Largest Van Gogh exhibition since 1968 to be staged at Royal Academy of Arts

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The Academy hopes the exhibition, The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters, will give the lie to the idea that the painter was a "reckless and unreflective genius".

A selection of the surviving 902 letters that he wrote will go on display beside 65 paintings and 30 drawings.

Most of the letters Vincent Van Gogh wrote were "progress reports" to his brother and benefactor Theo, said curator Ann Dumas.

A smattering were to fellow artists including the Frenchman Paul Gauguin, with whom Van Gogh spectacularly fell out in 1888, with the resultant loss of an ear.

Van Gogh enjoyed a close friendship with Gauguin, borne out in the letters, but their relationship came to a violent end in 1888 when the Dutchman cut his right ear lobe off with a razor after a row.

Two historians recently claimed that Gauguin was actually the culprit, but there is nothing in the surviving letters to prove either version of events.

Many contained sketches which detailed what he was working on at the time.

Ms Dumas said: "What comes out from reading his letters is just how reflective and thoughtful and considered Van Gogh could be.

"They reveal the ways in which he thought about and made his art, and counter the popular impression of him as a reckless and unreflective genius."

Despite his ability to work with "great energy, intensity and speed", she said, "behind that there's a great deal of reflection".

In 1889 he wrote to his brother about his painting Cypresses, which depicts two bottle-green trees painted in a series of elaborate curls.

While he described the trees as being "as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk" he said he found the inspiration for their form in flames, and included a sketch to make his point.

Of another 1889 painting, The Olive Trees, to be lent by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he wrote that the shapes in it "are exaggerations from the point of view of the general arrangement; the outlines are accentuated as in some old woodcuts".

Ms Dumas said Van Gogh's letters demonstrated his "extraordinary gift with language".

She was echoing a sentiment made by the poet WH Auden, who declared decades ago: "There is scarcely one letter by Van Gogh which I do not find fascinating."

The letters themselves were instrumental in Van Gogh's posthumous discovery by the art world: his work only rose to prominence after the artist Emile Bernard arranged for a selection of them to be published in Mercure de France, a leading art magazine.

Axel Ruger, director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which is to lend the letters and 12 paintings, said of them: "You really get a very strong sense of him becoming an artist, his dreams and struggles and the absolute consuming passion of what he did."

To read them was "really the closest that you can come to Van Gogh as a person and as an artist," he said...

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