Just like the bad boy Caravaggio, the legendary Jackson Pollock, or the eccentric Andy Warhol, van Gogh has become a sacred figure in the commercial world of art. Whether at the museum, the cinema, or even the theatre, the obscure and mysterious circumstances surrounding his life and death have been the source of endless fantasies that captivate millions.
Most recently, this obsession was realised in the self-flattering film Loving Vincent, directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. The film’s premise is to make van Gogh and his art come to life through an impressive sequence of 65,000 oil paintings in the “style of van Gogh” created by a team of over 100 painters. The scenes were shot with real actors first and transformed into oil paintings by this team.
But what the film offers in terms of visual grandeur, it lacks in acting and plot. In an unclear space between fantasy and fact – in the perfect modern hagiography – the main character, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), sets out to find the truth behind van Gogh’s death. On his father’s (the mailman who delivered van Gogh’s letters) insistence, Armand goes to Paris and then to Auvers, where van Gogh lived his last days. There he interviews the figures whom van Gogh had portrayed and who were somehow related to his death, in the typical fashion of a murder mystery. At the end of the film, he comes to no conclusion other than that no one but Armand and a couple of people who really got him realised his genius “Did you know he was a genius? Well, I did”. Needless to say, behind the bizarre attempt to bring his art to life, the film relies on dreadful acting, clichés, and empty statements. But this lack of substance is unsurprising.
In fact, in the last three years alone, there has been a considerable number of attempts to bring van Gogh’s art and story to life: an Off-Broadway musical called Van Gogh’s Ear; endless books promising to unveil the truth behind the mutilation of the ear; an exhibition at the artist’s museum in Amsterdam about his illness and death, which featured a rusty pocket gun claimed to have been found at the very same spot where the shot that killed him was fired nearly a hundred years later; a reconstitution in cartilage of his mutilated ear, able to "hear sounds through a microphone system"; an ongoing travelling exhibition called Van Gogh Alive – The Experience with a state-of-the-art multi-sensory system that allows you, through giant digital reproductions of his paintings and concomitant music, to be fully immersed in his art and life; and an artificial intelligence system called Vincent which will transform your modest doodle into your very own van Gogh. Van Gogh’s death (and ear) is the gift that keeps on giving.
Like some sainted martyr, he has become an object of quasi-religious fetishism put on an untouchable pedestal. Fulfilling his sign of sainthood, his mutilated ear has become a metaphorical relic (or literally recuperated in technological cartilage, allowing you to “talk” to it), and his exchange of letters with his brother Theo is as revered as scripture. The life of van Gogh become the object of a real mania.
But exactly what role does his actual art play in this Van Gogh mania? Not unlike much writing about art, his oeuvre is completely overlooked unless it is to see his rapid brushstrokes and choice of colours as signs of a man’s anguish, depression, and unique genius. His art is usurped by an exploitative system that disguises highly-profitable kitsch as an authentic product of van Gogh’s art. The romanticised story is framed by a smokescreen of authenticity that puts the unaware viewer in a simulated position of compassion with van Gogh’s life and of humble understanding of his sadness accompanied by a morbid pleasure and sense of achievement in unhesitatingly recognising his genius, which was once unacknowledged.
The problem is not in van Gogh’s art or its immediate appeal, but in how, in the Barthesian sense of myth, it is slyly appropriated in the service of something else. This commercial system promotes, through his visually appealing art, identification through empathy with the artist. The art itself is just the shell of entertaining puppets whose nearly invisible strings easily fool us. What we have is a ventriloquist van Gogh puppet whose voice and mechanical movements are too realistic and captivating to look away and come to the realisation of its puppeteer.
Loving Vincent is the epitome of all this. The directors announce it to be a coming alive of van Gogh’s own art and life, by giving him and his paintings a voice - finding validation for it in van Gogh’s own quote that “we cannot speak other than by our paintings”. The importance and unique value that they claim to give to van Gogh’s life and art – he was a genius! – is ironically at odds with the making of the film. Not only is van Gogh’s art reduced to pure a superficial style that is learnable and whose elements can be recombined in infinite ways (essentially, in endless swirling patterns of brushstrokes), but it can also be emulated by anyone. Or better yet, by no one, by emptied vessels – over 100 painters who, in the words of the director Welchman, “were very pure oil painters” without a personalised style. Although painted by hand, the scenes that were shot with real actors could have just as easily been put through the artificial intelligence system Vincent, that in a magical, instantaneous formula gives thoughtless sketches a profitable, shiny coat of artistic feel.
All agency is removed from a project whose self-declared intention is to bring that agency to the fore. Van Gogh’s art is forgotten, usurped, and ravaged under the false intention of making it speak and making its author speak through it. In its broader ambition of compassion for van Gogh’s humanity, the film sabotages itself by removing what is human about it.