Auvers as Culture
A Critical Roundup
As everyone knows, Vincent van Gogh is the most popular artist in history. He may even be the most popular human being period, if you don’t count Christ and the prophet Muhammad. The death cult for no other lay figure has ever been so persistent or so evolutionary or so global. Eat your hearts out, Elvis and Marilyn.
He’s simply everywhere in our world. His face sells food, drink and marijuana. In Europe, his name is on streets, squares, restaurants, cafes, coffee houses, hotels, ships, planes, buses, and investment banks (as in Van Gogh Preferred Banking, “where wealth management is raised to an art form”). Australia has a Van Gogh oil field.
His goal as an artist was to connect with people who knew nothing about art, and at this he succeeded magnificently. Car salesmen and schoolgirls weep when they see his paintings, and have no idea why. In the sale of posters -- the real test of mass popularity for a painter -- he’s the undisputed king. Van Gogh reproductions outsell Kleenex tissues.
And he’s just as popular with the critics as he is with Joe Public. The snobby arbiters of every artistic “ism” claim him as a favorite son. When, in the ’50s, the critic Clement Greenberg dared to question his “craft competence” (“Did Van Gogh have a professional command of his art?”), a ton of bricks fell on him. He was spitting in the wind.
But if Van Gogh is honey to the great unwashed and to the cultural elite, he is even more popular with another demographic group: his fellow artists. Picasso spotted this trait very early in the Vincent phenomenon and predicted that Van Gogh’s “tragic and solitary adventure” would become “the prototypical artist’s saga of our time.”
Well, that certainly happened, and on a scale Picasso could not have dreamed possible. Artists of all stripes love Vincent madly. The enigma of his personality, the pain of his struggle, the magic of his accomplishment, the bittersweet mystery of his death and the irony of his posthumous fame is opium to them.
The first purchaser of a Van Gogh painting was Anna Boch, another painter, and his first collectors were, for the most part, other artists. Movie people, for some reason, have been particularly susceptible to his gravity and the list of long-time Van Gogh owners includes Errol Flynn, Edward G. Robinson and Elizabeth Taylor.
As a film critic, I saw this confirmed every time I brought up his name in an interview. From Madonna to Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson to Daniel Day-Lewis, The Rock to Robert Redford, they all seemed to feel a personal connection with him. And while the nature of this connection varied, it always seemed to be fueled by the pathos of his death.
No less an authority than Tony Curtis once said to me, “We’re attracted, above all, to his death: Was his suicide an act of the despair that goes hand-in-hand with being an artist or was it an act of creation?” A bow to failure or, as Sartre put it, “the final brushstroke” to a life “so mythic in its dimension” that it was itself a conscious work of art?
Either way, the Death in Auvers has had almost supernatural pull on the artists of the past century and they have responded to it with a deluge of paintings, sculptures, symphonies, songs, operas, plays, novels, poetry, films and television shows -- all of which, to some degree, have the shadow of the wheatfield hanging over them.
As you might expect, this outpouring of “Vincentiana” ranges wildly in style, ambition and quality, from the throwaway lyrics of a Bob Dylan ballad to the libretto of a three-hour Finnish opera, from a Woody Allen parody to the rap poetry of Tupac Shakur, from a Van Gogh Vodka commercial to films by Vincent Minnelli, Robert Altman and Akira Kurosawa.
How does one deal with it all? Not easily. But for those who want a vague handle on the situation, the following rundown has been prepared, based on my three decades of sampling the waters. It’s opinionated, and by no means definitive, but it’s at least an attempt to sort out the vast cultural legacy of Auvers in one bearable sitting.
LUST FOR LIFE: The movies are the best place to start and this deluxe 1956 biopic is the best of the movies, and the only work of any kind that deserves its own category. Because, more than just derivative of Vincent, it was one of the greatest factors in the creation of the Van Gogh myth that seized the world in the 1950s and has never let it go.
VINCENT MINNELLI’S Lust For Life (1956)
Yes, there are nasty things to say about it in terms of biographical accuracy. It falsely depicts Vincent succumbing to his “malady of the South” while in Auvers and it grossly misrepresents all the aspects of his death. To explain the incomprehensible suicide it even goes to the trouble to invent a bogus suicide note.
Yet, somehow, it doesn’t matter. Sixty-two years later, the movie still plays like a Stradivarius and it’s abundantly obvious that what it does so brilliantly “right” is to view Vincent’s life as one of history’s great personal epics: epic in the scope of his character, the journey of his art and the ten-year odyssey he took through Holland, Belgium and three diverse regions of France.
To recreate this odyssey, the filmmakers not only traveled to all of those (then) still-largely unspoiled actual locations, they also went around the world to photograph actual Van Gogh paintings in their full radiance to display in the film’s many inserts and montages, and create a thrilling cinemascope gallery of the artist’s development.
One of the cinema’s all-time most innovative colorists, director Vincent Minnelli -- working with legendary cameraman F. A. Young (Lawrence of Arabia) -- never rose to a challenge more resplendently as he did in the feat of contrasting the art to its locations and making virtually every frame of the movie an Impressionist painting unto itself.
And, of course, the jewel in this classic’s crown is Kirk Douglas’s towering star performance. His physical resemblance to Vincent is so uncanny he could be one of the self-portraits come eerily alive, and he backs that accident of nature with all the inner fire and riveting charisma of an iconic movie star at his volcanic peak. He “is” Vincent.
The performance received an avalanche of acclaim in its time (including a New York Film Critics award), and its impact has snowballed over the years. As critic Judy Sund noted in 2002, “The earnest, impulsive genius that Douglas... brought to life continues to inform popular notions of the artistic personality and to haunt modern painting.”
Lust for Life captures both the visual sweep of Vincent’s life and the spirit of his personality. It is quite simply Hollywood’s most successful biopic of a famous artist, and also its most influential: Indeed, it’s easy to argue that no film has ever had a greater influence on the world’s perception of a major cultural figure.
OTHER BIOPICS: Thirty-four years later, when Robert Altman made the second highest-profile Van Gogh biopic, Vincent & Theo, (one of four released to tie-in with the centenary of Vincent’s death in 1990), he decided the best way to compete with the memory of Lust for Life was to add Theo as an equal hero and work against the earlier film’s epic tradition.
So while LFL saw Vincent’s life as a screen-filling odyssey, Altman goes over the same territory with almost no establishing shots or cinematic panache, and little in the way of evocative locations. He crosscuts between the brothers’ lives from interior to interior. The Borinage gets one scene in one cramped room.
While LFL punctuated its narrative with a running gallery of Van Gogh art, V&T gives
Vincent & Theo (1990)
us no real sense of how that style evolved from the earth tones of Brabant to the sublime gaudiness of Provence to the chromatic serenity of Auvers. And the paintings we do glimpse in the film are obvious fakes, often presented in the wrong period.
While LFL portrayed its Theo as a paragon of solidity and Vincent as a troubled but essentially noble idealist, V&T portrays Theo as an effete snob and Vincent as a mean-spirited low-brow with little trace of a beautiful soul and the dirtiest teeth in the history of cinema. You can’t imagine this Vincent reading a book or dispensing much Emersonian wisdom.
Still, V&T has its pluses. It’s depiction of the brothers’ stormy relationship is more honest than LFL, it has a handful of virtuoso (and uniquely Altman) scenes, Roth’s gritty performance has earned its own cult following and its wheatfield finale has some punch. (It’s the only movie biopic that actually shows Vincent pulling the trigger on himself.)
But the movie relies on something historically false or absurdly heightened in almost every scene (such as having Vincent kiss Gauguin passionately on the lips), and it generates little awe or magic: Framed with scenes of a frantic modern auction of a Van Gogh painting, the lasting emotion it conveys is an almost comical sense of irony.
Also produced to tie-in with the death-year centennial (but released in 1991, a year late), Maurice Pialat’s French-language Van Gogh was a huge critical hit in its day, with a near-record twelve César nominations and a best-actor César win for Jacques Dutronc as Vincent. Yet, to my mind, it's a travesty that's very hard to sit through.
To its credit, this is the first
MAURICE PIALAT’S Van Gogh (1991)
Van Gogh film that plays directly to the Mystery of Auvers. It doesn’t show the shooting in the wheatfield, it implies (but doesn’t directly state) that someone else might have pulled the trigger and, without offering much in the way of a motive, it even hints that Dr. Gachet may have been the hit-man.
It also defies Van Gogh mythology to depict its Theo as an insensitive, money-grubbing huckster (who doesn’t really like his brother’s work and feels no sorrow for his death); and to have its Vincent flatly admit what so many of his revisionist biographers have suspected: that he was faking his madness in St-Rémy so he could hide in his work.
Even so, this is in no way an interesting movie, and its Vincent is simply preposterous: a tall, lanky, Clint Eastwood of a Post-Impressionist who saunters into Auvers-sur-Oise with a perfectly intact left ear, never seems to take much interest in painting and spends most of his last summer rolling in the hay with an insatiable Marguerite Gachet.
This movie’s Vincent is more irresistible to women than Warren Beatty. Adeline Ravoux, his sister-in-law Jo, a whole wagonload of nude prostitutes -- they’re so all over him he has to literally fight them off. And nothing else here bears the slightest relationship to any reality either. The dialogue and situations are a ludicrous fantasy.
Moreover, while LFL told its epic story in a compact two hours (to a glorious Miklós Rózsa score), and V&T upped its running time to a trying but still-endurable two-and-a-half hours (with a spooky electronic score by Gabriel Yared), the subtitled scenes of Pialat’s Van Gogh grind on for an agonizing three hours -- without benefit of any music.
The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s fascinating 1990 psychological memoir, Dreams, was also originally sold as a tie-in with the Van Gogh centenary death-year, but it’s not a biography and the Van Gogh part of it, “Crows,” is only one of eight sections depicting the “landscape and texture” of the filmmaker’s dreams.
AKIRA KUROSAWA’S Dreams (1990)
In this only English-language segment, Kurosawa sees himself as a young art student who wanders from a Van Gogh exhibition into a Van Gogh-wonderland where he meets Vincent (played by director Martin Scorsese) and follows him through a series of Van Gogh sketches and paintings until he reaches the apocalyptic vision of Wheatfield with Crows.
Scorsese sounds too much like Scorsese for us to suspend much disbelief but he looks a bit like Vincent in several shots and, since he’s not really required to give a performance, his intelligence and famously compulsive personality makes him a not-bad emblematic choice. He’s certainly more believable in the role than Dutronc.
And with ravishing and ground-breaking color-effects by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic that suck us right into the paintings, the sequence stands as a sumptuous monument to Japan’s legendary national Vincent-obsession and a fulfillment of Vincent’s own vision of his work (in Letter V487) as “a Japanese dream.”
The Van Gogh movie rush of 1990 also includes a fourth entry, the sweet-spirited French-Canadian family film, Vincent et Moi, which tells the tale of a young girl artist who goes back in time to meet her hero. After that, however, the cinema of Vincent would take a lengthy hiatus, with most of the action moving to the small screen, particularly in Europe.
Over the next twenty-seven years, during which Van Gogh scholarship would be revolutionized by its recognition of the Mystery of Auvers and the likelihood he didn’t commit suicide, the only Vincent feature would be Alexander Barnett’s low-budget 2005 American indie, The Eyes of Van Gogh, chronicling Vincent’s stay in the asylum at St-Rémy.
But the mystery would be front and center in two more recent Oscar-nominated films released within a year of one other: the 2017 animated feature, Loving Vincent (discussed below under animation) and 2018’s At Eternity’s Gate, directed by Julian Schnabel and co-written by France’s most celebrated screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière.
At Eternity's Gate (2018)
Given its filmmakers’ track record and a best-actor Oscar nomination for star Willem Dafoe as Vincent, this last one should have been something special: a biopic to finally rival Lust For Life. But it’s amazingly and sadly not. In fact, as a biography of a well-documented icon of history, you simply don’t get much worse than this.
It’s a chronicle of Vincent’s final days that somehow manages to reduce Dr. Gachet to an extra and omit Adeline Ravoux entirely. When Theo arrives at the Ravoux Inn for the death watch, Vincent is already dead! It’s one apocryphal scene after another, with Vincent doing things he never did, saying things he never said, painting works that don’t exist.
If Altman and Pialat's visions were cramped and anti-epic, Schnabel's is positively clasutrophobic, with no major set pieces and
virtually all close shots. It’s also painfully slow-moving and often downright annoying in its obvious pretention to be the most “arty” of VG biopics. (Not surprisingly, it’s also the biggest box-office flop of the bunch.)
The script is incredibly threadbare but it strains to be up-to-date with sequences depicting both the famous lost Arles sketchbook (found in 2016 and now considered a fraud by the Van Gogh Museum) and the theory that Vincent was killed by a gang of teenagers (while, at the same time, an end title card seems to question that very theory.)
At Eternity’s Gate is a mess in every way but one: Willem Dafoe’s performance. Devoid of any craziness, nastiness or lust for life, it may be as biographically bogus as the rest of the film (and, at 63, Dafoe is way too old for the part) but his Vincent is also the genre’s most totally sympathetic ever -- truly heartbreaking in his naiveté and pathos.
ANIMATION: The Oscar-nominated 2017 Polish-UK Loving Vincent is likely to be the last word in Vincent-animation for years to come and it’s also the first feature film to confront the Mystery of Auvers head-on in its plotline.
With each frame (some 65,000 of them) hand-painted in a Van Gogh style by a team of 125 animators, it bills itself as “the world’s first fully oil-painted feature film;” and it delivers on its advertising with a 95-minute, near-total immersion in a Van Gogh world. The paintings come dazzlingly to life. On this level, the movie is a considerable cinematic feat and a one-of-a-kind experience that all true Vincent fans will want to enjoy more than once in their lives.
THE MYSTERY COMES ALIVE:
On the other hand, some viewers have been put off by the endlessly pulsating images and often clumsy rotoscoping of the actors (most of whom have exaggerated British accents); and others have complained about the animation of paintings out of sequence to their place in Vincent’s life (Arles paintings appear in Auvers, etc.) and out of character to the subject matter (the old man of “On the Threshold of Eternity” becomes the mysterious Dr. Mazery at the death scene).
As a Citizen Kane-style semi-biopic, it also gets several important facts of Van Gogh’s life completely wrong, and as an exploration of the mystery of Vincent’s death it’s a very tepid whodunit indeed: halfheartedly concluding (but not depicting) that the teenager René Secrétan probably shot Vincent but, in his own unique way, Vincent also probably committed suicide. It’s out to please both sides of that controversy.
It’s all very confusing and not a bit convincing and, thus, dramatically unsatisfying. The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott said the story “limps and drags,” which is a kind way of putting it.
VINCENT IN IMAX: Brush with Genius (2009)
DOCUMENTARIES: Four theatrical Van Gogh documentaries have played U.S. screens over the past six decades and each is good in its way... Australian director Paul Cox’s moving, feature-length 1987 Vincent walks us through many of the locations of the Van Gogh trek through Europe, with the camera as his eyes and the voice of John Hurt reading appropriate excerpts from his letters... The 2009 forty-minute Van Gogh: Brush with Genius uses the 70mm IMAX camera to enjoyably overwhelm us with the world of Vincent, not only in staggering panoramas of the locations but in microscopic dives into his brushstrokes and the chicken-scratch of his correspondence... The legendary French director Alain Resnais won an Oscar in 1948 for his twenty-minute short, Van Gogh, an astute (but, unfortunately black & white) mini-biography that uses Claude Dauphin’s narration and Vincent’s paintings and drawings to tell his life story in one long montage... To help promote its Lust for Life movie in 1956, MGM produced the twenty-one-minute companion film, Van Gogh: Darkness into Light, narrated by studio boss Dore Schary and full of rare (and now historically valuable) behind-the-scenes footage of the company filming in Brabant, the Borinage, Paris, Arles, St-Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise.
TELEVISION: More than two hundred TV-movies, documentaries or series-episodes have centered on Van Gogh, many of them in the 1950s, when Vincent-mania was inspiring everything from a 1952 episode of Our Miss Brooks (Van Gogh, Man Gogh) to a 1958 episode of the feminist cop show Decoy, (The Shadow of Van Gogh, about a painter criminally obsessed with the artist). The more ambitious of the later TV offerings are mostly from the U.K.: Vincent the Dutchman, a 1972 episode of the BBC
THE BBC’S Power of Art (2006)
series, Omnibus, directed by Sweden’s Mai Zetterling and employing Michael Gough as Vincent; Channel 4’s perhaps prematurely titled 2004 Van Gogh: The Full Story; also from Channel 4, Van Gogh, an installment of Simon Schama’s 2006 BBC series, The Power of Art, focusing on the painting of Wheatfield with Crows; The Yellow House, a 2007 TV-movie dramatizing the turbulent weeks Van Gogh and Gauguin were roommates in 1888 Arles; and the BBC’s 2010 TV-movie Van Gogh: Painted with Words, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Vincent. From Holland, there’s the epic, ongoing 2013 Dutch mini-series, Van Gogh: een huis voor Vincent, with Barry Atsma in the title role and (in flash-forwarded sequences) Jeroen Krabbé as his nephew and heir, Dr. Willem Vincent van Gogh. Another intriguing TV-vehicle I’ve heard of but never been able to track down is France’s Van Gogh ou la Revanche Ambiguë (Van Gogh or the Double-edged Triumph), which documents, among other things, the phenomenon of unbridled Vincent-obsession among so many noted artists and writers.
Lust for Life (1934)
NOVELS: It can be argued that the two most influential books in the Van Gogh canon are both bestselling novels: Julius Meier-Graefe’s 1921 Vincent and Irving Stone’s 1934 Lust for Life. The first coined much of the martyr-for-art mythology and the second made Van Gogh a Depression folk hero in America and was almost as big a factor in his posthumous enshrinement as its 1956 movie version. Herr Meier-Graefe’s quasi-biography has since disappeared but Stone’s book (still a good read, if often irritating in its many sloppy historical inaccuracies) has never been out of print. A steady stream of other novels have appeared down through the years trying to get in Van Gogh’s head as its central character or using his life and art as the touchstone of its premise. The first two of these, both roman à clefs, were In the Sky, by French author (and early Van Gogh collector) Octave Mirbeau, serialized between 1892-93; and The Initiated, penned by Countess Eugénie de la
Rochefoucauld, the wife of another early Van Gogh collector, which appeared in 1902. The first novel I can find that actually uses his name for its protagonist is the extremely rare 1917 Van Gogh: Journey of a Soul, a second German bio-novel which actually pre-dates Meier-Graefe’s more famous one by several years. And speaking of German novels, Vincent (as if to prove he is truly a man for all seasons) is an admired spiritual presence in both Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ 1929 Michael and Erich Maria Remarque’s staunchly anti-Nazi 1945 Arch of Triumph. More recently, you can find him in children’s books (1994’s Camille and the Sunflowers: A Story about Vincent van Gogh), young adult novels (2012’s Tokyo Heist, with a sixteen-year-old Seattle girl sleuthing a Van Gogh theft in the Far East), historical romance (2006’s The Last Van Gogh), more biographical fiction (1995’s Johanna, with Vincent’s sister-in-law as the main character, and 2007’s self-explanatory Van Gogh in Paris: A Novel), psychological mystery (2011’s Leaving Van Gogh), novellas (Stanley Elkin’s 1993 Van Gogh’s Room at Arles: Three Novellas), and contemporary thrillers (J. Madison Davis’ 2005 The Van Gogh Conspiracy and Jeffrey Archer’s 2006 False Impression). Also in recent years, Van Gogh has become the hero of a number of Dutch graphic novels, one of which presumes to picture his love-life in soft-core explicitness: the first Vincent-porn. Another is a Mad Magazine-style fantasy that has him collaborating with Alfred Hitchcock on a Van Gogh biopic..
PLAYS: The most acclaimed of many Vincent stage pieces is probably Vincent in Brixton, a 2003 drama by Nicolas Wright which imagines the year Van Gogh lived in that London suburb with a massive crush on his landlady’s daughter (and perhaps his landlady). It originated in London’s National Theatre and went on to a Broadway run and many regional revivals in the U.S... Leonard Nimoy wrote, directed and played Theo in the 1981 one-man play, Vincent, which was based on Phillip Stevens’ 1979 drama, Van Gogh. The production, which was videotaped at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater and is available on DVD, is frequently revived in regional theater.
LEONARD NIMOY’S Vincent (1981)
POETRY: The school of Vincent-poets includes gangsta-rapper Tupac Shakur, who eulogized the artist in Starry Night, (“So on that starry night, you gave to us and you took away from us/ The one thing we never acknowledged, your life”); the much-respected American classicist Robert Fagles, whose 1978 volume I, Vincent, is a brilliant anthology of poems that are each inspired by a specific Van Gogh painting and collectively form what critic Richard Howard justifiably calls “the richest and fullest Van Gogh I have seen in print, except for Vincent’s letters;” the great English poet W.H. Auden, who toasted Vincent in several of his
ROBERT FAGLES’ I, Vincent (1978)
poems and edited a 1961 volume of the letters; and Paul Celan, the acclaimed postwar Romanian-German poet and Holocaust-survivor who dedicated his poem Under a Picture to Van Gogh, pondered the meaning of the severed ear in his poem Powers, Dominions and may have committed suicide (by leaping in the Seine in 1970) with an eye on Auvers.
BILL NIGHY IN Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor (2010)
COMEDY: So far, we haven’t seen a Van Gogh TV sit-com or a Van Gogh stand-up act, but he’s represented in several other comedy formats. Paul Davids’ 1999 feature film Starry Night has him brought back to life by a magic potion and on a farcical spree of stealing back his paintings (winding up in the middle of the Rose Bowl Parade). Vincent and the Doctor, a 2010 episode of the BBC series, Doctor Who, sends the doctor time-traveling back to 1890 Auvers to help the artist battle an alien monster in what must be the only Van Gogh sci-fi comedy. Christopher Moore’s 2012 novel Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art gets laughs from a plot that has Toulouse-Lautrec and friends investigating Van Gogh’s mysterious death in Auvers. And Woody Allen’s 1975 collection of humorous essays, Without Feathers, includes a parody of the Van Gogh letters: ten brief epistles that re-imagine Vincent as a temperamental dentist whose aspirations to artistically express himself in the mouths of his patients are so frustrated and misunderstood that he finally wishes he’d taken his father’s advice to become a painter. (“It’s not exciting but the life is regular.”)
EINOJUHANI RAUTAVAARA’S Vincentiana (1992)
MUSIC: Among the many serious-music compositions inspired by Van Gogh are German composer Bertold Hummel’s 1985 Eight Fragments from Letters of Vincent van Gogh; American composer Gloria Coates’ 1993 Homage to Van Gogh; French composer Henri Dutilleux’ 1978 Timbre, Space, Movement, subtitled La nuit etoilée and aimed at translating what the composer calls the "almost cosmic whirling effect” of the Starry Night painting; and, perhaps grandest of all, Miklós Rózsa’s stirring score for the Lust for Life soundtrack, which is now available in a limited edition CD... The Vincent-operas include Turkish composer Nevit Kodallis' 1956 Vincent (an operatic
version of Lust for Life); Russian composer Grigori Frid’s 1976 Letters of Van Gogh; and, most notably, Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s 1990 Vincent, with themes he later re-used in his 1992 symphony Vincentiana... Van Gogh has been immortalized in dozens of pop songs, everything from the country rock of Georgia’s Vigilantes of Love to the Cantopop rap of Hong Kong’s Ivana Wong. But the three best-known Vincent-songs are undoubtedly Bob Dylan’s late-’60s Vincent van Gogh (“Now where did Vincent van Go?”), a ditty which, in six short stanzas, manages to include five large factual errors about Van Gogh’s life; Joni Mitchell’s 1994 Grammy-winning but also oddly inaccurate mood piece, Turbulent Indigo, which has Vincent dying of a shotgun blast; and Don McLean’s hauntingly beautiful, enduringly popular 1971 ballad, Vincent, which, for me, captures the special magic of Vincent van Gogh more exquisitely than any other piece of Vincent-music.
PAINTING & SCULPTURE: The list of visual artists who have been inspired to copy or pay tribute to the famous Van Gogh style over the past hundred years is probably longer than the Tacoma phone book and includes such masters as Picasso, Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck, Francis Bacon, Rainer Fetting and Anselm Kiefer. The Van Gogh House tour in Zundert concludes with a room celebrating this influence on other artists, and you can find whole galleries around the world dedicated to nothing but Van Gogh-like art, such as St-Remy’s Centre d'Art Présence Van Gogh or
MAURICE DE VLAMINCK’s
The Harvest (1945)
Arles’ Foundation Van Gogh. But perhaps the most spectacular of these Vincent imitations was painted not in oil but in flowers and “other organic material.” This was the humongous Van Gogh Mega Portrait, a floral reproduction of one of the Paris self-portraits planted in 2012 by the town of Nuenen in a field across the road from one of the artist’s motifs, the Roosdonck Windmill. The botanical spectacle was best viewed from an airplane ... Statues honoring Van Gogh are all over the Netherlands and France (the town of Etten, where Vincent lived for only six months, has two of them) but the most notable are a trio of surreal statues by the Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine that were placed in Vincent’s birthplace in Zundert, the death place in Auvers-sur-Oise and the asylum of St-Rémy -- the last of which was trucked away by vandals on the night of January 30, 1989 and still has not been recovered...
FORGERY & THEFT: If crime is an art, Vincent has indeed been much honored by the tribute of artists of the criminal persuasion. Two of the twentieth century’s most publicized forgery scandals -- the Wacker Scandal of late-’20s Berlin and the Gachet Collection Scandal of mid-’50s Paris -- have had forged Van Gogh art at their focus. And, since his style in each of its periods is so distinctive and easy to imitate, more than a few art historians have argued that a significant percentage
STEALING VINCENT (1991)
of the Van Gogh catalog is made up of skilled fakes: especially from his earliest period, which is made nebulous by the famous “Breda Boxes” (a vast stash of never-catalogued juvenilia sold en masse to a junk dealer by his mother); and his final Auvers summer, when so few of his seventy paintings were described in his letters... Van Gogh art thieves have also been busy, especially in recent decades. In December, 1988, one of the Weavers-series paintings, the first version of The Potato Eaters and Dried Sunflowers were lifted from the Kröller-Müller Museum, though all three were recovered the next year... Though the details were never publicized, Landscape in the Neighborhood of St-Rémy was stolen from a private collection in 1989 and is still missing... In April, 1991, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was robbed of no less than twenty paintings, including the final version of The Potato Eaters and the museum’s marquee attraction, Wheatfield with Crows. All were recovered less than an hour later in a nearby parked car, but three -- among them Wheatfield -- were damaged during the theft. Four men, including two museum guards, were convicted for their parts in this daring inside job that’s just begging to be a movie... In December, 2002, thieves got inside the Van Gogh Museum again, this time from its roof, making off with Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen and View of the Sea at Scheveningen. They were caught and convicted a year later but the paintings were not recovered until fourteen-years later, when anti-Mafia police in Italy found them in the home of a mobster's mother. The whole story, which has many twists and turns, was told in a fascinating 2017 Dutch television documentary... And during these same recent decades, Van Gogh drawings, watercolors or paintings have also been burgled in Cairo, Manchester, Rome, Zurich, Brussels and Den Bosch -- though, except for the Cairo job (a still-life from the Paris period), all the works have since been recovered.
WEARING THE COLORS
KITSCH: Few are likely to dispute the fact that Vincent is history’s most merchandized cultural icon. Any item that can hold an image is for sale with a Vincent theme. Not just the usual souvenir tee shirts but hats, pants, dresses, scarves, neckties, suspenders, socks, underwear, thongs, shoes, buttons, swim suits and umbrellas. Not just the usual souvenir key chains and pens but teapots, clocks, watches, seat belts, lighters, flasks, compacts, lunch boxes, magnets, dishes, place settings, coasters, belt buckles, cufflinks, jewelry, chairs, lamps, room dividers, pillows, sheets, door knobs, stationary, guitar
picks and dolls. And not just one each of these items but more often a variety of them, some featuring practically every famous Van Gogh painting. It adds up to a staggering four hundred pages on Amazon. You can find a Vincent mug with an ear that disappears to hot liquid. A Vincent action figure with tiny interchangeable paintings for its tiny easel. A Halloween costume that puts you inside Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear (the frame goes around your head).
THE NEW TECHNOLOGY: No one has yet produced a blockbuster Vincent video game but Van Gogh Brabant, a Dutch organization that promotes Vincent tourism in his homeland, has six games on its Explore Vincent app. The Van Gogh Museum also offers a number of Vincent-themed apps, including a Touch Van Gogh guide to its paintings, a Yours, Vincent guide to the Van Gogh Letters and a Van Gogh Mile walking
THE INSTITUT VAN GOGH’S
Vincent’s Dream APP
tour through central Amsterdam. Another app-guide to his work, Vincent’s Dream, is offered by France’s Institut Van Gogh, with proceeds going towards its goal of obtaining a prime Van Gogh painting for Vincent’s death-room museum in Auvers’ Auberge Ravoux. You can also find the letters, a complete catalogue raisonné and info on most everything else in the Van Gogh world on David Brooks’ masterfully conceived and assiduously maintained Van Gogh Gallery (www.vggallery.com). Also in the way of Vincent-tech, the newer Van Gogh museums in Zundert and Nuenen have gone all out to utilize every imaginable digital innovation; and, though its now history, the four nations and thirty cultural organizations that remembered the special anniversary of Vincent’s death with a year-long celebration, Van Gogh 2015: 125 Years of Inspiration, supported this unprecedented event with a dazzling array of cutting edge digital applications...”
RELIGION: The idea of Van Gogh as a quasi-religious hero, even a secular Christ, has been pervasive among his followers from the beginning, and Vincent himself seemed to play with the notion as early as his Borinage years. All his biographers have toyed with the concept, not sure what to make of it, and it’s explored more fully in several books, including Kathleen Powers Erickson’s 1998 At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh. But this strange manifestation of the Van Gogh phenomenon has never before been realized quite so extravagantly as it is in Van Gogh Alive, a “multi-sensory experience” that’s been touring the world’s major cities for the past few years. In this last word in Vincentiana, the devotee walks through a series of sound stage-sized rooms in which he’s dwarfed by more than three thousand H.D. images of Van Gogh paintings (including a Wheatfield with Crows that breaks into animation at the sound of a gunshot), projected “at enormous scale” on screens, walls, columns, ceilings and even the floor, a “total sensual immersion” in Vincent to the accompaniment of Hayden, Handel and Mozart. The effect is humbling, thrilling, awe-inspiring and a bit frightening in its rapturous evocation of the artist as God.