‘Van Gogh and Britain: Pioneer Collectors’ at The Dean Gallery, Edinburgh Art Festival review

Festival season in Edinburgh isn’t just about comedy, theatre and dance; through August and September the city also plays host to many prestigious visual art exhibitions. Petal, our guest visual arts contributor, has shared her experience of the ‘Van Gogh and Britain: Pioneer Collectors‘ exhibition currently on show at the Dean Gallery, owned by the National Galleries of Scotland.

Dean Gallery in Edinburgh

This show is based around pictures bought by British collectors. Given the show is hung in chronological order of painting, the theme could almost be ignored and the show enjoyed without it. The theme does emphasise Van Gogh’s relationship with the art world, especially through his art dealer brother Theo and Vincent’s early attempt at the same career. He may have been naive in many ways, but not as an artist.

The theme gives us a more interesting frame than the cliched mad genius one. He was obviously both, but the over use of this category can blind us to the sheer quality of his work. It also encourages bad behaviour in artists who mistakenly believe that the appearance of genius logically follows that of madness. The period covered by this show (pretty much the active artist period of Van Gogh’s life) is amazingly short, reminding us just how hard he worked during those years.

It’s a bit unfashionable to hang work in this way, but it works very well. The theme also serves as a reminder of the contrast between the value of his paintings now and what he earned from them at the time. This puts the £6 admission into perspective, though obviously none of this goes to the artist; it also emphasises the role of Glaswegian dealer Alexander Reid.

Vincent Van Gogh exibition ticket booth outside Edinburgh's Dean Gallery Sign and map near entrance to Edinburgh's Dean Gallery

If you want to read more about the theme, it’s well covered by Duncan MacMillan’s review for the Scotsman. He also liked the size of the show –about 30 pictures. This is a nice size for an exhibition. You get a good range of work, without wearing out your art goggles (or attention span in my case).

It’s really worth going to see though because some of the pictures are unfamiliar. I think I’ve seen his sunflowers enough times, but have been comparatively deprived of ‘Oleanders’ (1888). Can I adapt that colour-scheme for my kitchen? We’ll see. Anyway, you’ve probably seen Oleanders in the publicity material, but have you seen ‘Long grass with butterflies’? You want to see it. I know you do. It’s this sort of picture that makes it worth fighting through visitors, who are inevitably standing in front of the paintings reading their booklets, for.

The Dean Gallery is particularly worth visiting if you’re interested in British surrealism or Paolozzi. It’s also just off Edinburgh’s finest walk – the Water of Leith Walkway, which has a cafe and a nice garden.

The ‘Van Gogh and Britain: Pioneer Collectors’ exhibition runs until the 24th September 2006 and the Dean Gallery is open daily from 10am to 6pm during the festival period.

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