Van Gogh’s Still Life Around a Plate of Onions (Photograph: Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo)

Occasioned by the recent publication of his letters, The Real Van Gogh is bound to be a blockbuster. The artist groans under the weight of scholarship, popular biography and biopics, innumerable cartoons and gags. There have been pop songs and cakes decorated to look like his starry, starry night. Kirk Douglas wrestled manfully to depict him as troubled, over-sensitive artist, the disturbed and self-destructive hero. Retrieving the real Van Gogh – whoever he might be – from his place in the popular imagination becomes a more difficult task the more he is buried beneath the characterisations.

The story of his life is worth retelling. Van Gogh was a late starter, mostly self-taught, uneven, smitten with mental illness, dead at 37. His trajectory as an artist – from sodden Dutch landscapes under heavy skies, toiling peasants and weavers, to the flaring, sometimes hallucinogenic landscapes of Provence, all of which ended after he shot himself one afternoon in a southern French cornfield in 1890, an unfinished letter still in his pocket – is a luminous and shocking arc.


Adrian Searle