Vincent van Gogh’s letters go digital


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London is having its first Vincent van Gogh exhibition since the 1960s. (Imagine the crowds.) “The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters” is, as the title says, intended to explore the mutually illuminating art and writing of the Dutch painter, who famously corresponded with his brother, Theo, as well as various relatives, friends and other artists about the tumultuous ups and downs of his work and life.

According to the Royal Academy at Burlington House, where “The Real Van Gogh” is on view until April 18, the show is a collaboration with Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker through Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. Last October, those scholars celebrated the completion of a 15-year project to compile, translate and publish all of Van Gogh’s known letters -- 819 written by him, plus another 83 written to him by Theo, Paul Gauguin, Paul Signac and others -- together with extensive annotation that reflects the current state of Van Gogh scholarship.


The last major (but incomplete) book of Van Gogh’s letters appeared in 1954. Less ambitious editions have been published since then, but “ambitious” hardly begins to describe the new six-volume Thames & Hudson extravaganza. It comes complete with English translations from the Dutch and French -- a few letters were originally written in English -- plus supplemental texts and more than 4,000 illustrations, including all of the paintings and drawings that the artist mentions in his writings. That helps to explain the compilation’s hefty price tag of €395 (about $600).

Don’t despair. The exhaustive project also comes with a terrific online database, searchable and free for the using.

It’s quite an achievement too. Designed for scholars and serious students of the artist, rather than a general interest audience, it’s exact right down to the line breaks in the parallel translations of the letter facsimiles. While sure to be a boon for researchers, the Web edition is also the sort of enlightened electronic compendium that might transform a general-interest reader into an obsessive fan.

The Web edition’s organization and search functions are excellent.

When a letter to his friend and mentor, artist Anthon van Rappard, says that Vincent has enclosed two woodcuts, click the tab for “artworks” and reproductions of those woodcuts come up. Click on “notes,” and the woodcuts’ relevance and relationships to Van Gogh’s art and life are explained, along with cross-references to other letters. “Facsimile” shows a detailed picture of the actual letter, complete with the drawings Van Gogh made on the sheet. There’s plenty of bibliography too.

The Web, in short, illuminates the web of the artist’s life in ways that the linear pages of a printed book couldn’t as easily manage. You can find the online edition of “Vincent van Gogh: The Letters” here.

-- Christopher Knight

Follow Times art critic Christopher Knight at KnightLAT on Twitter.