I credit my sister and Leonard Nimoy.
Back in the 1970s one of my older sisters was in between jobs and apartments and came to stay with us for a while. She had a print of “Starry Night” that found its way on to our living room wall. Ultimately my sister found a job in another state and left and took the print with her. My mother liked the picture, so we got our own print of “Starry Night” that spent many years above the family piano. When my mother passed away, the piano and the print came to me. The print has faded some over the years, but it watches over the same piano has it has done for many years.
Likewise in the 1970s, Leonard Nimoy was in a tough spot with his acting career. Having been matched so well with the character Spock in the original Star Trek series, he found it a challenge to get cast in other projects. Turning to his love of visual art, he created a one-man show for himself – Vincent. The 1960s and 70s saw an upswing in the “great person” show with shows about Clarence Darrow, Emily Dickenson, Harry Truman, Teddy Roosevelt, and, of course, Hal Holbrook (the master) doing his turn as Mark Twain.
Nimoy’s Vincent took as its entrance point the relationship between Vincent and his brother, Theo. Nimoy played Theo as a grief-stricken brother renting a theatre in Paris a week or so after his brother’s funeral so that he could tell anyone who was interested about his beloved brother, Vincent. Behind the minimal set were screens on which were projected slides of the great paintings. In the second half of the show, Nimoy as Theo van Gogh simply stopped talking and had the audience watch a short slide show of Vincent’s paintings. Originally the idea had been to have the slide show accompanied by the song “Starry, Starry Night.” But in the end, Nimoy chose orchestral music by Bizet to accompany the slides.
Nimoy opened the show at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and then did a whistle-stop tour of regional theaters around the country. An actor kept busy when other jobs weren’t plentiful.
I was a high school kid ushering at one of those whistle-stop performances in the middle part of the country. My hook – like most folks – was getting to see a tv star. In the end, though, I sat in the dark and wept at the life of Vincent and this great art. Many of the paintings I saw for the first time.
I became hooked. I was a fan of Vincent.
Subsequently, I did Nimoy’s show myself in the early 1980s (the first amateur production?). The slides were the same slides used on tour – half-melted from the hours of hot projector lamps over the years.
Vincent’s art and life serves as a touchstone of a sort for each generation. His biography stands as the living metaphor of the “tortured artist” – the artist who must suffer to create his art. His art is the living example of the work completely ignored and unappreciated during his life, but comes to full recognition after the death of the artist.
Regardless the clichés people derive from Vincent’s work, the art itself deifies cliché and brings people into the images seemingly effortlessly.
And so we now have a Van Gogh mini-industry. A museum knows that a Van Gogh exhibition will attract thousands of people (and dollars). Van Gogh’s images are used to sell everything from calendars to coffee mugs to umbrellas. And the biography is used as fodder for films.
The latest entry in the field of Van Gogh films is a new animated work, Loving Vincent. The animators attracted attention a few years ago with an astonishing trailer that went viral on the internet. Each animation cel of the film would be an oil painting in Vincent’s style. It would be like watching Vincent’s paintings and drawings come to life.
Loving Vincent enters a field that includes Kirk Douglas’s portrayal of Van Gogh’s story in Lust for Life and Robert Altman’s study of the brothers in Vincent and Theo.
The general facts of Vincent’s life appear fairly straight-forward. Vincent’s father was a Christian pastor. Pastor Van Gogh and his wife had a boy, and they named him Vincent. But he was still-born and buried in the churchyard near the church entrance. Pastor Van Gogh and his wife had another boy who survived, and they also called him Vincent. Vincent spent his childhood going to church to see his father in the pulpit and passed by a tombstone that had his name on it.
Vincent tried a variety of jobs with no real success. He even tried a brief period of being an evangelist to coal miners. Somehow, after all of that, he decided on a life of making pictures.
It’s largely thanks to Vincent’s younger brother Theo that we have as many paintings as we have. It was the flow of money from Theo that supported Vincent’s work in a tangible way – the money bought paints, brushes, canvases, etc. Also, the elder brother wrote the younger brother hundreds of letters. Uniquely, with Vincent we have articulated ideas about the images as the artist created them on the canvas.
After a disastrous stay with Theo in Paris, Vincent moved to the south of France. He was joined by Paul Gaugin. The two painters clashed. There was the episode with the ear.
Gaugin left. Vincent was hospitalized. Ultimately Vincent was released from hospital care. Vincent then was under the care of Dr. Gachet. One day, Vincent came back from some wheat fields with a gun wound that proved fatal. Theo rushed from Paris to his brother’s deathbed and was with him when he died. Not long after Vincent’s death, Theo also died from complications deriving probably from syphilis. Consequently, Theo’s widow, Jo, was responsible for collecting Vincent’s paintings, drawings, and letters and looking after the artist’s legacy.
These basic events form the basis of all the films about Vincent.
Both Lust for Life and Vincent and Theo open with the same point – Vincent was ignored in his life, but very important now. At the tail end of the opening credits of Lust for Life, the filmmakers list thanks to the great museums of the world for allowing the use of the images in their care. The message is very clear – these paintings are in the greatest institutions in the world. Vincent and Theo opens with a modern-day auction of a Van Gogh painting for many thousands of pounds. Where Lust for Life begins with institutional gravity, Vincent and Theo begins with the gravity of real money.
Lust for Life opens with a formally attired Vincent meeting with a group of church fathers, working to convince them that he should be a minister of the Christian faith. In this 1950s vision of Vincent, we start with a list of great institutions and the desire of Vincent to be part of the church establishment. Indeed, it’s not until Douglas’s Vincent gets to coal country (the only place the church fathers will allow Vincent to preach) and Vincent meets a cynical miner, that we see Vincent progress to the passionate radical that we know he’ll become. It’s something of a stretch, but the 1950s film comes close to suggesting that – wow, you might have a manic-depressive artist, but in the end he becomes the standard of an establishment figure.
By contrast, Altman moves from the modern-day auction to Theo (played by Paul Rhys) having an argument with a very tatty Vincent (played by Tim Roth) with very ugly teeth. For brothers who by all evidence loved each other through immensely tough circumstances, this movie focuses largely on their arguments.
Where Lust for Life spends time on Vincent’s failed romantic attentions to his cousin Kee, Altman spends more time with Vincent’s failed relationship with the prostitute, Clasina Hoornik – often referred to as Sien. And, even though Lust for Life actually includes “lust” in the title and Vincent and Theo show Vincent living with a prostitute, both films provide an overwhelmingly chaste Vincent.
Given that it appears Vincent was on friendly terms with prostitutes in several cities and that Theo died from complications arising from a STD, this chaste vision of Vincent is a trifle odd. Do we find it necessary to re-create Vincent as a kind of holy madman?
Richard Curtis mildly plays with this in the Dr Who episode, “Vincent and the Doctor.” In that episode, the time-traveling Doctor visits Vincent Van Gogh with his companion Amy (played by Karen Gillan). The episode focuses its energy on Van Gogh’s inimitable vision that allows him to see a monster who remains invisible to everyone else. At the conclusion of the adventure Vincent suggests that at some future point Amy should return to him so they could make many babies together. With Vincent and Amy both being redheads, their children would be the “ultimate ginger.”
The real point is that the focus of each of these bio-pics is a created character that appears to run more or less parallel to an actual person. This is true of every bio-pic, of course, not only movies about Van Gogh.
Francois Bertrand attempted to get past the artificial character creation of the biopic with his IMAX film Van Gogh: Brush With Genius from the end of the oughts. Bertrand, like the other filmmakers took his camera to the wheat fields and village locales. But instead of a visible actor, an omniscient Vincent spoke to us from beyond mortal ken. The French actor Jacques Gamblin gave voice to new material created for Vincent along with the odd quote from the letters to Theo.
It has been a challenge for actors to give Vincent his voice. Leonard Nimoy, as Theo, spoke in “Vincent’s” voice and did so with a growly timbre. As a smoker, this strategy could not have been good for his vocal folds over the course of a run. Kirk Douglas gave a slight English accent to his voice-over quotes from the letters in Lust for Life. Tim Roth, an English actor, spoke in a somewhat neutral-ish English accent in Vincent and Theo. Gamblin uses his natural French accent in Brush with Genius. The real man was Dutch, and he had spent some time in England and France. But we have not had a Dutch accent for Vincent yet.
Directors Dorota Kobiela and High Welchman have a new solution to finding a way past the created character in the bio-pic in their most recent entry to the Van Gogh film collection – Loving Vincent.
The hook of the film is the breathtaking visual world created by the uncanny merging of the digital control with thousands of individual oil paintings. The motion of Vincent’s brush-strokes and his very heavy use of paints already provides a kind of motion when you look at many of his works. The animation process in this instance seems more like a completion rather than a competition. Previous film photography shows us either actual locations or “real” re-creations of locales that Vincent painted. As an audience we’re almost challenged by the photographic naturalism to make judgements about Vincent’s artistry relative to the “reality” of the filmic pictures we’re watching. (“Oh, there’s the night café. Oh, it looks just like it does in the painting.” “There’s the yellow house – the real one. It
hasn’t changed a bit since he painted it.”)
Since Loving Vincent lives in a painted world, we’re never confronted with this disjunction between the art and the world in which Vincent lived. In a sense, we spend the whole of the movie in the world that Vincent saw. Or, at least, the world that Vincent showed us.
Kobiela and Welchman get past the artificiality of having to create a film character Vincent through the use of another artificial construct – the mystery plot. Some critics have taken the film to task for its use of the “police procedural” plot. I would argue that criticism is short-sighted.
The plot is fairly straight-forward. A friend of Vincent’s – the postman Roulin – finds a letter that Vincent had written Theo. But about a year has passed since the artist’s death. Roulin charges his son Armand with the task of finding Theo and delivering the letter. Very quickly Armand discovers that by this time Theo is also dead. Nevertheless, Armand continues to travel to locations in France where Vincent had lived and investigates Vincent’s mortal wound. Vincent largely appears in flashbacks described by a group of other characters who had some interaction with the artist.
Rather than pin Vincent’s identity to some fixed point, Loving Vincent allows a portrait to emerge that shifts and changes depending upon the relationship each character had with the artist. The narrative structure allows for a more multi-faceted picture to emerge.
For example, one big question that Armand Roulin and the film ask is this: Did Vincent really shoot himself, and why? A variety of different theories are addressed by different characters with their own idiosyncratic perspectives. The film even includes the theory propounded in a recent book that instead of committing suicide, Vincent was shot (accidentally) by some neighborhood boys.
Loving Vincent gives us a new Vincent appropriate for our times – complex and varied. And it provides us this man within the context of his own visual universe.
In the end, the letter gets to Theo’s widow, Jo. And Armand Roulin has a conversation with his father, the postman. Then there are a series of “fun-fact” cards about the different characters and about Vincent.
Who is the Vincent that I’ve come to know over the years of looking at his work in galleries and in books?
In 2002 I was in Chicago and went to the exhibition “Van Gogh and Gaugin: The Studio of the South” at the Art Institute. This exhibition brought together several paintings that had not been in the same room since they had been painted, basically. There were several works in which Gaugin and Vincent painted the same thing, possibly side by side.
In looking at the work of these two artists (notice whose name gets top billing), I decided that for me Gaugin has a slightly better “draftsman’s fist,” but Vincent was the artist of the two. I would look at the Gaugin treatment of an object and think, “Well, that’s a book (or whatever) all right. No mistaking that.” But Vincent grabbed me by the lapels and shared with me what he wanted me to see about that book or flower or field or face.
Vincent is often associated with yellow. And certainly he used yellow to good effect. I was surprised by the amount of green Vincent used. And green used in very surprising ways. One of the challenge of a color plate in a book is the limits of reproducing great works. Detail is inevitably lost in the printing process. The next time you see one of the real paintings up close, look for the green paint.
Later in 2002 I got a chance to briefly meet Leonard Nimoy. He was on another tour, this time with exhibitions of his art photography. Being a member of the arts faculty at a college on his tour, I briefly met him and got Nimoy to autograph my copy of his play, Vincent.
To this day, I think Nimoy grasped the whole when he had Theo say this:
I’ve heard it said among you . . .”he was mad . . . . he was strange . . . he was not like us” . . . No, he was different . . . And you are blessed by that difference, for he gave you beauty. [ . . .] His work will be sold and resold and resold at higher and higher profits . . .because Vincent was different. If your favorite poet touches your soul, gives you a spiritual connection with the rest of mankind, isn’t that enough?
[ . . .] If the artist sacrifices his comfort, his strength, his very life to bring you his special vision of beauty to decorate your walls and your halls, must he also be dressed by your tailor? (Vincent, p 48)
It’s nearly impossible to completely fathom another human even when you live with them over the course of years. It’s even harder to do with a genius who has been dead for more than a hundred years.
Was Vincent mad? Did he really commit suicide, or was he the victim of a gun accident? Why did he cut off his ear? Or, did Gaugin cut off part of Vincent’s ear? While these and other questions will continue to fascinate, they are will-o’-the-wisps to attract the fancy. Better by far instead to delve into the art provided by this prolific genius. And the makers of Loving Vincent achieve this.