Artist/Filmmaker Brings van Gogh’s Story to the Screen

Alan Suemori
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

“Either he will go mad or he will leave us all behind. Which of the two it will be I am not able to foresee.”

— Camille Pissarro

At 27, he was already a failure. Born into an ambitious, middle-class family of Protestant ministers and boulevard art dealers, Vincent van Gogh spent most of his young life wandering around the lighted corners of his world like a lost king searching for his secret kingdom. He had first dreamed of becoming an art monger like his uncles and worked in The Hague, London and Paris as a lowly sales clerk. But his crude social skills and moody temperament soon alienated potential customers and sent him packing. For a brief time, he taught in small, impoverished private boys schools in England, but quit because of the squalid conditions and an unrequited love affair. Finally, van Gogh turned to the path of his father and grandfather and began to prepare for life as a missionary. But he failed his training course and was even rejected as an unpaid volunteer serving the most wretched of parsonages. In desperation, van Gogh crowned himself an artist and in 10 short years produced over 800 paintings, including several timeless masterpieces that changed the art world forever.

At an age when most serious artists were already refining their skills and expanding their palette, van Gogh was just beginning. From the very start he worked furiously, trying to make up in a few years what others had taken decades to learn. At first he mimicked a new style of painting called Realism that broke away from the traditional salons and academies that stubbornly idealized their subjects. But, soon, he went even further.

At the age of 32, after only five years of painting, van Gogh created his first seminal work, “The Potato Eaters.” While the painting was influenced by the somber Realist style, it contained a heartfelt empathy for its peasant subjects that went far beyond any artistic orthodoxy of its time. van Gogh believed that art should emphasize emotion over precise detail because he saw painting as a bridge to the divine rather than a mere rendition of reality. Eventually, van Gogh traveled to Antwerp, Belgium, where he came to embrace the ukiyo-e art of Japan’s Hokusai and Hiroshige and began collecting over 400 copies of their prints. He meticulously studied their subject matter and smooth, shadowless waves of color. After enduring a short-lived tenure at a local art academy, where he was expelled for defying his teachers, he headed to Paris, where his life would change forever.

In 1886, Paris was the undisputed center of the art world. A beehive to the greatest writers, musicians, sculptors and painters of the day, it was also home to the newest styles, trends and fashions of popular culture. Over time, van Gogh began experimenting with revolutionary ideas such as impressionism, synthetism and pointillism, taking from each what he wanted, but never belonging to any single school. It was in the capital that van Gogh softened his palette, quickened his brush strokes, and began to study in earnest the effect of light on color and depth. The painter lived in Paris for only two years, but it would be his eternal North Star and guidepost, even though he would never again live in the City of Light.

Throughout his life, van Gogh was a prolific writer, penning hundreds of letters to his brother, Theo. Their correspondence is an extraordinary glimpse into the heart of a great artist and an irreplaceable gift to anyone who loves van Gogh’s paintings.

After suffering through a debilitating depression while a film student in Warsaw, Polish director Dorota Kobiela sought refuge in van Gogh’s letters to his brother, finding solace in the love and affection they shared. Initially trained as a painter, Kobiela had moved on to the world of filmmaking, where she had made a name for herself creating short, animated movies that were visually arresting and wildly diverse. However, Kobiela had always yearned to return to the magic of the painter’s world, and the more she read, the more she envisioned creating a movie that combined film and painting in a seamless way that told van Gogh’s story by bringing his artwork to life. From the very beginning, the technical challenges were formidable, and Kobiela was told by everyone concerned that her task was impossible.

The film that Kobiela and her co-director Hugh Welchman ultimately produced is a Rashoman-inspired foray into the enduring mystery of van Gogh’s death in 1890. Entitled “Loving Vincent,” her movie luminously animates many of van Gogh’s most beloved paintings, including, “The Starry Night,” “Portrait of Doctor Gachet” and “The Night Cafe.” Funded by the Polish Film Institute and a supplemental Kickstarter campaign, Kobiela’s first feature film premiered at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in 2017 to rave reviews from critics who were exhilarated by its unique approach. Initially filmed with actors, each frame of the movie was then painted over in the van Gogh style by a team of 125 artists who worked for over two years in Poland and Greece. Over 65,000 frames were individually hand-painted, capturing 94 of van Gogh’s original images for the actual movie. Kobiela made the strategic decision to choose classically trained painters over studio animators and the result is a movie that has a dream-like lyrical flow that is unlike any other.

Using stories that she primarily harvested from his letters, Kobiela scaffolded a hypothetical narrative that weaves together the different subjects that van Gogh painted at his artistic peak. The film picks up the artist’s tale a year after his death in the southern French town of Arles, where van Gogh resided after Paris. Joseph Roulin, the postmaster of Arles, convinces his son Armand to deliver a final letter from Vincent to Theo that somehow never found its way home. Armand begrudgingly takes on the task and travels to Paris where he learns that Theo has died, along with almost all possible leads for delivering the orphan letter. Instead of returning home, however, Armand heads to Auvers, the small provincial village where van Gogh spent the final months of his life. There he stumbles into a tangled web of conflicting details about the painter’s suicide that only leads him deeper down the rabbit hole of Vincent’s life.

Armand never fully unravels the mystery of van Gogh’s death and the audience is left only to contemplate the complexity of the artist’s true nature. If moviegoers are searching for easy answers and tidy conclusions, Kobiela’s film will leave them unsatisfied. Instead, “Loving Vincent” attempts to go beyond the caricature that has become the popular image of van Gogh today and present a more full-bodied examination of the man. van Gogh was a deeply haunted loner who was capable of profound generosity, extraordinary kindness and torrential rage — sometimes all in the course of the same day. A victim of epilepsy and mental illness, the painter struggled his entire life to maintain his health and stability while continuing to perfect his craft. The question that the film compellingly poses: Was van Gogh on the road to recovery, or spiraling down into a deeper nightmare?

At its best, “Loving Vincent” is an elegy to all the crooked places within the human heart where our darkest secrets and deepest sorrows lie quietly hidden. Just before his death, van Gogh’s work had been widely acclaimed at two important exhibitions and highly praised by the Parisian art critic Albert Aurier. His last letters to Roulin, the postmaster, were filled with hope, confidence and optimism about the future. Already admired by artists like Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, van Gogh’s fortunes appeared finally to be turning. And then he was gone.

While Kobiela’s paper-thin plot of the undelivered letter begins to come apart by the middle of the movie, the power of van Gogh’s imagination never falters and the urgency of his paintings shimmer and glow on the screen until the very end. In Auvers, van Gogh finished 70 remarkable paintings in 70 days, producing some of his greatest works in a ferocious burst of energy, as if he knew his end was coming soon. The artist had finally found his true voice and his technique had matured into simple, expressive brushstrokes; luscious, swirling colors; and a redefinition of perspective that bent all the rules of traditional painting.

Kobiela ends her movie with the painter’s own words, which is a fitting epitaph to a misunderstood and difficult life. “Who am I in the eyes of most people. A nobody, a non-entity, an unpleasant person. Someone who has not, and never will have, any position in society, in short the lowest of the low. Well then, even if that was all absolutely true, one day I would like to show by my work, what this non-entity has in his heart.”

Indeed, to show the world what lies inside the human heart may have been all he ever wanted to do from the very start.

Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.


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