clues to his suicide – which, according to conventional wisdom, took place when the artist shot himself in a field near the doctor's house that was his last refuge in a world he found almost impossible to inhabit. Last time I was there, a label advised against taking an overly melodramatic view of his roiling blue, black and gold late vision Wheatfield with Crows.

Now the museum has once again urged caution, this time about the claim in a new biography that Van Gogh did not shoot himself after all but was mortally wounded in a bizarre accident. Well might the Van Gogh Museum express scepticism. After all, it seems like only yesterday that "scholars" were claiming poor Vincent did not cut off his own ear after all but was injured by Gauguin with a sword. That claim soon vanished into thin air and rightly so. Will this theory be as short-lived?

Both claims have the instant appeal of challenging the "myth" of Van Gogh the tortured artist, the man "suicided by society", in the words of Antonin Artaud. Yet both come up against the mystery of why he never mentioned that he had been injured by others. In the case of his ear, it would seem strange that he allowed himself to be hounded by locals as a dangerous madman and incarcerated in asylum without mentioning that, oh, by the way, he was the victim of an assault. Similarly in this case, asks the BBC's Will Gompertz, why let his family think he'd killed himself if that was not the case? He managed to walk back home and survived the gunshot to his chest long enough to speak out.

But the truly misleading thing here is the idea that it makes much difference to how we see Van Gogh. I am not disputing the fascination of his biography, but it is much, much more than a dramatic series of violent incidents. Few artists are better known to us than Van Gogh. His letters constitute a work of art in their own right – a literary masterpiece. If you want to appreciate them as such, the best places to start, in English, is the Penguin Classics edition of his selected letters that brings out their vivid intimacy, intellectual liveliness and emotional depth. If you want to delve still further, the new edition of the complete letters undertaken by the Van Gogh Museum is exhaustive, and dispiriting.

Dispiriting because it reveals the seriousness and extremity of Van Gogh's emotional troubles. From his complete letters a remorseless self-portrait emerges of a man who from his youth onwards found it very difficult to coexist with others or find a productive place in his 19th-century world. At odds with his parents, with employers, even with the brother who financially supported him, Vincent nursed the darkest of thoughts and made his own existence virtually impossible. He comes across in his own correspondence like a character out of Dostoevsky.

Not many who read his letters will find suicide a surprising end to his story. That doesn't mean the authors of the new biography are necessarily wrong, but it does make their proposed revision less important than it might seem at first glance. You can argue about the incident. You cannot deny his life expressed the urge.


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August 24 2011

Van Gogh puzzle solved

Designs for stained glass windows that inspired artist verified as depicting mother and daughter at modest church in Owslebury

Two stained glass windows that inspired the young Vincent van Gogh have been verified as those in a modest Hampshire church.

Van Gogh saw the designs while living and working in London and wrote passionately about them to his brother, Theo.

In the years since his death in 1890 academics have pored over the artist's writings but have never found the windows he enthused over.

Art historian Max Donnelly has finally established that the windows are located in St Andrews church in Owslebury, near Winchester.

Standing just over a metre high (4ft), the windows were commissioned by William Carnegie, 8th Earl of Northesk, as a memorial to his wife and daughter, who both died before him. Both women are depicted as the Virgin Mary.

Van Gogh saw designs for the windows at the studio of stained glass makers Cottier and Company in London in 1876. He wrote to his brother: "I saw sketches for two church windows. In the middle of one of the windows the portrait of an elderly lady, such a noble face, with the words 'Thy will be done' inscribed above; in the other window the portrait of her daughter, with the words 'Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

The windows were made and installed at St Andrews and have been much admired, but the link with Van Gogh was never known.

Donnelly made the link when researching the stained glass of Daniel Cottier and saw pictures of the windows at St Andrews. One of the window's inscriptions had changed between design and erection, but there seems little doubt that they are those so admired by Van Gogh.

Donnelly said: "I saw a reference to them at the church in Owslebury and managed to get some photographs. It was then that bells started ringing, and it happened to be about the same time as the exhibition of Van Gogh's letters at the Royal Academy.

"Although the letter mentioning the sketches was not among them, it reminded me that he had written to his brother."

Donnelly contacted the earl's descendants and was pointed in the direction of the family scrapbook. "Inside I found photographs of the people involved and photographs of the designs that Van Gogh had described," said Donnelly. "I assume that the 8th earl sent copies to family members showing them what he was intending for the church to the memory of his wife and daughter.

"This proved that the windows were the ones Van Gogh had seen."

Donnelly said Van Gogh must have seen the sketches when living in Isleworth, west London, and teaching at the school of minister Thomas Slade-Jones.

"They are punchy and quirky and he'd have liked them for a number of reasons," said Donnelly. "He was very religious, knew they were for church windows and who the sitters were. At the time Van Gogh was very interested in the journey of life."

Donnelly writes about the discovery in the next edition of the Burlington Magazine.


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August 19 2011

The people's painters: what makes a work of art popular?

Monet, Van Gogh, and Klimt are the favourite artists among virtual art collectors. But before you turn your nose up at these obvious choices, let's consider their mass appeal

What makes a painting popular? As I write, the social media-style art site Artfinder lists the top five works collected by its users as follows:

1. Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise

2. Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night

3. Gustav Klimt, The Kiss

4. Gustave Caillebotte, The Parquet Planers

5. Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave

It's interesting that popularity in this case depends on what people add to their online collection. I have always believed that artistic taste varies wildly between works we might find challenging and stimulating in a gallery, and those we'd love to own. Putting a work of art in your digital collection is not quite the same as buying the actual painting – but it means you want to have it around, at least on screen. Collecting a work of art, even virtually, means you can live with it.

So it is not surprising that the Artfinder top five may strike some as conservative. Or a little bit obvious. After all, the only surprising name here is Gustave Caillebotte, whose enigmatic, arguably homoerotic image of working men is a fascinating treasure of the Musée d'Orsay.

But popularity always is obvious. And it is healthy. On the whole, the world's favourite works of art are the world's best works of art. Monet deserves his number one slot. He is an artist you don't find a lot of cooler-than-thou art theory books being written about – because he is popular. But there are few experiences in art as rapturous as losing yourself in a Monet. What is retardataire about the sensory and psychological journeys into which his paintings lure the beholder?

Van Gogh, the visionary, and Klimt, the hedonist, are two more artists whose popularity is heartening. It is a great posthumous gift to Van Gogh to be loved by so many when he was so lonely in life. And Klimt, however many snobs try to do him down, is a mystic priest of love.

Japanese art was loved by Van Gogh and his contemporaries, so Hokusai confirms that the mood here is early modernist.

Perhaps what it reveals is that the most popular art, that hits most people most deeply, is the art of the early modernist era from the 1860s to the 1900s, when new visions changed painting forever while still drawing on its long global history. It was a golden moment.


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August 12 2011

Miró, Van Gogh and Tate St Ives – the week in art

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Jonathan Jones's top shows this week

Joan Miró
The art of Joan Miró is part of the history of abstraction, as well as a highlight of the surrealist movement to which he belonged. His early dream paintings have much in common with the contemporary abstract works of Arp, while late works offer a European answer to the freedom of Pollock and the American abstract expressionists. A truly important modern painter.
• At Tate Modern, London SE1, until 11 September

Ron Arad's Curtain Call
Artists including Mat Collishaw and Christian Marclay project films on a giant silicone curtain created by designer Arad in a multimedia summer spectacle at the venue legendary for its association with 1960s psychedelic lightshows.
• At Roundhouse, London NW1, until 29 August

Tate St Ives Summer Exhibition
There is a minimalist tone to some of the art in this year's eclectic summer show at the Cornish Tate by the sea, as the restrained and passionate works of Agnes Martin are juxtaposed with Martin Creed's gallery half-filled with balloons. Two excellent reasons to include modern art in your British beach holiday, and the surf is amazing, too.
• At Tate St Ives until 25 September

Twombly and Poussin
You can get a very good notion of why the late American painter mattered so much in this excellent selection of mostly smaller works by him. It also features Poussin's majestic Arcadian Shepherds. Eerily, some of Twombly's works are funereally displayed in the mausoleum built into this gallery, while a film by Tacita Dean offers a portrait of the artist near the end of his life.
• At Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21, until 25 September

Thomas Struth
Panoramic photographs of resonant, spectacular places, and unsettling juxapositions of modern people with historical cultural landmarks, make Struth a distinctly thought-provoking artist.
• At Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, until 16 September

Up close: sun-worshipping summer masterpieces

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888
Sometimes this painting fills you with happiness. At other times, if the light on it is a little less bright, it can appear desperately melancholy. It is a modern version of religious art: where a medieval street corner might display a statue of the Virgin Mary to console people in their everyday lives, Vincent's flowers, in a faithless age, find hints of spiritual meaning in nature and offers evidence of earth's beauty to strengthen the soul. And yet the unease shows through.
• At National Gallery, London WC2

Giovanni Bellini, The Agony in the Garden, c1465
Bellini's rosy-fingered dawn creeping over a north Italian hillside, brightly illuminating a little town whose people are still asleep, is one of the most beautiful homages to the sun ever painted. Earth's star has not yet appeared in the sky, but the pink fiery promise of its coming that spreads through sharp blue is a miracle of natural observation.
• At National Gallery, London WC2

John Michael Rysbrack, Sunna, about 1728 -1730
Statues of Greek and Roman gods and heroes were the convention in 18th-century landscaped gardens, but Lord Cobham decided to be different in his garden at Stowe. He commissioned Rysbrack to carve marble figures of the pagan Saxon gods, a savage English pantheon. This deity with flaming hair hewn from stone is Sunna, the Saxon god of the sun, as imagined by 18th-century antiquarians.
• At V&A, London SW7

Sculptures from east pediment of the Parthenon, about 438-432BC
The wine god Dionysus reclines to watch the rising of the sun's chariot in the mythological representation of day and night that ancient Athenian sculptors carved on their city's greatest temple. Colossal marble figures of gods, fragmentary but overwhelmingly powerful, convey the titanic authority of Greek myth. While the sun chariot rises on the left side of the group, at the right of the scene one of the horses of the moon goddess rolls its eye.
• At British Museum, London WC1

Maeshowe, about 2700BC
Visitors to the Orkneys in summer are there at the wrong time of the year to see the winter solstice light penetrate this cairned chamber. But at any time of the year it is a fascinating testimony to ancient humanity's adoration of the sun. Just like ancient Egyptians and Aztecs, the neolithic builders of this camera-like stone structure aligned their architecture, and presumably their lives, to the cycles of the sun.
• At Stenness, Orkney Mainland

What we learned this week

The truth about Ai Weiwei's interrogation by Chinese police

How the Medicis' riches not only powered the Renaissance, but created the modern banking system

Why the world needs a nude sculpture of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez

How artists captured the violent riots of London's past

Why a blockbuster Alexander McQueen show could lead to a fashion takeover in art galleries

Image of the week

Your art weekly

@MrsSymbols Treasures of Heaven, at @britishmuseum: spectacular, scholarly, spiritual, superstitious – and symbolic #artweekly

@camilayerlarte I highly recommend "You are not alone" an ArtAids Foundation exhibition at @fundaciomiro in #Barcelona #artweekly

Have you been to any of these shows? What have you enjoyed this week? Give your review in the comments below or tweet us your verdict using #artweekly and we'll publish the best ones.

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May 26 2011

Don't believe the hype about contemporary art

Like the economy, 21st-century British art is running on false credit. How many truly great living artists can you count?

In the Musée d'Orsay in Paris hang the revolutionary works of painters who made art modern in France more than a century ago. Here they are, the true greats of early modernism: Cézanne and Van Gogh, as well as Gauguin and Degas, Monet and, of course, Seurat. That's six, and there are obviously several more profoundly important figures in France at that time, including Toulouse-Lautrec and Odilon Redon. That makes eight. And there are more, too, including sculptors led by Rodin. Perhaps you could bring the figure up to 16, even 20, without scraping the barrel.

Say we agree, generously, that 20 artists genuinely mattered in late 19th-century France at the dawn of modernism, one of the truly great moments of art history. Now, how many living British artists are regarded as important, unmissable, revolutionary? To judge from the bonanza of 21st-century British art touted in newspaper articles, art fairs, group shows, magazines and a host of solo shows at legions of galleries, there must be – what? – a hundred, no, more like two hundred names to conjure with.

So this must be the greatest moment ever in the story of art, a cultural golden age to put fifth-century Athens to shame.

Or could 21st-century British art possibly be overhyped?

Come on – do the sums – they don't add up. The young and middle-aged artists celebrated in Britain today cannot all be marvellous. Just as Britain's economy in recent times turned out to be running on false credit, so too our art scene has ballooned into a mass delusion.

How many great works of art can we actually count that our age will bequeath posterity? Where are our Sunflowers, our apples and our dancers.

There is a pitiful gulf between noise and achievement in contemporary British art. Of course, we have some good artists, some very good artists, and maybe a couple of great ones. But the vast majority of exhibitions are slight and huge numbers of artists are "farting around", as I observed of Mark Leckey the other day. I did not mean to imply he is the only bad artist. In fact, truly honest art criticism in Britain today would mostly consist of reviews like that one.

Look – as I say – do the maths. You must know how many, or rather how few, artists it is possible to truly love, how small the selection of artworks that really make an impact is. Now pick up any art magazine and sample the latest haul of significant, new, radical, cool artists: it seems there never has been and never will be an age when artists of real value proliferate so readily. Therefore, by plain logic and common sense, a vast proportion of the art we hear so much about in Britain today must be rubbish. It's that simple.


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February 14 2011

Van Gogh doomed his sunflowers

White powders that van Gogh added to brighten the yellows of his sunflowers triggered a reaction that turns the paint brown

When Vincent van Gogh moved to the south of France in the late 1880s, he began to paint sunflowers in vibrant chrome yellow. But even before his untimely death, some of his paintings had lost their sheen and started to turn brown.

The chemistry behind the discolouration has stumped conservationists, but using tiny flakes of paint and an enormous x-ray machine, scientists believe they finally know the cause of the problem.

Conservationists can slow down the degradation, for example by installing air-conditioning units to keep the paintings cool in the summer.

One enduring mystery was why some paintings that used chrome yellow turned brown while others were unaffected. The paintings that suffered most used yellow paint that had been lightened with white pigments.

The researchers found that sunlight kicks off a chemical reaction that ultimately turns yellow paint brown. The sunlight oxidises the oil in the paint, releasing electrons. These are then taken up by the yellow pigment – lead chromate – turning it green. The mix of green paint with oxidised oil produces a chocolate brown colour.

The team led by Koen Janssens at the University of Antwerp took samples of yellow chrome paint from left-over tubes belonging to 19th century artists. To simulate the effects of sunlight, they exposed them to UV light. After three weeks, paint from one of the artists, the Flemish Fauvist, Rik Wouters, had transformed from bright yellow to deep brown.

The team analysed flecks of the paint using an intense x-ray beam less than one thousandth of a millimetre wide at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble. Those tests revealed that particles of lead chromate had been "reduced" – picking up extra electrons.

Further tests showed that the reaction only took place when white pigments based on sulphates were mixed into the yellow paint.

"By mixing these white powders in, van Gogh intended to make a lighter yellow paint, but through this effect, nature darkens it. While he wanted to show a light, pale and delicate yellow, it instead becomes a darker, brownish yellow," said Janssens.

Another series of tests on flakes of paint from two other van Gogh paintings, Bank of the Seine (1887) and View of Arles with Irises (1888) confirmed the same yellow-to-brown reaction had taken place.

The findings were published on Monday in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

Vincent van Gogh began painting in his late 20s and shot himself in 1890 at the age of 37 after completing more than 2,000 works of art.

Janssens said that paintings vulnerable to the discolouration could be preserved by reducing light levels and ensuring they do not get too warm in the summer, as heat accelerates the reaction.


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January 07 2011

Gauguin tribute to Van Gogh for sale

Works by Picasso, Matisse and Degas also on offer at blockbuster Christie's art sale

A still life of sunflowers painted by Paul Gauguin as a tribute to his friend Vincent Van Gogh, which has not been seen in public for more than 20 years, will lead one of the blockbuster impressionist art sales in London next month.

Christie's today announced details of its February impressionist and modern art sales which will include works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, André Derain, Edgar Degas and Pierre Bonnard. The total pre-sale estimate is between £74m and £109m – the second highest for equivalent Christie's sales in London and a sign that sellers are more confident than a year ago, when the estimate was between £57m and £81m.

Certainly there is a detectable buoyancy in the trophy art market, as evidenced by largely successful sales in New York and London last year that included a record for any artwork bought at auction – the sale in May of Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust for £70m.

Christie's head of impressionist and modern art, Giovanna Bertazzoni, called 2010 a landmark year for the art market, with record prices driven by a demand for top quality works.

"The category continues to engage new collectors from both established and emerging markets, including China and Russia," she said. "When there is a healthy supply it has been shown that there is a tremendous demand for the rarest and the best."

Few would quibble about the Gauguin being in that category. Nature Morte à L'Espérance was painted in Tahiti in 1901 – two years before his death from syphilis and 11 years after Van Gogh's suicide – and was shown at Gauguin's first big retrospective in 1906. Although not seen in public since 1989, it has featured in more than 20 major museum exhibitions over the years and has the highest estimate, at £7m to £10m.

The Christie's sale will include four works being sold by the Art Institute of Chicago. It is selling two Picassos, a Matisse portrait and a Braque still life – Nature Morte à la Guitare (Rideaux Rouge) – estimated at between £3.5m and £5.5m.

Other highlights include an Degas ballet painting – Danseuses Jupes Jaunes (Deux Danseuses en Jaune), which has been in the same family since 1899 and is estimated at between £3m and £5m – and a Bonnard summer's day view from his house in Normandy, Terrasse à Vernon, estimated at between £3m and £4m.


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December 02 2010

Works by Van Gogh and Hockney mark London gallery's 200th birthday

Twelve paintings that 'would knock your socks off at 50 paces' feature in Dulwich Picture Gallery's anniversary celebrations

As birthday presents go, they are quite something: 12 of the most jaw-dropping paintings in any gallery anywhere, courtesy of institutions across Europe and the US including the Uffizi, Prado and Met.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery, England's oldest public art gallery, today announced it was marking its 200th anniversary in 2011 by displaying specially loaned paintings for a month at a time by artists such as Velázquez, El Greco, Rembrandt, Constable and David Hockney.

"We wanted paintings that would knock your socks off at 50 paces," said Ian Dejardin, the gallery's director, who admitted he has been thinking about the bicentenary since he joined five years ago.

"This is a very important date in the history of all museums in this country and if you're going to celebrate, then you might as well do it all year. If you haven't heard of Dulwich Picture Gallery by the end of the year then you're deaf."

The south London gallery opened 200 years ago to house a remarkable collection that had been built up over five years for the King of Poland, who wanted to build a royal collection from scratch.

His abdication in 1795 left two London-based art dealers with some fine paintings which, in turn, led to the creation of what is one of the world's oldest public galleries. Then it charged sixpence to keep riff-raff out. Today the riff-raff are welcome, but they must pay £5 to see a permanent collection that is one of the most important collections of old masters anywhere.

It is this reputation and history that had galleries saying yes to Dejardin's request for loans. One of the most eye-catching is the self-portrait of Van Gogh – he'll be Mr July – from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. It was specifically requested by Dejardin, not least because a 19-year-old Van Gogh walked from central London to the gallery in 1873 and made a mess of the visitor's book by blotting ink all over it. Unfortunately all that is known of his experience, said Dejardin, is that he "had a nice day".

Dejardin said the loans were like "a year-long advent calendar of your dreams". It kicks off with a Sir Thomas Lawrence portrait of Sir John Soane in January and is followed by a Velázquez portrait from the Prado in Madrid – "one of the most extraordinary portraits by the most extraordinary painter in the world," said Dejardin.

March sees the loan of a Vermeer from the Queen; then an El Greco from New York; a Veronese from Florence which comes to the UK for the first time; and a portrait by Rembrandt of his son Titus from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

August brings an Ingres from New York's Frick Collection; then comes a Gainsborough from Washington; Constable's The Leaping Horse from the Royal Academy; Hockney's Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy from Tate; and finally a perfect Christmas card image – Domenichino's The Adoration of the Shepherds from the National Gallery of Scotland.

Dejardin also announced a summer exhibition in which he had "high hopes for fisticuffs" from the visiting public, in that it will examine two artists as stylistically different as it is possible to get – Cy Twombly and Poussin.


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November 09 2010

Margaret Drabble on Van Gogh

In the latest instalment of our writers on artists series, the novelist pays tribute to Van Gogh's famous 1889 Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear



September 27 2010

Our love for Van Gogh costs Paul Gauguin dear

Could the reason the artist remains in the shadow of Vincent be all down to Anthony Quinn's portrayal in Lust for Life?

In an episode of Doctor Who, written by Richard Curtis and shown earlier this year, the Doctor meets none other than Vincent van Gogh. It's one of the best new Who adventures, and definitely the best encounter with a character from history, because it asks the question: what would it have meant to the outcast and unnoticed genius if he knew how much his art would be revered after his death?

The episode begins and ends at a Van Gogh exhibition in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris. An art historian, played by Bill Nighy, is eloquently championing his favourite painter to a rapt audience. A mysterious face in a painting leads to a meeting with the real Vincent, portrayed very sensitively as both tortured and heroic, and mad and sane. By the end of the episode the artist is brought in the Tardis to the Musée d'Orsay and sees, with wonder and gratitude, how much his art will mean to generations yet to come. He even hears Nighy's passionate claim that Van Gogh is, simply, the greatest artist of all time.

It's a lovely idea. When we love this man's paintings we want him to somehow receive the love; to know we care. It is also a new twist on the many, many screen versions of Van Gogh's life and the endless fascination we have for this artist.

One character is missing from the episode: Paul Gauguin. Although we see an immaculate reconstruction of Vincent's bedroom in the Yellow House at Arles – based on the famous painting of it – we don't see the leading artist of the day whom he begged, successfully, to come and live there as putative leader of the artists' colony the Studio of the South.

Poor Gauguin. It's not so long since he was accused of cutting off Van Gogh's ear with his fencing sword - a nonsensical claim that can be dismissed by any reader of Van Gogh's accounts of his self-harm. Now here he is, written out of history, effaced from time, by the makers of Doctor Who.

One reason for not recreating him in Doctor Who may have been that Anthony Quinn made a defining portrayal of the artist in Lust for Life, as a coarse bully, a man who has no real sympathy for Vincent's soul searching. I think Gauguin is a great artist. I find his paintings utterly arresting. I also find his memoir, Noa Noa, a work of literature by an artist that deserves to be much more widely read. In short: I am a fan, and I will be making several visits to the Tate Modern show – yet I can't picture him as a character without seeing Anthony Quinn bullying a befuddled Kirk Douglas.

Our images of artists are not just shaped by their works of art, but also by the stories we tell about them. The narrative of Gauguin's life might make a Joseph Conrad novel, encompassing the global and imperial sprawl of 19th-century life, in which a corrupt yet brilliant man journeys to Paris, to provincial France and to the Pacific. In his final incarnation, living in the remote Marquesas, he is at once a product of an empire and a champion of its victims. Gauguin's paintings of the Pacific attempt to document a culture and its destruction: their melancholy modernity is eerily resonant with our time.

He deserves all the rediscoveries going, and the Tate Modern exhibition will undoubtedly be a feast. But the real test of its success will be if, one day, Doctor Who visits 19th-century Tahiti and meets a darkly serious, subtly compassionate painter. Until we can imagine such a fiction, Paul Gauguin will remain an artist more admired than loved.


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February 24 2010

Disputed Van Gogh painting goes on display

Le Blute-Fin Mill, painted in Paris in 1886, is the first Van Gogh work to be authenticated since 1995

Dirk Hannema was known as a brilliant art curator but a bit of a fool. He claimed he had seven Vermeers in his collection, several Van Goghs and a few Rembrandts, but no one believed him.

Now, 25 years after his death it turns out he was right – at least about one work, by Vincent van Gogh. The painting, Le Blute-Fin Mill, went on display today in the Museum de Fundatie in the central Dutch town of Zwolle.

Louis van Tilborgh, curator of research at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, said the painting was unusual for the impressionist, depicting large human figures in a landscape. It shows Parisians climbing wooden stairs to a windmill in the Montmartre district.

But the work was typical of Van Gogh's at that time in other ways, with its bright colours lathered roughly on the canvas. Van Tilborgh said it was painted in 1886 when the artist was living in Paris. The canvas bore the stamp of an art store he frequented, and used pigments common in other works. The painting "adds to his oeuvre," he said. "You can link it to certain works of Van Gogh in that period, but not that many."

It is the first Van Gogh to be authenticated since 1995 and the sixth to be added to the confirmed list of the artist's paintings since the latest edition of the standard catalogue was published in 1970, Van Tilborgh said.

Van Gogh painted about 900 works. Afflicted by mental illness, he died of a self-inflicted wound in 1890, aged 37.

Hannema, who died in 1984, bought the painting in 1975 from a dealer in Paris. He paid 5,000 guilders for this and another work, and insured it for 16 times what he paid. He touted the painting with "absolute certainty" as a Van Gogh, but no one was listening. He had been discredited since he bought a purported Vermeer in 1937 that later was shown to be a forgery.


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February 12 2010

In praise of… Theo Van Gogh

Geniuses reach their giddiest heights by standing on the shoulders of less-noticed giants. Marx, for one, would have got nowhere without Engels, who provided intellectual encouragement, the cash to survive, and the empathy needed to endure boils on the behind. At least Engels got some fame of his own, unlike most of those recognised in a formulaic "lastly, thanks are due to my wife" at the start of so many books. Outside the art world, Theo van Gogh is likewise obscure, but this could change with the efforts of the Van Gogh Museum to win a wider audience for his brother's correspondence, through a new exhibition at the Royal Academy and an online database. The chief draw of the letters – beyond the sketches which litter them – is the hope of gaining insight into that private mental world which found such great expression in colour. But what really shines through is Vincent's practical life, and Theo's centrality to it. Most of the mail is addressed to him, and Vincent's thanks for "the 50-franc note your last letter contained" settle the mystery about what sustained the artist who famously sold next to nothing. But Theo did more than bankroll; an art dealer himself, it was he who first persuaded to Vincent to pick up a brush. Theo held the dying Vincent in his arms, then died a few months later himself, and, a few years later again, was reburied alongside his brother. As their bodies lie together, so their reputations should together stand tall. For without the one, the other could never have been.


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