There have been many films made about Vincent van Gogh in the 129 years since his death. He is one of the world’s most loved painters, but also one of its most mythologised.
However, this film comes from an unusual source.
It is directed by Julian Schnabel, who worked as a painter for 20 years before directing his first film. Unlike Vincent Van Gogh, he made millions from his art, successfully tapping in to the yuppie zeitgeist of the 1980s.
To some critics, Schnabel became a symbol of all that was rotten with that era—attacked for his “fake gestures” and “empty grandeur”. But since the mid-nineties he has specialised in biopics of creative people, including the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat.
There is a lot of talent involved in this film—Willem Dafoe gives a moving performance as Van Gogh, despite being decades older than the painter was.
One of the screenwriters, Jean-Claude Carrière, is a giant of cinema, best known for working with the surrealist Luis Bunuel.
The opening scenes of the film are tantalising.
We are immersed in Van Gogh’s ways of seeing the world, and are introduced to some key aspects of his social environment.
To reflect both his disorientated state of mind and his pulsating, swirling canvases, there is some queasy camerawork.
There is even an extended point-of-view shot as he awkwardly approaches a shepherd on a country lane, and asks her to pose for him.
As the film develops, it is sucked increasingly into the territory of myth. It becomes preoccupied with Van Gogh’s deteriorating mental health and his tragic early death. But this is such familiar territory.
He has become the template for the tormented artist. It is a shame the film did not follow the direction it seemed to be moving in at the beginning. If it had explored in greater detail precisely how he evolved to become one of the greatest painters of our times it may have been even better.
It is a paradox that Vincent Van Gogh, best known for his sundrenched paintings of nature in rural France, is the product of two of the great cities of his time—Paris and London.
It’s easy to forget that the paintings for which he is most celebrated were produced in an extraordinarily brief and prolific period at the end of his life. Yet many of his formative years were spent in very different surroundings.
Shortly after leaving school he worked six years for an art dealership, Goupils. This is what first brought him to England in 1873, aged 20. He loved London and immersed himself in the culture. British novelists and illustrators had a big influence on him.
He particularly liked socially engaged artists such as Charles Dickens, and the printmakers who produced illustrated magazine called The Graphic.
It is when dwelling on this aspect of Van Gogh’s relationship with Britain that the exhibition is most rewarding. It does well to immerse us in his London, or at least the cultural aspects of it. At one point, the curators allude to “radical ideas” in society but go no further.
The show has polarised the critics. The Guardian described it as a “flabby blockbuster”. The Financial Times acclaims it as “the show of the season”.
The Tate’s accountants will be happy either way as it has set a record for advance ticket sales.
It’s certainly on a grand scale, and brings together several of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings. But the brief the curators have been given is so wide that many things have been shoehorned in which would have been better left alone.
While its interesting (and even shocking) to see several of Vincent’s earlier muddy and dull paintings, it’s quite dispiriting to see what various British artists subsequently did, apparently ‘inspired’ by him.
Van Gogh in Britain could have benefited from being a more modest show with a tighter focus.
A film that deserves its acclaim
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