EARLY INSPIRATION… I can still remember coming across Van Gogh in Art History lectures at Art College in the 1960s. In those days, he was thought of as a ‘noble savage’ who used paint straight out of the tube! But his work paved the way for Fauvism and Expressionism and so on, and was therefore of great historical significance. IN THE MIND OF THE MASTER… Reading his letters and studying the paintings it becomes clear that Vincent was a highly intelligent and sophisticated man. He could speak and read at least three European languages, and was searching for a certain fulfilment in painting to which every art student could relate and understand. The letters that Vincent left behind outline his work ethic and his on-going battle with depression and mental health, as well as his love for life and colour. He struggled hugely in a way that every artist and creative soul can understand and relate to personally. The more you read about Vincent’s life, the better, although conversely, the more you read the more confusing it becomes. He was undoubtedly a difficult and troubled man, but one who ultimately sought companionship and love above all else. He really only ever found both in his relationship with his brother, Theo. Luckily his letters outline in detail what he was attempting in several of his works, what colours inspired him and what subjects he found most appealing. It becomes possible to summon up a mood of the man himself if you read the letters and study the corresponding works carefully.
THE SELF-PORTRAIT… I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam a few years ago, and more recently the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to see his self-portrait. Both experiences were unforgettable. The image of the sky is especially powerful, particularly the swooping spiral form that sweeps overhead. It felt to me as though a tremendous cosmic force had been made visible by the hand of the artist. The twin stars to the right of the painting exert a force between them like the binary stars that occur in the galaxy. It is a poetic vision of humanity’s place in the universe, whilst also showing the universe not as a hostile force but as a benign presence that is comforting and reassuring. In my opinion, that’s what gives this work its enduring power. It also gave rise to a sky that was reusable in a series of paintings, so powerful was the image.
ON A STARRY, STARRY NIGHT… It’s worth remembering that Vincent painted nearly two works a day for the last year of his life. Starry Night was one of his signature works, and he most probably kept returning to it for two or three days. He would have drafted out his idea in pen and ink before getting on with the job of painting. There are lots of little complex moments in the painting, so the difficulty lies in capturing as many of those as possible whilst simultaneously keeping the paint surface lively and spontaneous. My copy is roughly ten per cent smaller than the original, as I originally painted it for myself. The frame is a hand-carved copy of the original frame, but in a slightly darker gilt finish. Starry Night was actually not a typical Van Gogh work, being a mixture of observation and imagination. It was painted in a lunatic asylum and was not considered a success by Van Gogh himself. Don McLean’s song from the 1970s helped to create the myth of Van Gogh, and by sentimentalising him in some ways did as much harm as good. However, the song was – and is – a powerful piece of work in itself. Directly referencing the title of the piece helped enormously to popularise the legend of Vincent and of his Starry Night painting.