In pride of place in my parents’ suburban dining room half a century ago was a large framed print of one of Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings that attempted to reproduce in relief and on canvas the flecked texture of the original as well as its colours.
By today’s standards, the result was unsophisticated and the technology has long been superseded, but naive visitors to our house were often fooled into thinking that we possessed the genuine work of the master. I wish I knew what had happened to this object, because something similar, albeit much more accurate, is being sold in limited edition for £17,500 at an exhibition curated by Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum that has just arrived in London following successful sojourns in Seoul and Barcelona.
The question raised is essentially that posed by the critic Walter Benjamin in an influential essay written in 1935: what status and value does a work of art have when it can be mechanically (and now digitally) reproduced in infinite quantities? Does that dissemination increase or diminish the aura of the original?
This exhibition, clumsily entitled Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience and housed in a marquee on the South Bank, would have been grist to Benjamin’s mill. It is entirely fabricated from technology, and in this respect suffers in comparison to the National Gallery’s similar Leonardo “experience”, which could at least offer the presence of an actual hand-painted Leonardo.
Here we have nothing but facsimile, as the audio guide leads one through a series of spaces that tell the astonishing tragic tale of Van Gogh’s brief existence – his apprenticeship to the art dealer Goupil, his close relationship with his brother Theo, his religious idealism and portrayal of the peasantry, the maturity of his genius in his encounter with Gauguin, the move to Provence, his final descent into madness and suicide, as well as the swift growth of his posthumous reputation.
The emphasis is very much on the life rather than the work: the headphone commentary offers almost no analysis of Van Gogh’s style or its context in the art culture of Paris. Instead it creates elaborate mises-en-scène with huge forensic images of the canvases, their details often deadeningly expanded to almost nightmarish proportions, interspersed with photographs of relevant locations and stage-set recreations of a Parisian cafe, the painter’s bedroom in Arles and so forth. Can’t you get all that from a good old-fashioned book?
Admission doesn’t come cheap, with standard tickets priced at between £18 and £21, and I’m not persuaded that it represents good value, particularly as entry to the Van Gogh Museum costs rather less. Yes, there are screens for kids to swipe and all the tricks of the fairground trade are in play, but it says a lot that the biggest space is occupied by the shop, stuffed with the kitsch of Sunflower cushions, clutch bags, socks and mugs. One is left with the horrible feeling that this is a merchandising exercise rather than a serious attempt to illuminate an artist’s work.
Recently, I was lucky enough to visit the wonderful Kimbell Art Museum (admission free) in Fort Worth, Texas. Amid its exquisite collection of masterpieces is a small Van Gogh of a street in Les Saint-Maries, painted in his annual mirabilis of 1888. Modest as its proportions and ambitions are, it mesmerised and enchanted me: it seemed to live in four dimensions. The sky is yellow ochre, offset by the blue of thatched roofs; the foliage seems to vibrate in the wind.
The paint sang and the canvas glowed: staring at it for a minute communicated the genius of Van Gogh more vividly and immediately than anything in this enjoyable but superficial amusement-park entertainment.
Until May 21. Details: meetvincent.com