Transcript

Van Gogh the collector

Vince Alessi
Email: v.alessi@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast with myself Matt Smith and joining me today is Dr. Vincent Alessi, he's the Artistic Director of the La Trobe University Museum of Art. Thank you for joining me Vince.

Vincent Alessi:

Thank you Matt.

Matt Smith:

So we're here today to talk about Vincent van Gogh. So can you set the scene for me for a bit? Firstly, why were you researching this? And tell us a bit about Vincent.

Vincent Alessi:

When I was about 15, I read his letters. Didn't know much about the artist or about the art. I read his letters and was really just fascinated with the person and just decide to take that aspect further and so I did a report and wrote a thesis on a particular aspect of van Gogh's work and then that morphed into a Ph.D in many years. My Ph.D. is very much focused on looking at not so much Vincent's work but looking at a collection of black and white popular prints that he owned and rebuilding that collection and also looking at how that collection influenced his life.

I'm also very interested in debunking the myth that surrounds the artist's genius, you know, cut off his ear, committed suicide, only painted for ten years, never sold any paintings. I'm really interested in debunking that myth and really getting beyond that and actually having a look at his practices, something that was workmanlike and the fact that he really didn't see himself in that light so that's really been something that's interested me for a long time.

Matt Smith:

When you say that they are myths, they are very well-known, are they all myths?

Vincent Alessi:

They're true I suppose. I mean all those things are facts . He did only technically sell one painting but he exchanged a lot of paintings. He did sell some drawings when he was younger. He did cut off part of his ear, cut off his ear. He did commit suicide. Oh, I mean they are facts. I suppose that how much in it is actually removed in that because people tend to look at his work through that glass and I don't think that's healthy. And it's very hard to debunk that because it is such a big part of the story and so I'm interested in separating the two and having a look at really the art for what it is and I mean it is undoubtedly a fascinating story but I think there's to him and there's more to his art than the popular image of him. He's virtually the pin-up boy for the view we have of artists. You know, he'd struggled through life and then only achieved greatness in death.

Matt Smith:

So tell me a bit about van Gogh, the collector. He collected illustrations didn't he?

Vincent Alessi:

Through his lifetime he actually built a number of collections and the most well-known are his letters, which were really mainly to his brother Theo. So the letters, there's his own collection of art work, which again was in the hands of Theo. A collection of paintings by peers that he and Theo collected, collection of Japanese prints, which again were a collaborative effort with Theo but the black and white prints really interesting and they've sort of been undersold in a way and under-researched and they were predominantly built by him alone with some additions from Theo.

Throughout his life there was always his aspect of collecting something and they play a really important role because it's really the first collection that he begins when he becomes an artist. So they have a fundamental role in teaching him how to construct drawings or construct images.

They've really informed him as to what it is to be an artist and what he considers to be art. In some ways he was shaped by this collection of popular illustrations, which were just prints printed in newspapers. So that would be the equivalent to a photograph today in a newspaper. Or probably more when you get a, you know, a souvenir lift-out in the newspaper and that's usually got four-page images. They're equivalent to those sort of images today.

So of themselves, they have no intrinsic value but the fact that they were very democratic art form that anyone can pick up and pinup on their wall, I think it's what appealed to him and I think it informs the type of art he makes when he finds his fate as a painter.

Matt Smith:

Is it known why he collected these prints?

Vincent Alessi:

They coincide with him deciding to become an artist and in the first few years his intention was not to be a painter. His intention was actually to become an illustrator for these newspapers and this was really driven by his family particularly his brother Theo. The family fearful that he was slipping down the social ladder, he came from a middle class family and so this was why I've been ensuring that he did not slip down the social ladder. He would have enough money to survive. I mean he was essentially for the entire of his painting career, which is only ten years long, he was supported by Theo financially. He was receiving money every month.

So this initially was a way of him to stop receiving that funding from Theo and find himself a job. So he was collecting them really to inform himself what was required to become an illustrator and also to teach himself because he was in the mind a self-taught artist. He did get to an academy but for a very short period of time. So there's a four-year intensive collecting period, which really is also the same period when he was developing as an artist. And then when he moves into becoming a painter rather than an illustrator that that collecting of those prints tends to stop. And they've all might serve their purpose by that point.

Matt Smith:

How did he choose the illustrations do you know? Did he have any that were favorites? Did he have any common themes?

Vincent Alessi:

Most came from the two major publications, The Graphic and the Illustrated London News. They were really the two pioneers in illustrated journalism. And The Graphic in particular was a newspaper that started to produce four-page images, which were very much about them being that you would cut out and stick on your wall.

And what is interesting is he doesn't collect everything. The images he chooses are very much have a social realist feel about them but I think the guy is a little bit beyond that that really there's two key themes I think that have been in that collection. One is the dichotomy of city versus rural life. Back in Victorian England, the city was viewed as corrupt, full of vice, dirty and the rural kind of parts were almost saintly, pristine, hard workers, diligent. So that seems to be images that really bring him force that notion that dichotomy. I think the other really mainstay of the collection thematically is a religious underpinning or a spiritual underpinning. Van Gogh came from a religious family. His father was a pastor. He actually attempted himself to become a pastor but failed and then he moved into becoming an artist.

So although he gives up the church, he doesn't give up religion. So I think the other thing in there is images that have this real empathy for other humans and celebrating the human spirit and essence of spirituality. So thematically, they really are the key things that come through the collection. And stylistically, they're weighty drawings, they parallel high art, they're not simple line drawings. The newspapers did include line drawings but hardly any of those come into the collection. So I think it's very clear what he was interested in both thematically and stylistically.

Matt Smith:

How much influence did these illustrations have on van Gogh's art work?

Vincent Alessi:

I think they have a major influence. They shaped his view of what it is to be an artist and what artist should do. He often spoke about or wrote about art of the people, for the people. And if you look at all his work, that's a consistent thing, you know, just depicting the everyday and depicting people at work. But also having underlying spirituality in the work as well.

So I think that thematically they definitely shape what he used to be the artist stroke. Stylistically, I mean I think what's really interesting is even when we get to the later part of his career and that was really glorious, colorful dynamic paintings, which everyone. If you look at the way he actually paints, there's a very um, strong drawing quality into his painting. Things quite often have really dark outlines. And that I think, I would argue very strongly comes from the prints because the prints by virtue of the way they were made needed to have strong outlines because they were black prints so you needed strong bits of line in order to hold the wood block together and that is quite evident throughout his career that boldness about his painting.

And that were really his first teaching aides so if that's where he's learning then that's obviously going to carry on later. There's also some other aspects, the way he tackles portraiture is very much based on a series from the newspapers called Heads of the Paper, which didn't produce portraits of people but rather they just depicted types of people.

You only have to look at van Gogh's 40 odd self portraits. They're never straight. Some portraits are the self portrait as a Buddhist monk or self portrait as a farmer or self portrait as a city goer. So that definitely was shaped by his prints. And also he quite often produces a series of drawings surrounding and depicting a location in one painting or one drawing. He'll actually create anywhere from 15 to 30 images of the same location to give a sense of the place. The idea of the series is a strong feature of the Illustrated newspapers.

Matt Smith:

Historically how did this collection survive after his death?

Vincent Alessi:

For some bizarre reason when he left Holland that was left with his family and his mother never threw them out. They were then inherited by Theo's son, by Vincent's nephew and they're just reminding the family until they were then given over to the state in the Netherlands on the condition that they would build a museum.

It's really just a bizarre set of circumstances that she decided not to throw them out. And there's over 1500 that exist, so it's a fairly large collection and it always fascinates me that Vincent's mother who didn't think he was a great artist by any means decided to keep these things, you know, long after he had passed away. Theo was basically the custodians of all the paintings, all the artworks Vincent produced went to Theo and then to Theo's son and there was a great deal done by Theo's widow to ensure that Vincent's legacy remained and she did a lot of that early work to actually promote him.

So when everything eventually came to her at that point there was a reason for her to keep it because she has worked diligently towards building a reputation, which she ultimately did to him within the space of 20 years. Once they got to that point there was a need I suppose to keep these things together.

Matt Smith:

More than 1500, I take it they're still hanging around in the Dutch museum then.

Vincent Alessi:

Yes and they're in the van Gogh Museum in their archives, which is fantastic. The illustrations of themselves really don't have any value because you can go then to the state library here in Victoria and look at the newspapers and see the illustrations. But the fact that they were his personal collection and obviously it's shaped by his view and his eye so they do tell a fantastic story. It's an amazing resource that still exists and have survived amazingly well in that long period.

Matt Smith:

Do you have a favorite?

Vincent Alessi:

One thing that was a real pleasant surprise once I started doing my Ph.D. was how much I really enjoyed the illustrations. I got to my Ph.D. being interested in van Gogh but my focus very quickly turned these works, which are not his works. They're just really, really beautiful illustrations, they are very much of their time. A lot of the inherent messages, the Victorian messages and his illustrations of charity and philanthropy. When we look at them now, it's very hard to read those things because they have been dated very well so they they are very much of that period. They do tell the interesting story about London developing and what's happening because of the industrial revolution and the outcomes both good and bad of that movement.

So in that sense I suppose I enjoy looking at them because it reminds me of a period, which is long past and a period which I think has really shaped the world we live in now the industrial revolution. So having the opportunity to flick through the newspapers and to find the illustrations and also to find the text that accompany the illustrations, again one of the really pleasant outcomes was to say how Australia was represented by these British newspapers because they would have reports from the colonies and so even that is a really interesting window into our own history about how we were perceived by the motherland, you know a hundred odd years ago.

Matt Smith:

Well that's all the time we've got for the podcast today. If you've got any questions, comments, or feedback for this podcast or any other then you can email us at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Dr. Vince Alessi, thank you for your time today.

Vincent Alessi:

Thanks, Matt.