Van Gogh struggled with volume. When at the age of 28 he decided to become an artist, he took to copying contours of nude models from a drawing guide called Exercises au fusain (exercises in charcoal). The figures were, sadly, flat and stiffly composed. Later in his career, after a soon-to-be ex-friend harshly criticized his first large painting The potato eaters (1885) on related grounds, he picked up Jean Gigoux’s Causeries sur les artistes de mon temps (Essays on the artists of my time). Discovering there that he could use circles and ellipses to sketch the masses of a body, he used this technique to draw figures much more full and convincing than those of his earlier studies. When in 1886 his need for live models inspired him to enroll at Antwerp academy despite his detestation of academic training, he found himself unable to conform to the orthodox practice of building figures from the outline up. But, he “felt vindicated in his view by the shortcomings of his fellow students’ drawings: ‘The figures that they draw – are virtually always top-heavy and topple forwards, headlong – there’s not one that stands on its feet.’”
The painter is widely viewed as a genius in a class of his own, an exceptional self-taught artist who paid little attention to the art world around him. But, as Director of the Van Gogh museum Alex Ruger writes in his preface to Van Gogh At Work, “This could not be farther from the truth.” This volume, coming out of the Van Gogh Museum’s long-term research project Van Gogh’s Studio Practice, traces the artist’s transformation from a relative novice to the mature artist who painted well-known compositions like Starry Night and Sunflowers. It juxtaposes his practice-sketches and paintings with detailed research into their composition, as well as information about his life and artistic development gathered from notebooks and personal correspondence with family and fellow artists. Along with Van Gogh we discover the joys of new media and techniques (upon finding several pieces of natural black chalk in his studio: “’It’s just as if there were soul and life in the stuff, and as if it understands what one intends and itself cooperates. I’d like to call it Gypsy chalk (…) It has the colour of a ploughed field on a summer evening!’”) and experience the stresses of supporting an increasing need for materials.
And we meet the people who figured largely in his artistic coming-of-age: people like the artists of the “Petite Boulevard,” a group of avant-garde painters including Emile Bernard, Louis Anquetin, and Toulouse Lautrec for whom Van Gogh organized a Paris exhibition in 1887. There he met Paul Gauguin,with whom he formed an intense and tumultuous artistic relationship. Importantly, this book showcases the eclectic network of influence that allowed one of the most famous artists of all time to come into his own. In doing so, it topples the myth of Van Gogh as an insular artistic genius.
Of the Antwerp academy’s prescribed method of conveying volume, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, “’you really should see!!! how flat, how dead and how bloody boring the results of that system are.’” We can learn something from the artist’s stubborn bucking of convention. Through a fresh approach it is possible to conjure a more three-dimensional picture of the artist and his process. Van Gogh may have been sent back to the basic course, but Van Gogh at Work and its accompanying exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum (1 May 2013 – 12 January 2014 – if you have the great fortune to be in Amsterdam, please visit it for us!) are anything but flat, dead, and bloody boring.