Apr 2014 Journal
Artists rarely paint the same scene twice but Vincent van Gogh painted seven Sunflowers in 1888-89 during his time in Provence. For the first time in 65 years, two of these paintings hang side by side at the National Gallery in Room 46 (to 27 April 2014, admission free) in a reciprocal arrangement with Amsterdam’s newly renovated Van Gogh Museum, which held its own show last May, featuring both London and Amsterdam paintings.
It is one thing to paint the same thing from different perspectives but what is unusual about these two van Gogh paintings is that they are near-identical – almost to the number of blooms in the vase and their size. In a letter to artist Emile Bernard in August 1888, van Gogh described his theme: ‘the raw and broken chrome yellow will blaze forth on various backgrounds, blues … emerald green and royal blue, framed with thin strips painted in mine orange [red lead pigment].’ He was experimenting at this time with subsidiary colours like emerald and viridian.
It was all inspired by the famous Yellow House in Arles which Van Gogh rented in 1888. He invited his friend Paul Gauguin to join him that summer so they could paint together in the sunny southern French idyll. As he waited for Gauguin to join him, van Gogh painted this series of sunflower pictures to decorate his friend’s bedroom: they signalled friendship but also a kind of homage to Gauguin, whom he saw as his mentor. Influenced by the deceptive simplicity of Japanese art, van Gogh tried to capture the flat yellow of the flowers, working from sunrise onwards that August as the flowers faded so quickly.
So it seems the artist took his sunflowers very seriously. The other paintings are in Tokyo, Munich and Philadelphia. Apart from minor differences in tone and depth in these two works, the welcoming yellow and the presence of dying flowers, as well as those in full bloom, suggest vibrancy and sheer presence. Sadly, the relationship between the two artists failed to flourish as significantly as the flowers. They worked together through the autumn of 1888 but at the end of the year they quarrelled - Gauguin stormed off and van Gogh had a nervous breakdown, mutilated his ear, and entered an asylum.
Yet despite the breakdown of their friendship and the opposing direction of their art, Gauguin recognised that van Gogh had reached the peak of his gifts with the Sunflowers and asked him to send him one as a gift. The National Gallery bought its painting directly from the family in 1924.
The most significant of Richard Deacon’s sculptures in his new exhibition at Tate Britain (to 27 April 2014) is the massive, serpentine piece After, which appears to resemble basket-weave but is actually a construct from multiple smaller components involving wooden tubes which section each curve and a woven, stainless steel strap drawing the ends together. The whole writhing form is serpentine and reflects the quality of form and empty space which is the main feature of Deacon’s work.
Yet there is no sameness in his sculptures, which use many different materials, from steel, foam, rubber, chrome, leather and marble. Tall Tree in the Ear, on loan from London’s Lisson Gallery, is a tall, tubular structure which does suggest the outer ear, if not a stunted tree form, and others are convoluted shapes inviting you to look from all angles. Deacon moves from the major to the minor key: the attractive Tropic, in blue and green glazed ceramic, suggests the movement of waves and Out of Order is a complex jumbled mass of steel. But the overall effect, expressed particularly in Untitled, made of laminated wood, is movement, change and even musical notation.