Clash of the egos is a recurrent theme in art history, but for sheer theatricality nothing comes close to Vincent van Gogh’s ugly squabble with Paul Gauguin in the winter of 1888. The two artists were living and working together at the house Van Gogh had rented in Arles, in the south of France. It was here that Gauguin completed his only portrait of Van Gogh, The Painter of Sunflowers. “That’s me all right,” Van Gogh said when he was shown the portrait, “but me gone mad!” Later in the evening, there ensued a boozy episode at a nearby cafe. In Gauguin’s telling, Van Gogh “took a light absinthe”, and then “suddenly he threw the glass and its contents at my head”.
This is the version of Van Gogh most prominent in public memory. The volatile madcap who launches tumblers at people’s faces; the barroom oddball who has one of his own canvases smashed on his head by a guard; the unhinged masochist who slits his ear off and gifts it to a prostitute; the clinically insane Van Gogh in the lunatic asylum’s isolation cell, languishing within those four padded walls...
Indeed, the artist’s life was blighted by many such social and personal crises. Then, of course, there is the question of the artist’s death at age 37—a suicide or, according to one discredited account, an accidental murder—that has kept alive the Van Gogh myth, of a suffering genius crushed under the weight of his own talent.
In our appraisal of Van Gogh’s art, it’s impossible to not get swayed by this narrative, to not let the life colour the art. The canvases present themselves as riddles providing direct clues to the artist’s personality; and for solutions we take quick recourse to biography and psychology. Staring at Van Gogh’s trademark blues and yellows, his thick impasto swirls, we are surely mystified and delighted, but more than that, we find ourselves in full sympathy with the reveries of an unsound mind. We think we understand. Poor soul with a tragic imagination! Look, how differently he saw the world!
Brand Van Gogh, as outlined above, is the subject of a recent live-action animated film, Loving Vincent. Co-directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, the film isn’t really a biopic, although it directly addresses the classic dilemma faced by every biographer: namely, when to focus on the work and when on life, and how to integrate the two. Loving Vincent synthesises these two central aspects of all artistic existence, presenting Van Gogh’s major paintings as the backdrop to his life.
The action progresses frame by frame, of hand-painted scenery done in the colour-heavy, striated idiom we’ve come to associate with the later Van Gogh. We’re told that some 65,000 frames were painted over the last six years by 125 artists from across the world to make this happen. This lo-tech background was then merged, using hi-tech computing, with the segments that were actually filmed in real settings, using real actors. Doubtless a fine achievement.
Let us begin, then, with the visual medium and treat Loving Vincent as a collection of moving images, rather than as a feature film that has the conventions of plot, character and dialogue to fall back on. What exactly are we looking at? Well, you know that feeling when you stand before a masterpiece and wonder what it would be like to enter and inhabit the painting? To pirouette with one of Degas’ dancers, and to sail the high seas with Turner? That’s the seed of the idea that seems to have inspired the creators of Loving Vincent.
The film opens with a shot of Van Gogh’s most popular work, The Starry Night. Except that this cinematic rendering has made the painting more dynamic than the original: Van Gogh’s whirligig stars are actually in slow, hypnotic motion as the camera zooms into that town with the gabled roofs in the middle distance. We are now inside the painting, on some street corner. And then inside a tavern that we recognise from another well-known painting, The Night Cafe. One gets an inkling of what’s to come. All the major Van Goghs from the artist’s final two years would be paraded through the film. So there are wheat fields and haystacks and peach trees aplenty. Van Gogh’s portrait subjects from Arles, too, are given walk-on parts, including the postman Joseph Roulin and his son Armand, who is our film’s protagonist.
The viewer is entranced, but not for long. As the frames begin to roll, the paintings doing their animated dance, you find yourself in a permanent state of distraction. Just when you’re beginning to get interested in them, Van Gogh’s crows fly away, for example; and his sower crosses our field of view. His chairs—something Van Gogh painted with great delight—are simply there to be sat on; and the nimbus around the gas-lamps extinguishes when someone turns them off. This is Van Gogh’s vision turned ephemeral and banal. A Beethoven sonata used as background track for a song about Beethoven. That’s the overall effect.
In any case, the centrepiece here is not the sonata but the song. Which is to say the real emphasis of Loving Vincent is on the story. It begins after Van Gogh’s death. And Armand Roulin is on a quest to find out what actually happened to Vincent. Was it suicide or murder? He conducts a spate of dull interviews. “But something happened with Vincent in that house, I can tell,” one character says to him. Another goes, “All seemed fine with him. I mean, something must have happened suddenly for him to become unbalanced.” And this one takes the cake: “He was a great artist; he liked flowers.”
The conspiracy theory of Van Gogh’s murder is courtesy of a 2011 biography, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. The authors speculate that since Van Gogh was shot in the stomach, and the shot apparently was fired from a spot “too far out”, there must have been someone else holding the gun. But this hypothesis was dismissed “conclusively” by scholars commissioned by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, as Julian Bell points out in his brilliant book, Van Gogh: A Power Seething.
Loving Vincent, however, doesn’t commit to the murder theory. It ends on an ambiguous note. And on a happy note: with an ensemble of strings playing an upbeat C-major as the camera slowly shifts focus from earth to sky, towards Van Gogh’s stars once again, and towards a moving, blinking, living self-portrait of the real star of the hour, the artist himself.
It’s all a little too much. Aside from this puppet show of computer wizardry, what has the film really given us? Any real sense of who the man was? A self-taught artist, who learned to paint by copying the masters; who got a perspective frame made by a carpenter so he could depict distances better; who was an avid reader (Dickens, Zola, Flaubert) and expert writer (his collected letters to his brother, Theo van Gogh, is literary gold); who was never content with sticking to one style and was restlessly evolving (look at an early painting, The Potato Eaters, and one of his last, Almond Blossom, for examples of Van Gogh’s stylistic departures)… But Loving Vincent offers none of this.
What about the paintings, though? Yes, the paintings do indeed speed past the eye. “I’m trying to express the desperately swift passage of things in modern life,” Vincent wrote to Theo in 1890, the year he died. He had no idea how much more desperate and how incredibly swift this passage was fated to become in a few decades. The advent of cinema would have left him yearning to slow things down.