Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent, 2017

Some thoughts on the movie Loving Vincent

It is both spectacular and maddening.

The plot is ridiculous: Armand Roulin, twenty-something son of the bushy-bearded postmaster whom Van Gogh painted so memorably, is tasked by his father with traveling to Paris in order to deliver Vincent’s final letter (to his brother, Theo). Armand has reservations about doing this, and ponders his obligations while drinking too much, but eventually goes to Paris, where he discovers that Theo has also died. Armand quickly decides that he must travel to Auvers, where Vincent died, in order to deliver the letter to a friend with whom Vincent was close in his final months (Dr. Gachet, also memorably painted by Van Gogh).

First plot objection: Why didn’t Armand even consider locating Theo’s widow, Joanna, in Paris? If I were her, and I found out this drunken punk decided to give my spouse’s final letter to a friend of approximately one year’s standing, I’d be furious! [But of course, if he’d attempted to find Joanna in Paris, this would be a different movie].

Here’s what I loved about the movie:

The most engaging moments were the first ones of the moon, and of Arles, and then late in film when Dr. Gachet appears. I actually caught my breath when I saw him leaning on that famous table, with his head propped in his hand.

The film correctly and nicely recreated the flatness of many of Vincent’s paintings, particularly the portraits, with little depth between the figure and the wall behind.

It was probably at its best depicting landscapes.

It was visually stunning in many ways. I caught my breath several times. It was clearly an accomplishment, but that being said, it was clear that the original paintings were the real triumph here.

The opening credit sequence was magical; I could have watched that moon shapeshifting all night.

The film recreated 74 Van Gogh paintings, and it was a complete thrill to recognize them.

Loving Vincent was first shot as a live-action film on sets recreated from Van Gogh paintings. The film was then broken down by frame and painted, each painting (65,000 of them) was then photographed, then painted over for the next frame. Eventually, all of the frames were animated. This way of working reminded me of William Kentridge’s charcoal drawings that turn into films. In both types of films, you can see the results of this way of working in images like the windmill turning – you can see the track of the blades in the impasto of the oil paint.

Here’s what bothered me about the movie (in addition to the overarching plot):

I questioned sub-plots too, finding it hard to believe the suggestion that Vincent may have been romantically involved with not only the young Marguerite, but also flirting and chatting with several women by the riverbank. Vincent was way too awkward, and that just wasn’t his style.

The accents were off-putting. Both Roulins, father and son, have two wildly different accents.

The film’s title is a little much…it becomes more palatable when you realize that was the way Vincent signed all his letters (“Your loving Vincent”). But still. Too literal and cloying for my taste.

Sometimes the film felt a little CGI (related to the figures), and a little slick…and Van Gogh was the antithesis of slick.

The end credits reveal that some characters were not real people, but rather “inspired by” people in Vincent’s paintings. Vincent’s life was dramatic enough; I’m not sure the film needed to invent additional “characters”.

SPOILER ALERT:
No one loves a good mystery more than me…but if I heard this correctly, the final analysis is that the bullying teenager basically committed manslaughter by fooling around with a gun…while Vincent committed a suicide of sorts, by stoically not accusing the teenager, and letting it be assumed the gunshot was self-inflicted…meanwhile, Dr. Gachet, who acted as Vincent’s confessor and entertained his deathbed laments that he was a financial and emotional burden on Theo, essentially granted Vincent’s suicide wish by not removing the bullet and allowing Vincent to die (slowly)…sounds like murder!…especially since, as another character points out, Gachet had been a military doctor in a war zone; he should have been able to easily remove the bullet, particularly since it wasn’t immediately fatal. Physician, do no harm!! Would a doctor really have allowed a healthy man in his thirties to slowly and painfully expire like that?

The murder theory comes from a biography by Naifeh and White. Maybe there is a case for that, but knowing that the filmmakers have invented some (silly) aspects of the story and smoothed over others to make for a tighter film, I feel like I need to research for myself before I can believe this.

Final analysis:

The film is beautiful in many places. Not many films can make you catch your breath – and not just once, but over and over.

I want to keep watching it…but maybe with the sound off? Yes, I’d like to see it again. There is real magic in this movie, even though you are also a little too aware of how hard the magician is working to produce the rabbits.

Met Faves – Van Gogh and *Real* Art History

Van Gogh, La Berceuse, 1888

Visiting Arles, France made a huge impression on me. This is where Vincent Van Gogh had the most productive painting period of his life – one of the most productive of any artist’s life, in fact. Almost everything he painted at Arles is recognized as a masterpiece, and is recognizable by even casual observers: his bedroom, sunflowers, the cafes. It’s where his palette took on the bright yellows that we recognize as classic Van Gogh. It’s where he realized a dream of creating an artist residency, so to speak; Paul Gauguin came to join him to paint in the bright sunlight, and was his roommate. It’s also where Van Gogh really began to descend into madness.

Standing in this room in the Met, there were at least five van Goghs around me that were painted in Arles. It was easy to picture these, and dozens more, hanging on the walls of Vincent’s cottage, and stacking up along the wall. I was in New York, and I was in Arles at the same time.

Seeing La Berceuse was difficult. This was the painting he was working on right before his major breakdown. You’ve heard of it – he cut off a piece of his ear, possibly threatened Gauguin, who moved out, was committed to an asylum for the first time, and spent the rest of his life actively battling mental illness – while continuing to paint, of course, even if it was the hallways and grounds of his asylum.

La berceuse meant “lullaby”, literally, the woman was rocking a cradle, by means of the small rope that you see in her hands, which was tied to the cradle that lies outside of the picture frame (if you didn’t know the backstory, you might not even wonder what the string in her hands was). Van Gogh painted a series of these (he said this particular version was the best) and struggled mightily…he explained his inspiration for the painting, which was much larger than any person would divine on their own by just looking at it. He wanted something to comfort sailors who were at sea in horrible storms; he envisioned creating an entire altarpiece of multiple berceuse paintings, with sunflower paintings as candelabras scattered amongst the soothing images of lullabies and rocking cradles (albeit, invisible cradles). Vincent often used the metaphor of stormy seas to describe his own feelings of being overwhelmed and adrift, so it’s fairly obvious that he wasn’t just talking about local sailors, but also himself. So, there was much riding on this project for him personally and artistically. His various stresses converged – the stress he felt over this very high-stakes (for him) project, the stress on his body because he wasn’t taking care of himself and drinking too much, and the stress of learning that his own behavior was driving Gauguin to depart from their shared artistic experiment in Arles.

And so, he snapped. On Sunday, December 23, 1888, he cut off his ear (or at least a part of it). Gauguin, although he was at a hotel that night due to the tension in the house, has described the blood spatter evidence, so we know that Van Gogh either cut himself in front of La Berceuse, or cut himself in another room, then went to stand in front of it.

What a loaded painting. I don’t care for it, visually; I don’t think it stacks up to his best Arles work – which I was surrounded by, at least five or more in a ten-foot radius. But this is art history right in front of me.

Accumulations, Courtesy of Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, Phalli’s Field

“Accumulations” are what Yayoi Kusama called these multiple soft sculpture phalluses that she patiently sewed and placed in rooms, in platforms mounted on floors and walls, and even in two rowboats. Kusama made these pillow-esque, polka-dotted, cartoon-like, engorged phalluses as a way to get over her fear of sex – and one vintage 1960s photo depicts her lying uncomfortably on top of a patch of them. Much of the wall text at Seattle Art Museum quaintly names them as “tubers”.

By the artist’s request, each installation room was accessible for a timed period, from about 20 – 30 seconds depending on the room. It was fairly disorienting and completely trippy to enter the room, and try to visually make sense of the lights and mirror reflections – literally, the smoke-and-mirrors of it all. The infinity-ness created by multiple mirrors, reflecting yourself in an endless field of phalluses (Phalli’s Field) was reminiscent of being at the Tulip Festival for example…phalluses as far as the eye could see. But I was more interested in the actual sculptures, rather than their reflections. These funny, bumbling things, with their red polka dots scream out as physical comedy. And there was certainly something funny about two lesbians being locked in a room with many dozens of them…

I knew someone once who also made soft sculptures of phalluses. Those were bigger, and more obvious, and clearly were stylized self-portraits of some kind. It was so personal that I was often embarrassed to hear this person talk about his work, because it was essentially like hearing him talk about his own penis. Cringe. (You too, Master of None, bringing your penis’s “gregarious” personality into conversation with women. I wanted to give up watching the show just for that). Kusama’s work was actually smaller (per each phallus), but felt bigger. As flashy as it was, it came from a humble, exploratory place, that was willing to laugh at itself, not a sling-it-around place that needs to stake some kind of claim.

Other accumulations (of memories and associations):

The demand for this exhibition exceeded the open hours of the museum, so we saw this show at about 11:00 PM one evening, when the museum extended their hours. The lines for each viewing room snaked around the larger room of the museum, and because of the wait time and repetitive nature of seeing the same people over and over again as the lines wound around, we found ourselves in lots of friendly conversations. While people had their phones out for photos, it seemed like folks were more engaged with other people in the line, not with staring at their phones. Mia wondered if this was part of the artist’s plan. Maybe it was the festive atmosphere of being in the museum at night. I don’t know why, just an observation.

Mia’s comment that maybe Kusama wanted to foster connections among the viewers as they waited to enter her environments made me think of the architect Paul Rudolph, who designed the buildings on the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus. They are not attractive or stately; in fact, I’d consider them visually harsh. But I felt my heart soften toward them a bit when I learned that Rudolph deliberately created hidden or off-kilter building entrances and approaches, the better to engage the then-commuter students in dialogue with each other as they tried to make their way around.

We waited in line for several hours, sitting on the floor. Some people brought special stadium chairs and food, ready to camp out for the duration. I haven’t waited in line like that since sleeping overnight in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk in Washington, DC about 20 years ago. My friend Tribs and I went to see the Van Gogh show at the National Gallery. I’ll never forget the police officers kicking us through our sleeping bags to wake us up in the morning and get us vertical again to clear the sidewalk.

It was in this Kusama line (we were about 200th, according to a count done by one of the museum staff) that Mia and I mapped out the plan to move me into my new studio. If we hadn’t had that time, surrounded by our own and others’ palpable anticipation and excitement at seeing art, we might not have arrived there. Certainly not before she left for Italy, because there were too many other things to do that seemed higher-priority.

So I left this show feeling like I’d been to Infinity, the Tulip Festival, a carnival funhouse, my grad school days, a sidewalk in Washington, DC, and moved a little closer to my wife. I visited in my mind with a couple of old friends (and foes). We made new acquaintances, not friends for life, but friends for an evening, friends we were happy to see again elsewhere in the exhibition. Were these just ultra-personal dots I was connecting, the criss-crossing of random stories that tell me I’m rambling as I’m getting older? Was there something more going on that I was tapping into?

In one of the films, Kusama discussed her desire to add peace and love to the world, saying that each day is a “test for how much I can contribute to society”. If that’s the measuring stick, I believe that all these connections forged that night embody that desire, and prove it true.

The Art of Alzheimer’s

Sea Creatures (via artofalzheimers.net)
Sea Creatures (via artofalzheimers.net)

There’s an inspiring exhibition right now at Seattle City Hall that deals with Alzheimer’s and dementia. The works on paper were created by artists aged 60 – 101, all of whom are living with some stage of the disease.

Please notice that I didn’t write “suffering from”…they are “living with” this disease, and that kind of distinction is important to this exhibition. The curator, whose mother is one of the 50 or so artists in the show, sets out to tear down the sense of hopelessness that the word “Alzheimer’s” conjures up, and to offer an alternative view of Alzheimer’s patients: that they are people who are capable of happiness and joy, who are still interested in creating, who are still living with us. This is radically different from the usual point of view that focuses on the people they “used to be”, and the losses the people around them suffer when they take this perspective.

This is also different from the prevailing views on aging in general. About three years ago, I received a grant to teach art at a senior center in Manhattan. As part of the training leading up to entering the classroom, we artist-teachers met with leaders in the field of aging, as well as various city officials. I’ll never forget one specialist who said that “Aging is a series of losses” and proceeded to list them all: loss of eyesight/hearing/taste, loss of friends, loss of mobility, loss of health, etc. I remember feeling a little jolt to have it all laid out like that, and feeling a young person’s guilt that I’d never considered it that way. I felt a little sorry, and moved on with that information.

But is it only a series of losses? I’ve also read about couples who felt freedom…to enjoy the benefits of spoiling grandkids without any of the hassles of raising them, to travel at a moment’s notice, to have the time to delve into a hobby or go back to school, to enjoy sex without anyone in the house or the worries of pregnancy.

This exhibit doesn’t look at the so-called losses. A panel discussion that included social workers, a doctor, a patient and her husband stressed the vitality of these patients and artists and encouraged a paradigm shift. The doctor said that once basic survival needs are met, the goal should absolutely be to strive to meet the other basic, human need: for self-expression (this, from a medical doctor! I was thrilled). Alice, the patient, took the microphone to say that she was happy. She said she understood that people worried about Alzheimer’s but that she herself was too busy enjoying her life to worry about it. She was delightful.

Now a word about the artwork. It’s moving. Some of it you’ll remember after the show, for the liveliness and joie-de-vivre in the paint handling. Some pieces are a little haunting, but all of them show a curiosity and effort at capturing a mood, a moment. To be sure, many of these watercolors (and a few collages) seem to look inward, capturing a hidden, interior moment, like a triptych that categorizes near-taxonomic details of a still life of fish on a plate. Other versions by different artists of this still life yielded goldfish swimming (above), and fish bones. Most of the pieces are watercolor, mostly using wet-on-wet technique and some printing or stamping techniques. The colors are vibrant, for the most part, with lots of primaries.

This is a rare show where you think of the artist before the artwork…(Not many can say that, besides the Van Goghs of the world). But the artwork holds up as beautiful expressions of their own. At least two people at the show mentioned aloud that they would have bought pieces if they’d been for sale. You can’t look at this show without thinking of the creators and clearly seeing people behind the diagnoses.

Road Trip: Van Gogh’s Arles, Part 2

Garden of Hospital of Arles, 1888, Van Gogh; Photograph of Espace Van Gogh (formerly the hospital), 2015
Garden of Hospital of Arles, 1888, Van Gogh; Photograph of Espace Van Gogh (formerly the hospital), 2015

Arles has managed to keep the look and feel captured by Vincent van Gogh in 1888. Here is the hospital where he stayed after he cut off his ear. It’s been converted into an art center called Espace Van Gogh, with small souvenir shops (mostly related to art) on the ground level. The garden is maintained with plants like the ones that were there in Vincent’s day. For me, it was a very somber place, knowing that this was really the beginning of the end for Vincent

Road Trip: Van Gogh’s Arles

Van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night; Van Gogh Cafe in Arles, 2015
Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night; Van Gogh Cafe in Arles, 2015

One of the most stunning places I’ve been to is Arles, in the south of France, specifically retracing some of Van Gogh’s steps. This is where Vincent van Gogh spent about a year – probably the most eventful year of his life. Arles is where he created many of his masterpieces (the painting of his bedroom, Cafe Terrace at Night, Night Cafe, his yellow sunflowers, and many more). It’s also where he was – briefly – roommates with Paul Gauguin, and where he cut off his ear. It was an artistic high point, and also the beginning of the end.

In Arles, the cafe where Vincent spent many evenings and immortalized in oil paint still stands. The yellow awning is still there, even the green of the neighboring shop down the way, and the blue-gray door jamb of the neighbor on the other side. It’s amazing to be able to see this little piece of history, practically unchanged after over 130 years, and to even walk into the painting, so to speak.

This left a huge impression on me, and made my eyes a little misty. When I came home, I put a reproduction of the Cafe Terrace at Night on my studio wall, to remind me about being hard-working, and sensitive, and how great things can happen from everyday moments.

365 Days of Art: December 23 – Vincent Cuts Off Ear

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

December 23, 1888

After an argument with his housemate and fellow artist Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh cuts off at least part of his own ear.

Many details are missing or unclear, since Vincent himself has no memory of the incident.

We know that Gauguin and Vincent are housemates, and that Vincent has been dreaming of this artist residency for some time. These two strong personalities clash, and as they continue to fight, Vincent probably becomes distraught as he realizes Gauguin wants to leave. There is probably a final confrontation earlier in the day. That evening, van Gogh cuts his left ear with a razor, either removing the entire ear, or a good piece of it. Ear wounds are known to bleed heavily, and he begins losing a large amount of blood right away. He bandages the wound, wraps up the ear, and delivers it to a brothel where both he and Gauguin are clients. (The local newspaper reports that van Gogh has given the ear to a prostitute with an instruction to guard it carefully). He goes home, collapses from loss of blood, and is discovered the next morning by the police.

At the hospital, Vincent repeatedly asks for Gauguin, who never comes. In fact, they never see each other again. Gauguin notifies Vincent’s brother Theo, and tells one of the policeman investigating the case:

Be kind enough, Monsieur, to awaken this man with great care, and if he asks for me tell him I have left for Paris; the sight of me might prove fatal for him.”

Vincent is able to return to the Yellow House by the beginning of January, but suffers repeatedly from hallucinations all month long.

Fun Fact: Gauguin discusses the incident in his memoirs, though many historians find his account to exaggerate his own role in what contemporary doctors have called Vincent’s psychotic break. For example, Gauguin says that Vincent attacks him with a razor prior to cutting his ear, and that Vincent’s instructions ask for the ear to be delivered to Gauguin.

November 28 – Bazille Killed on Battlefield

Frederic Bazille, Portrait of Renoir, 1867
Frederic Bazille, Portrait of Renoir, 1867

November 28, 1870

Impressionist painter Frédéric Bazille dies on the battlefield during the Franco-Prussian War. He is fighting with the Zouaves, a light infantry regiment, and has been frustrated at the lack of action. Today, in a minor battle, his officer is injured and Bazille takes command. He leads an assault on the Prussians, is struck twice while retreating, and dies in the snow. Some of his friends, such as Édouard Manet, don’t learn of his death for three months.

365 Days of Art: October 23 – Gauguin Moves in with Vincent; Art Exhibition Takes on Chicago Mayor’s Brutality

Paul Gauguin, The Painter of Sunflowers (Portrait of Vincent van Gogh), 1888
Paul Gauguin, The Painter of Sunflowers (Portrait of Vincent van Gogh), 1888

October 23, 1888

Paul Gauguin arrives in Arles to live with Vincent van Gogh in the Yellow House. This is something Vincent has wanted for some time, but his dreams of an art community dissipate as he and Gauguin repeatedly clash. By the end of the fall, Gauguin moves out and Vincent infamously cuts off his ear.

Barnett Newman, Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley, mixed media sculpture with barbed wire, 1968
Barnett Newman, Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley, mixed media sculpture with barbed wire, 1968

October 23, 1968

The Richard J. Daley Exhibition opens at Feigen Gallery in Chicago, in direct response to the brutality that protesters, regular folks, and even news anchors like Mike Wallace and Dan Rather experience at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago–with the encouragement of Mayor Daley.

A total of 47 artists take part in the show, with 21 of them making new work that directly comments on the summer of violence. Artists include Claes Oldenburg (a Chicago native), James Rosenquist, and Barnett Newman, who cancels an entire solo show in Chicago out of moral qualms about what is happening.

Newman’s piece above not only uses material like barbed wire to comment on the police state that Chicago becomes for the duration of the convention, but it takes a particularly insulting slam at Mayor Daley by drawing the inference of “lace curtain Irish”. Daley, a proud Irish-American in a city full of proud Irish-Americans, would have taken umbrage to the implication that he puts on airs or behaves like the Protestant gentry, like the titular Irish immigrants who hang lace curtains in their shacks.

365 Days of Art: October 16 – Vincent Describes a Painting He Hasn’t Painted Yet

Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1888

October 16, 1888

Vincent writes a descriptive letter to his brother:

My dear Theo,

At last I can send you a little sketch to give you at least an idea of the way the work is shaping up. For today I am all right again. My eyes are still tired but then I had a new idea in my head and here is the sketch of it. Another size 30 canvas. This time it’s just simply my bedroom, only here colour is to do everything, and giving by its simplification a grander style to things, is to be suggestive here of rest or of sleep in general. In a word, looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination.

The walls are pale violet. The floor is of red tiles.

The wood of the bed and chairs is the yellow of fresh butter, the sheets and pillows very light greenish-citron.

The coverlet scarlet. The window green.

The toilet table orange, the basin blue.

The doors lilac.

And that is all – there is nothing in this room with its closed shutters.

The squareness of the furniture again must express inviolable rest. Portraits on the walls, and a mirror and a towel and some clothes.

The frame – as there is no white in the picture – will be white.

This by way of revenge for the enforced rest I was obliged to take.

I shall work on it again all day, but you see how simple the conception is. The shadows and the cast shadows are suppressed; it is painted in free flat tints like the Japanese prints. It is going to be a contrast to, for instance, the Tarascon diligence and the night café.

I am not writing you a long letter, because tomorrow very early I am going to begin in the cool morning light, so as to finish my canvas.

How are the pains – don’t forget to tell me about them.

I know that you will write one of these days.

I will make you sketches of the other rooms too someday.

With a good handshake.

Ever yours, Vincent

Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1888

365 Days of Art: September 16 – Van Gogh Moves into the Yellow House

Vincent van Gogh, The Street, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, The Street, 1888

September 16, 1888

Van Gogh moves into the Yellow House in Arles. In a letter to Theo, he describes it like this:

Also a sketch of a 30 square canvas representing the house and its setting under a sulphur sun under a pure cobalt sky. The theme is a hard one! But that is exactly why I want to conquer it. Because it is fantastic, these yellow houses in the sun and also the incomparable freshness of the blue. All the ground is yellow too. I will soon send you a better drawing of it than this sketch out of my head.

The house on the left is yellow with green shutters. It’s the one that is shaded by a tree. This is the restaurant where I go to dine every day. My friend the factor is at the end of the street on the left, between the two bridges of the railroad. The night café that I painted is not in the picture, it is on the left of the restaurant.

He later lives with Gauguin there in one of the most tortured roommate situations ever. The house is severely damaged by bombs during World War II and is demolished.