The day Van Gogh arrived at my school
The school hall was not what you'd call a visual feast. It was paneled in medium-brown wood. It was moderate and unexciting, as if designed by a committee. The only picture hung in it was an old-fashioned but recently painted portrait of young Queen Elizabeth. Ultimately based on the Mona Lisa, but without the enigmatic smile.
The school was, after all, almost 500 years old. Vigorous modernity of architecture or art was not its purpose. The boys were there to be instilled with fine traditions. To learn as much about the past as the present; more, probably.
That bland and traditional school hall had, I guess, been built in the 1930s, so it didn't even have the virtue of being truly ancient. It was decidedly dull.
And then, one unexpected day, by what providence I do not know, its uninteresting interior was invaded by an astonishing three-week-long event.
I should first explain, though, that in spite of the dubious aesthetic character of the nevertheless much-lauded Queen's portrait, one of the more interesting subjects taught in this school was art. For me it was a high point of the week. I could lose myself entirely for that double period. I loved every painty minute of it. But, all the same, experiment was not the idea. The art master, Mr. Webster, was a fine watercolorist in the landscape tradition of Crome and Cotman, which was appropriate because they had worked in the same part of eastern England - Norfolk.
However, these exceptional old English painters had worked in the early part of the 19th century, and we were in the 1950s. Not that you'd know it. My own very conventional background and the school's traditionalism meant that painters "paint what they see." If you painted a hedgerow, you made it "look like" a hedgerow. That was why you painted it. I strove to make "realistic" paintings, and it was a fantastic struggle partly because I could never persuade pigments to be richly dark enough to match the dark shadows I could see or bright enough for the light.
Mr. Webster was not much of a theorist. He was a great encourager. He painted by demonstration. The message: We were to learn, above all, by practice. Just do it! At the same time we were to look - and look.
But looking at art was (surprisingly) not much promoted. I remember only one art book kept by Mr. Webster. It was in his back room and seen only by boys who, like myself, were considered keen enough. It was a slim volume on the Impressionists. I had a sense that these late-19th-century painters, compared with Cotman and Crome, were utterly radical!
Renoir and Pissarro & Co. had by then been superseded for more than half a century by successive cataclysms of "modern art," but we in Middle Britain were still convinced that these were revolutions we should simply ignore. The Impressionists were wicked enough for anyone.
And then one day, without warning, into this mass of unadventurousness, like an alien from another planet, landed Vincent van Gogh. Plumb in the middle of the school hall.
I didn't know then that the painter of the queen's portrait (an Italian named Pietro Annigoni), had he known his painting was being forced to gaze at a large display of Van Gogh reproductions, might have stormed the place and staged a vociferous protest. In his 1976 autobiography, Annigoni was to fulminate against Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. The most appreciative thing he says about the last is that he was "a hypersensitive madman." He found all three artists suffering "from a depth of rancor against everything and everyone." He went on and on like this.
But for me, that exhibition was a gigantic eye-opener. I'd seen a few reproductions of Van Goghs before this. The pipe on the chair. A wheat field with birds. A self-portrait. But few if any originals. And nothing, absolutely nothing like this.
I couldn't keep out of the hall. It was revelatory. A new world.
Today this traveling bunch of large, framed color reproductions would seem almost a cliché. That poor Dutchman's never-ending popularity and greeting-card familiarity have all but reproduced and exhibited him into extinction. Only when you bump into a painting by him you've never seen before - as we did recently in St. Petersburg, Russia - are you brought back with a jolt to the fierce, jubilant directness; the freshness and originality of his vision.
But back then, the school hall panels became an unobtrusive background to what, for me, was a kind of dawning. I didn't put what I saw into words. I put it into paint. For a while I saw the Norfolk countryside through the afterimage of Vincent. If I noticed a poppy flowering at the edge of a cabbage field, a tree trunk sprouting new growth, a barley meadow, sunlight on a white wall; if I saw a blue summer sky, it was no longer the cool watery clarity of eastern England. It was the primal, deliberate energy of thick paint and unstinting color into which Van Gogh had, with such urgency and truthfulness, transmuted the heat of Arles or Auvers.
For the first time I glimpsed that a painting can be "realism" only when it remembers intensely that it is not imitation but reinvention. And only when it remembers that it is not made of trees and fields - or royal personages - but of the glory of paint and brush strokes, living its own language to the full, daring to compete with trees and fields and people.
I know what Annigoni would have thought. How Crome and Cotman might have reacted is hard to guess. Mr. Webster greeted my flurry of experimental Vincentism with his usual tolerant bonhomie.
I suppose he thought I'd grow out of it.