“Blessed is he who has found his work”, wrote the Victorian moralist Thomas Carlyle. At 25, Van Gogh had lost his job at an art dealers, given up teaching, given up working in a bookshop and given up theological studies. Added to that, he had been turned down for one job preaching to miners in Britain and another job preaching to miners in Belgium. Nevertheless, in 1878 he went to the Belgian coal mines.
“Van Gogh in the Borinage: The Birth of an Artist”, which opens this week at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Mons, takes this decisive moment in the artist's life to launch Mons as the 2015 European Capital of Culture. It’s a smart piece of programming—a study of the artist and the region—which has only one drawback: there are very few examples of the early work, because Van Gogh destroyed most of what he did. The curator Sjraar van Heugten writes, in a magisterial catalogue, that an exhibition of Van Gogh’s drawings from this period would be “a meagre offering indeed”.
What the exhibition offers is a wealth of context for the embryonic career. Any visitor who spends time in these two spacious, low-lit floors of the museum will find themselves freed of the cliché of isolated genius, discovering instead a young lay preacher immersed in the world around him: from the moss-covered roofs, gnarled trees and thornbushes to the canvas hats, leather jerkins and coal sacks worn as clothing. Always assiduous, Van Gogh moved out of his tolerable lodgings to share precisely the same conditions as the miners, leaving them baffled that someone should wish to participate in their hardship. But the message he preached in a spartan hall—that simple lives bring us closer to God—received a shattering rebuttal when an explosion at a nearby mine killed 121 miners. With his younger brother Theo’s prompting, Van Gogh turned his single-minded zeal from religion to art: the next ten years produced nearly 900 oil paintings and 1300 drawings, sketches and watercolours.
The exhibition makes clear how modest Van Gogh was, closely studying and copying the masters. Jean-François Millet had painted the woodcutter, the sheaf-binder, the reaper and the sower and we see Jacques Adrien Lavieille's wood engravings of the first three and Paul Le Rat’s etching of the fourth. It was these engravings, copies of the originals, that Van Gogh obtained so that he could turn out his own versions. (He would continue to do versions of Millet through to the last year of his life.) We see the pages of illustrations he kept from magazines—bringing up horses from the pit; lowering a rescue team after an explosion—including the airless immaculate studies of human anatomy from Bargue’s “Cours de dessin”, which he copied again and again and which are exhibited next to his own spidery efforts. And we see too his reportorial instinct, his eye for the scoop, as he committed himself to bringing “invisible” worlds to the surface. The fascination here is the way that the two years in the Borinage are placed alongside what’s to come.
Most of all, the exhibition illustrates what a high-risk strategy his new career choice was. What was Theo thinking of? Sure, his older brother knew plenty about art from his time working at the art dealers Goupil & Co., but Vincent’s drawings before the Borinage have a pallid, schoolboy neatness. Even becoming a writer would have been a more sensible move, as his letters have a pressing, authoritative voice. In his drawing of “Miners in the Snow” from 1880, the wispy, paper-thin figures might be blown away at any moment by a cold gust. Who could have guessed the future that would follow? But look at “The Bearers of the Burden”, done seven months later, where the shuffling bent-over figures gain volume through forceful expressive lines. There’s already a new heft and weight here, a sense of movement pushing through the clothes, as his subjects start to assert themselves against their surroundings. Van Gogh was on his way.
Van Gogh in the Borinage Musée des Beaux-Arts, Mons, to May 17th