Art history and critical theory are constantly evolving so that even the biggest, most voluminously discussed personalities in the canon are changing with the ages. Usually these changes take many years to filter down into popular consciousness.
But what’s unusual about Vincent van Gogh is that, thanks largely to the fact that the artist sold less than a handful of paintings in his lifetime, the vast majority of his output is neatly contained in one collection.
With more than 200 paintings, many more sketches, and the 900 or so beautifully-written personal letters that give us such an extraordinary insight into his life and mind, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has always been the centre of van Gogh’s critical evolution.
As an insightful new film reveals, the museum has undergone a drastic rehang, to reflect new thinking on the artist and his work.
According to director Axel Rüger, the museum’s previous ‘shortcomings’ have done nothing to help counteract the misunderstandings and mythologies that have grown around the man and the artist in the 125 years since his death.
Two years in the making, Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing weaves together the images, the re-told biography, the words of a host of van Gogh curators and experts, the museum director, the artist’s great-grandnephew, along with some of the most poignant and revealing extracts from the letters.
We are taken to all the significant locations in the artist’s life, including the lesser-known periods: south London where, we are told, he was impressed by the uglier aspects of the city; the mining village in the Borinage where he threw his energies into launching a career as a hapless preacher and made one of the museum’s earliest watercolour sketches; and Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris, where he spent his last weeks working under the guidance of one Dr Gachet who van Gogh described as ‘suffering at least as seriously as I am’.
Van Gogh made 80 paintings in those 70 last days in Auvers-sur-Oise. Many of them were still drying when they were laid out on the tables around his coffin at his funeral in the Auberge where he stayed, and where his room is still kept empty in his memory.
Here, the film’s director David Bickerstaff answers questions on the project.
Director David Bickerstaff shooting on location during the making of Vincent van Gogh: A new way of seeing
Isn’t it difficult bringing still images to life for a cinematic audience?
David Bickerstaff: I studied as a painter. I’ve always been interested in trying to portray the painter’s experience. The artist Lachlan Goudie contributes to the film in quite an insightful way. He says, for example, ‘Painting is difficult, troubling and enormously frustrating. Every day I expose the gap between what I want to achieve and what I am capable of achieving… It takes it out of you.’ Van Gogh did struggle with his art, which is something I’ve found quite interesting. He actually had to work hard at becoming a good artist.
Your understanding of the artist must have changed a lot during the making?
Hugely. Hugely, hugely.
What were the major discoveries for you?
Van Gogh became an artist when he was 27 and died when he was 37. In the first five years as an artist he only drew or did small watercolours. So that huge body of painting work was all produced in the last five years of his life, an unbelievably short time. It’s amazing when you think about it. When he died there were 450 paintings left to his brother Theo, 500 odd drawings, 900 letters, so a huge body of work. I always wondered, why didn’t he sell lots when he was alive? There simply wasn’t time — he was only just coming into his own when he committed suicide.
But also how could he become commercial if he never put himself forward?
That’s another misconception. He craved the company of other artists. He was like the sort of person you meet in the pub and turns out to be really intense; you’ve gone there for a bit of a laugh but they’ve got this intense obsession about something. His letters show how erudite and well informed about everything he was, especially art, literature and religion. That’s why we’ve put a lot of emphasis on the letters in the film.
Bickerstaff frames a shot inside the Van Gogh Museum
How do you reflect the Van Gogh Museum rehang?
The rehang is based on new academic thinking. They’ve brought his work into a dialogue with work by a lot of other painters from Delacroix, the Barbizon School, French landscape painters, Millais, early peasant paintings. It’s very interesting to see that he was quite traditional in his training. He wasn’t an isolated artist, a genius who happened to strike upon this amazing painting technique.
Do you look at new claims that Van Gogh was shot, that he didn’t commit suicide?
We take the line he committed suicide, and we look at various things that were going on in his life that support this was the case. The museum team has looked into the shooting. There’s a lot of conjecture — that’s for a different documentary.
What about the ‘madness’ that he describes in his letters, what do you make of that?
What we’ve tried to do is give a much more considered insight into who this man was, not by trying to portray him in a cartoony way. He wasn’t committed to an asylum; he committed himself so he could have a period of solace. During that period he did some of the best paintings he ever did, including Irises.
Can film help begin to change popularly held beliefs?
We obviously try to. We want to address the myths because some of the myths are what make the man. What this film can do is give people time to actually sit with the works, to digest information, to go on a bit of a journey into lesser-known parts of his life — I think there are a lot of surprises. The cinema can immerse you. The curators can guide you right into the works. You see the gestures much more. In fact you really see how his technique developed in quite a logical way.
Vincent Van Gogh: A New Way Of Seeing was released in April
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