Galleries - April 2010

Practically everything that could be said about ‘The Real Van Gogh’ at the Royal Academy (to 18 April) has already been said except, perhaps, that going round the show you never seem to lose your endless astonishment at his power to reveal the living con- sciousness of the world in which we live. Thus, everything – books, chairs, old pipes, sprouting onions quite as much as starry nights and rolling, cypress studded Prov- encal cornfields – becomes im- bued with a sense of awed and sacred wonder at the sheer remarkableness of its existence. It is impossible to go round this show without tears in your eyes – the remarkable and sensitive juxtaposition of the letters and the paintings makes certain of that. As American poet Robert Penn Warren wrote of naturalist Jean Jacques Audubon “. . .Thinks/How thin is the membrane between himself and the world.” Many commentators on the current Van Doesburg show at Tate Modern (to 16 May) seem determined to keep the artist firmly in the ‘austere Abstractionist’ fold that he has languished in for far too long. For a man who had at least two artistic identities it really does seem the most perverse and unhelpful of labels. Van Doesburg was in fact his assumed ‘abstract’ name, I.K. Bonset his Dadaist identity. He engaged in a bewild- ering variety of artistic enterprises from architecture and typography to poetry, art criticism and pub- lishing (as well as painting and designing. He also collaborated internationally with film-makers, musicians and stained glass artists (among others). As this splendidly wide-ranging show makes plain, it is indeed the warmth and passion of his beliefs in the power of art to transform all aspects of life that still radiates 70 years after his death. Quaint and old-fashioned as this might seem to our cynical and ironic age, it also begins to feel like a quiet call to arms, a reaffirmation of ‘polit- ical’ values in world-weary times. Also at Tate Modern is a revelatory show of the influential Armenian-born, American-based painter, Arshile Gorky (to 3 May). Always characterised in the art- history books as a key figure in the post-war development of Amer- ican Abstract Expressionist paint- ing into an independent art-form finally free of European ties, Gorky has tended nonetheless to remain a shadowy figure in exhibition terms, so a major show like this is apt. As always it is a rather more complex story than this. Gorky's hugely precocious (by American standards of the 1930s) feeling for and understandings of, European Surrealism, Mirò and Masson in particular, is interspersed with a very different series of intensely poetic, figurative studies of his immediate family. These are clo- ser, if anything, to the strain of Social Realism – then still pre- valent in American avant-garde circles. By the time it came to the outbreak of war in Europe and the arrival in New York of Mirò et al, Gorky had already clearly estab- lished his own distinctive voice, a subtle blend of lyrical, almost 'sweet' Armenian colour and touch and radical avant-garde European ideas about expressive abstrac- tion. When he added to that an unmistakably American boldness of scale and ambition, Gorky had indeed provided a crucial model for his fellow American painter friends, as they sought to estab- lish an art finally independent of European cultural supremacy. PUBLIC eye ra & tm B lake Hall A rshile Gorky ‘Landscape Table’, 1945 ©ADAGP, Paris & DACS ©A. Gorky Estate. Photo Pompidou Ctre, P. Mipeat Theo Van Doesburg ‘Counter-Composition XV’, 1925. Muzeum Sztuki, Lódz . . .a sense of awed and sacred wonder at the sheer remarkableness of its existence