No-one can accuse the National Gallery of false advertising. This show is called ‘The Sunflowers’ and that, pretty much, is all you get. For a split second it feels like it won’t be enough to justify the hype and satisfy the crowds. But then, as the sunshine glow of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings blazes across the room, you’re transfixed by his genius, awed by the sense of occasion and thankful that the gallery has done the right thing in keeping this display small, clear and true.
Full of what he described to his brother Theo as ‘the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse’, Van Gogh began to paint sunflowers in August 1888. He had moved south from Paris to Arles and was living in a rented house – ‘The Yellow House’ – awaiting the painter Paul Gauguin, who was set to join him so that the two artists could spend the autumn painting side by side. Within a week, four ‘Sunflowers’ paintings were finished. The best was the fourth, which is lucky for us since it has been in the National Gallery collection since it was bought from Van Gogh’s family in 1924.
The National Gallery’s reunion, however, isn’t between our painting and another work in the initial series (one is in a private collection, another was destroyed during WWII) but with a slightly later painting, a replica made by Van Gogh the following January (perhaps with the intention of sending it to Gauguin), which is now in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. What a difference a few months make. Gauguin, having quarrelled with his host, left hurriedly before Christmas. By January 1889, Van Gogh had suffered a breakdown and sliced off part of his ear.
You can’t ignore these biographical details as you stand before the two ‘Sunflowers’. While the doubling up robs the image of some of its iconography, it enables you to cast fresh eyes on a painting made so overfamiliar by postcard fame that it can be hard to look at. It also makes for a hypnotic game of compare and contrast. What’s immediately apparent is that the National Gallery’s painting is more subdued in tone and more crystalline in form than the Amsterdam canvas. Painted after the original, the ‘copy’ is brighter and more hallucinatory, the centres of the flowers painted a chrome yellow that’s close in tone to rich background. This has the effect of flattening the picture, making it seem more decorative – strident but somehow less convincingly real than the National’s painting.
The show wants you to look closer still at these icons. X-ray images reveal Van Gogh’s brushwork and how he extended the ‘copy’ by attaching a strip of wood along its top edge with long nails. They look like thorns, as do the small tacks around the edge of each picture. It bestows a solemn, almost religious atmosphere that seems somehow fitting.
On dark winter days it’s tempting just to bask in the endless summer on display here. But, as ever with Van Gogh, you can sense that the clouds and the crows are never far away. It’s part of what makes these paintings more than just still lifes, something other than 15 cheery flowers in a jug. These masterpieces haven't been seen together for 65 years. You are unlikely to see them together again. The smallest show of the year is, quite possibly, also its biggest art event.