Copyright © 2015, William Arnold
All Rights Reserved
Due: December 2018
From the Introduction...
"Though he would fiercely deny it, William Arnold’s A Death in Auvers, the nonfiction companion book to his novel Exile in the Light, can stand alone as one of the most absorbing and astonishing entries in the vast canon of books about the life and legend of Vincent van Gogh..."
From Part I, The Brothers and the Wheatfield...
As everyone knows, the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh is quite simply the phenomenon of all great-artist phenomena -- the most popular (his posters outsell all others), the most beloved (on a first-name basis with the whole world), the most chronicled (in every media, with more than a dozen biopics, including the 1956 masterpiece, Lust for Life), the most merchandized (a veritable industry, with literally thousands of Van Gogh-themed items), the most analyzed (a new psychiatric study appears like clockwork every six months), the most prolific (more than 2000 artworks in a career lasting barely eight years), and the most self-revealed (in forty mesmerizing self-portraits and more than 800 letters, detailing the conception of his most important works and virtually every artistic impulse he ever experienced).
In more recent years, still another superlative has been added to this staggering list: he’s become the subject of what is shaping up to be art history’s most intriguing and culturally explosive murder mystery.
“Who Killed Vincent van Gogh?” Time magazine screamed on its Oct. 31, 2011 cover and the question has been echoing ever since.
This notion that the most celebrated suicide of all time might not have killed himself actually has a history, popping up every decade or so for the past seventy years, primarily in cases made against the character of Vincent’s last physician and most-famous model, Dr. Gachet. It was first publicly voiced, in its most chaotic form, in a rambling 1948 French book charging that this suspicious shrink had deliberately driven his troubled patient to suicide. In 1953, on the centenary of Van Gogh’s birth, it was strongly hinted in an interview by the last living witness of the death scene, and it was picked up again the next year (with the word “murder” used) in a magazine article by a Von Gogh scholar commenting on a then-raging Parisian forgery scandal with the doctor and his son at its focus. In the late 1980s, it was the subject of an unproduced Hollywood screenplay and it was taken seriously enough in the 1990s to inspire at least one journalistic investigation.
But in 2011 it entered a new generation of media attention as the coda of a splashy, 953-page, “definitive” biography, which charged, with no evidence, that Vincent was killed by a gang of teenage hooligans. After that, Time boldly asked its cover question and 60 Minutes followed suit with its own head-scratching segment questioning the suicide. In 2014, Vanity Fair declared the matter, on its cover, “Art’s Greatest Mystery” and in 2017, the matter would be central to the much-acclaimed animated feature film, Loving Vincent. Coming up is Killing Vincent, a book by a physician and long-time Van Gogh expert out to once-and-for all disprove the suicide and put the blame for his death back where that first accuser placed it seventy years ago, with Dr. Gachet.
Websites devoted to the Van Gogh death now thrive and a term has been coined to lump together the inconsistencies of the crime scene and host of suspects and theories involved: “The Mystery of Auvers” (after the death site, the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise).
Just what is it that elevates the idea of a Vincent murder above all those tabloid fantasies and murder-conspiracy theories involving Marilyn, JFK, Natalie Wood and the like? Mostly, it’s the argument’s common-sense and intuitive appeal and the growing number of authorities and high-end media outlets that have been convinced by it (Vanity Fair instead of the National Inquirer, 60 Minutes instead of the E! Channel). When all the evidence is laid on the table, virtually everyone who makes the effort to intelligently examine it walks away feeling fairly sure the suicide didn’t happen.
Beyond that, where the mystery goes from this point, has elicited little consensus, however.
The stakes in the controversy are high. Van Gogh is not just an historical personage, he is a powerful myth that has gripped the imagination of the world for more than a hundred years. His self-martyrdom is integral to that myth. It is the climax and emotional centerpiece of the thousands of Vincent movies, plays, operas, symphonies, pop songs, novels, biographies and medical treatises. Sartre called it “a fundamental existential act of the modern era.” Picasso claimed Van Gogh entered the pantheon of great painters the minute he pulled that trigger. Its terrible grandeur makes his story gut-wrenchingly irresistible and lends a fascination to the paintings that, frankly, they wouldn’t otherwise have. The idea that Vincent was killed, accidentally or on purpose, by some teenage lout trivializes his magnificent quest. It could even, in the long haul, decrease the value of his paintings and blunt the century-long juggernaut of adulation that has made the sad, haunting face of his self-portraits as iconic in our time as the Mona Lisa.
For the most part, both the Netherlands, the country that once scorned Vincent and now owns the bulk of his paintings, and the Van Gogh Family, which runs Amsterdam’s powerful and conservative Van Gogh Foundation, have so far refused to dignify the issue with a significant comment or denial. This may be a sound strategy. While the evidence against a suicide is near overwhelming, the case against the teenage gang in particular is extremely thin and the case against Dr. Gachet and perhaps his son, though more interesting, is also far from convincing. The myth of the suicide has been so compelling and so inexorable in the past, they seem to reason, surely it can withstand a challenge that can’t even produce a credible trigger-man for its crime.
But the Van Gogh Establishment’s strategy of hoping it will all just go away may, in the end, not succeed. It could be, in fact, that the Mystery of Auvers is just getting started. Because waiting in the wings is yet another whole dimension to the Van Gogh death story that has never been brought to light and threatens to be infinitely more controversial. This mindboggling body of previously undisclosed evidence takes the mystery to a whole new level and, in its own bizarre way, both devastates and re-consecrates the myth for a new and less-gullible millennium.
How this dark undercurrent was revealed and why it’s being introduced so late in the death game is taken up in the second third of this book. But, for now, know that it amounts to an almost inconceivable alternate history of the Van Gogh saga, with elements of blackmail and forgery, assassination and serial murder, governmental cover-up and international cultural warfare. It is, as its last living participant proclaimed in 1993, the “great untold story of the Van Gogh miracle,” and whatever else its telling may do, it provides us with the one credible scenario for a Vincent murder and the one convincing culprit for who did the deed.
From Part II, Vincent & Me...
“Here’s an idea, Bill! Maybe we should make a film about Vincent. The two of us together. You can write it and I’ll direct it. What do you say to that?”
The purveyor of this impulsive offer was one Fons Rademakers, who was at that moment in January of 1987 Holland’s top filmmaker. He’d been guiding me through the hallowed corridors of the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh for much of the morning, pointing out his favorite paintings, supplying commentary, sometimes even acting out key scenes from the artist’s life. Now, with his hand on my shoulder, as we stood before Wheatfield with Crows, he made this heady proposal that I knew from its glib tone could not be taken seriously.
Still, for an instant, it was a flattering pipedream. Like most visitors to this Valhalla of Van Gogh, I was moved beyond words by what I saw. The gauntlet of canvas just sweeps you away. The boldness. The innocence. The color. Above all, the Mescaline trip of color.
And Wheatfield with Crows! His last painting. His visual suicide note. Has there ever been a more ravishing image of romantic pessimism?
“He does all this,” Fons told me, waving his arm to encompass the seven hundred paintings and drawings in the building around us. “All this in just ten years. Against all the odds. With everyone telling him he has no talent whatsoever. With no one believing in him. No one but his beloved Theo, to whom he feels he has finally become such a burden that, well... the wheatfield...” He nodded at the painting, his eyes moist. “What a story, no? Can you imagine? Can you imagine?”
Outside the museum, it was the coldest European winter in twenty years and Amsterdam was as gray and bleak as an Ingmar Bergman funeral. But Fons had been brightening the landscape for me with an exuberant grand tour of the city -- the Rembrandt home, the Anne Frank apartment, the Red-light District, the Theater Tuschinski.
It was a bit like touring Las Vegas guided by Frank Sinatra. Fons had been the Netherlands’ most respected filmmaker ever since his debut film, The Village on the River, earned the nation’s first and only Oscar nomination some twenty-five years ago. More recently, he’d been elevated even a notch or two above that status. His new film, The Assault, had been tearing up the festival circuit and was being touted in the trades as another likely Oscar nominee. And last week, the Dutch press announced that his next project would be an expensive, Hollywood-financed historical epic with American stars. He was the man of the hour. Everywhere we went, people smiled and waved.
With his hooked nose, hawk eyes and fastidiously proper attire, the sixtysomething moviemaker could not possibly look any more severely Dutch. But there was a Mediterranean quality to his personality. In the ’50s, he served an apprenticeship with Vittorio De Sica in Italy, and that master’s passionate zest for life seemed to have rubbed off. He was enthusiastic about absolutely everything. I was nuts about the guy.
But I was more than edgy with this diversion. I was hired to write the script for that abovementioned Hollywood film, an adaptation of South African author Andre Brink’s An Instant in the Wind, and it’d been a bumpy go. Last week, when I sent him my first draft, he called and told me to hop on a plane. We would talk about the script when I arrived.
Two days of sightseeing and wining-and-dining had ensued and not once had he mentioned the script!
How did I get into this? I knew nothing about South Africa and I had no real screenwriting ambition. But Fons admired a novel I’d recently published and he credited my review of The Assault (in its world premiere at the Seattle Film Festival) for getting the film’s critical ball rolling. Also, youth and inexperience are highly valued in the movie business. So he talked me into the job and now that my ineptitude had shown itself, he was going to fire me. But being the nice guy he was, he just couldn’t quite get around to it.
After dinner that night, he did finally get around to business. And, no, he didn’t much like the draft of the script. But I hadn’t been fired. He asked me to have another go at it, with him more or less dictating what he wanted page by page. Even more surprising, he said he wasn’t kidding about the Van Gogh biopic.
“Nineteen-ninety will be the hundredth anniversary of Vincent’s death. That gives us three years to come up with a film that could tie-in with that date. Why don’t you do a little reading and try to think up some original approach to his life story and then, after we finish the rewrites of Instant, we can sit down and talk about it. What do you say?”
I said (to myself) that it’s crazy. I knew almost as little about Van Gogh and nineteenth-century art as I did about Andre Brink and South Africa. I was a proven failure at screenwriting and I desperately wanted to get back to my regular life. Yet, flattered and charmed by such an invitation, I told him that, yes, of course, I would be happy to do just that. You don’t say no to a hot movie director. And Vincent, I was beginning to discover, was a drug more addictive than heroin.
From Part III, Operation Indigo...
So by 1957 or so, you were secretly conducting your own murder investigation?
It became my hobby, and, gradually, my passion.
And you believed Dr. Gachet was the murderer?
I was sure of it. Everything pointed to it.
I’m still struggling with the idea that the French Government would cover up such a thing.
Then you are being naïve. Acquiring and protecting the Gachet Collection was immensely important to them. It was the nation’s greatest postwar acquisition of Impressionist art. Impressionism was important to them. It was a national resource that was vital to France’s economic future. Dr. Gachet was important to them. He was the subject of the most famous portrait of the century and the face of France’s benevolent support for all the artistic exiles of the world.
But I still don’t understand why Dr. Gachet would want to kill Vincent. What was his motive?
His motive was to put Vincent out of his misery, to help him to his death.
A mercy killing?
Remember that, a week or two before Vincent’s death, he and Gachet argued over the Guillaumin painting. Gachet Jr. later told Victor Doiteau that this “irrational outburst” convinced his father that a “severe relapse was about to descend on his poor friend” -- one that would likely require him to be locked up permanently.
So... you’re saying...?
Think about it. For sixty-five years, it’d intuitively struck people that Dr. Gachet was involved in some manner of foul play in regard to Vincent’s death. To explain this, they cast about and came up with all sorts of theories as to why the doctor might want to see his friend dead: that he was jealous of him, that he wanted to end an affair between Vincent and his daughter, that he wanted to acquire Vincent’s paintings for his collection, and so on. All of this was smoke, and didn’t really concern us -- because there was not a shred of evidence for any of it, and each of these motives was also totally inconsistent with the doctor’s character. But there was another motive -- a more credible motive, very much in his character -- that had so far eluded the Gachet-detractors and for which there actually was evidence. And when Artaud opened a door with his book that might logically lead to it, he had to go; and when Anfray and some of the others started moving in that same direction, they also had to be silenced. This theory is that Dr. Gachet was acting out of demented kindness -- that, believing another, perhaps permanently debilitating, psychotic attack was eminent for Vincent, he had simply wanted to put the suffering artist out of his misery.
On what evidence do you contend that Dr. Gachet was, in any way, an advocate of euthanasia?
On the evidence of a paper he published in enthusiastic support of it. Every copy of which we methodically excised from the archives of the city in 1955 and I’m sure will never be seen again.
If I remember correctly, it was a journal called the Almanach Parisien.
Did you read this article?
No, but I had it paraphrased for me.
The agent who confiscated it. He was one of those two friends involved in the Auvers Affair that I told you about with whom I had compared notes.
Well, even if Dr. Gachet believed in euthanasia intellectually, that doesn’t mean he practiced it.
Oh, but he did practice it. Regularly. I think he was even proud of it. I believe he often bragged about it, which may be what alienated his friends in later years -- Cézanne, Gauthier, Blanche Derousse. I think he even wrote about it in his book on Vincent and that’s why his son destroyed the manuscript after his father’s death. I think the doctor also hinted about his part in Vincent’s death to the various Fauves that came to Auvers, because I have found indications in their unpublished letters that the possibility of a Gachet mercy-killing of Vincent was discussed among Vlaminck, Derain and Matisse as early as 1906.
* * *
I’m having a difficult time grasping what you’re telling me. The immensity of it.
Then let me say it in a sentence: Dr. Gachet was a serial mercy killer of great French artists.
As Manet lay stricken, the doctors wanted to amputate his legs. Gachet, who was among them, argued that it would be better for him to die than to live without his legs. Shortly thereafter Manet did die.
Méryon? Daumier? Corot?
Perhaps many others. Always to the benefit of the doctor’s collection.
This is mindboggling.