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”.

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.

365 Days of Art: December 11 – Stolen Mona Lisa Recovered in Hotel Room, Séraphine Dies

La Gioconda (popularly known as The Mona Lisa), Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1517
La Gioconda (popularly known as The Mona Lisa), Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1517

December 11, 1913

By appointment, antiques dealer Signor Geri and director of the Uffizi Gallery Signor Poggi arrive at Leonardo Vincenzo’s Florence hotel room to inspect what Leonardo claims is the stolen Mona Lisa. Leonardo removes underwear, shoes, a shirt, and a false bottom from a trunk, to reveal the Mona Lisa.

Geri and Poggi are convinced the painting is the original because of the Louvre seal on the back. Poggi bluffs that he needs to authenticate the painting by comparing it with other da Vincis in the Uffizi’s collection. Incredibly, Vincenzo allows the men to walk out with the painting.

Geri and Poggi send the police in to arrest Vincenzo, whose real name is Vincenzo Peruggia.

Now to solve the mystery: it’s far easier than anyone has imagined. Peruggia’s only goal has been to return the painting to Italy. He becomes obsessed with this Robin Hoodesque idea while working at the Louvre five years before. Because many of the guards know and recognize him still, he’s able to walk into the Louvre easily. He takes the painting when he see the Salon Carré is empty. He brings it into a secluded staircase, removes it from its frame, hides it under his painter’s smock, and walks out of the museum.

Art lovers everywhere are overjoyed to hear the Mona Lisa is found. She goes on a celebratory tour of Italy before being returned to France at the end of the month.

December 11, 1942

Séraphine Louis, known as “Séraphine de Senlis”, a self-taught painter of flowers, patterns, and religious imagery, dies in a mental hospital. The movie inspired by her life and work (Séraphine) is incredible.

365 Days of Art: December 10 – Art Thief Tries to Negotiate Return of Mona Lisa

La Gioconda (popularly known as The Mona Lisa), Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1517
La Gioconda (popularly known as The Mona Lisa), Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1517

December 10, 1913

A man enters Geri’s antique shop in Florence, and after waiting for the other customers to leave, announces that he is in possession of the stolen Mona Lisa. The man gives his name as Leonardo Vincenzo, and says he has the painting in his hotel room. He explains that he has stolen the painting in order to wrest it back from France and return it to Italy, and asks for a half million lire. His two stipulations are that it be hung in the Uffizi Gallery, and never returned to France. He is put out by what he views as Napoleon’s theft of one of Italy’s rightful pieces of heritage.

Like a smooth operator, Signor Geri, the shop owner, agrees to the price but stalls for time, saying that the director of the Uffizi must see the painting. Leonardo suggests they all meet in his hotel room the next day to take a look.

After Leonardo leaves, Geri contacts the police and the Uffizi.

365 Days of Art: November 30 – National Portrait Gallery Censors AIDS Film

November 30, 2010

The National Portrait Gallery removes a film from the first-ever gay portraiture exhibition, Hide/Seek, after receiving complaints from a Catholic organization and members of Congress.

The video, created by David Wojnarowicz, features footage of ants crawling on a crucifix, and is made in the heyday of the AIDS epidemic. It is a tortured response to the disease and to governmental inaction in the mid-1980s. Wojnarowicz himself dies of AIDS in 1987.

The Catholic League calls the video “hate speech”, and John Boehner’s office calls it a misuse of taxpayer money. The video is quickly removed with little debate. In response to heavy criticism that the museum has acted too hastily, or not pushed back because of the gay subject matter, the museum’s director Martin E. Sullivan says:

The decision wasn’t caving in,” said Martin E. Sullivan, the museum’s director. “We don’t want to shy away from anything that is controversial, but we want to focus on the museum’s and this show’s strengths.”

Many museums and galleries around the country screen the video in protest.

365 Days of Art: November 29 – Mona Lisa Thief Contacts Antiques Dealer

La Gioconda (popularly known as The Mona Lisa), Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1517
La Gioconda (popularly known as The Mona Lisa), Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1517

November 29, 1913

Two years after the theft of the Mona Lisa, the thief contacts an antiques dealer named Alfredo Geri. Geri has innocently placed an ad in several Italian newspapers to advertise his business as “a buyer at good prices of art objects of every sort.” The thief, who signs the letter as “Leonardo”, says that he has the stolen painting, and provides a PO box in Paris as an address.

365 Days of Art: November 26 – Whistler v. Ruskin Libel Trial Concludes

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1874
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1874

November 26, 1878

The two-day trial, filed by James Abbott McNeill Whistler against art critic John Ruskin, concludes.

In July 1877, Ruskin writes a heavy-handed and extremely critical review of Whistler’s work in a group show, that causes Whistler to sue him for libel:

For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, [the founder of the Grosvenor Gallery] ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.

Whistler, a sue-happy, litigious, defensive kind of guy, reads the review in the paper and takes Ruskin to court specifically for using the word “imposture”, suggesting that Whistler has willfully deceived the public. He asks for damages of £1,000 plus court costs.

Whistler appears as his own attorney and calls several artists to testify on his behalf, but none do; they are too afraid of damaging their careers. He talks a bit about his inspiration, the idea of creating a mood, the way a symphony or a musical nocturne creates an atmosphere with musical notes. A lover of bon mots, he frequently causes the gallery to break up laughing. When Ruskin’s attorney asks if Whistler’s price of 200 guineas (roughly a year’s salary for a mid-career office worker at the time) is for two days’ work, the amount of time Whistler has testified that it took him to finish the painting. Whistler replies:

No,I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.” This is something very close to what my grad school advisor always says.

The jury returns a verdict in favor of Whistler, but awards him only a farthing (less than a penny) in damages; court costs are to be split.

This is not exactly a victory for either party, and Whistler in fact loses patrons because of the trial.

The painting in question has since taken its place in art history as a precursor to abstraction, action or drip painting, and a revolutionary use of oil paint (by thinning it to behave more like watercolor).

365 Days of Art: November 16 – Frida Writes a Letter from US, AIDS Exhibition Opens (Under Duress) After Grant Partially Restored

Frida Kahlo, My Dress Hangs There, 1933
Frida Kahlo, My Dress Hangs There, 1933

November 16, 1933

Frida writes a letter to her friend Isabel Campos that she is “dreaming about my return to Mexico”:

New York is very pretty and I feel better here than in Detroit, but in spite of this I am longing for Mexico…Yesterday we had snow for the first time…there will be nothing to do but dress in woolen underwear and put up with snow. I do not feel the cold so much because of my famous long skirts but sometimes I feel a cold draft that could not even be prevented by twenty skirts. I still run around like crazy and I am getting used to these old clothes. Meanwhile some of the gringa-women are imitating me and trying to dress a la Mexicana but the poor souls only look like cabbages and to tell you the naked truth they look absolutely impossible. That doesn’t mean that I look good in them either but still I get by (don’t laugh).”

The painting above is a humorously critical painting about her time living in the US.

The scene outside Artists Space gallery, including protesters, at the opening of Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, November 16, 1989.
The scene outside Artists Space gallery, including protesters, at the opening of Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, November 16, 1989.

November 16, 1989

An exhibition about AIDS, organized by Nan Goldin, the grant for which was revoked by the NEA, opens in NYC with the grant partially restored.

This is not seen as a victory, however. The grant money is revoked based on content in the catalogue, and the partially restored grant specifically will not fund the catalogue. This decision, leaves artists and others, like composer Leonard Bernstein who rejects a medal from the White House over this incident, feeling that the NEA is playing dirty.

To understand a little more of the emotion and feeling of betrayal surrounding this incident, consider Goldin’s personal statement about the show, called Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing:

Over the past year four more of my most beloved friends have died of AIDS. Two were artists I had selected for this exhibit. One of the writers for this catalogue has become too sick to write. And so the tone of the exhibition has become less theoretical and more personal, from a show about AIDS to an issue to more of a collective memorial.”

The offending part of the catalogue, written by David Wojnarowicz, who himself will later die of AIDS, criticizes members of Congress and a Catholic cardinal whose stances against safe sex education are widely seen as jeopardizing more lives. The NEA’s reaction to this essay, along with their cancellation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s entire show just six months earlier, is seen as a disturbing trend that dirties the waters of the art world with right-wing politics and specifically punishes those who speak out about the AIDS epidemic.

Wojnarowicz feels so strongly about the gallery director’s decision to accept the partial grant that he does not attend the opening, saying:

I don’t feel that civil or constitutional rights are a worthy trade for money.”

Interestingly, Wojnarowicz, who will die in less than two years of AIDS, angers certain politicians again in 2010 over a different art exhibition. A different generation of right-wing politicians, outraged over his work about AIDS, threaten to remove government money from the Smithsonian Institution and directly cause the removal of Wojnarowicz’s film from the exhibition Hide/Seek.

365 Days of Art: November 15 – Homer is Published, O’Keeffe is Born, Bernstein Protests NEA, Vandal is Sentenced

Winslow Homer, The Army of the Potomac - A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, 1862
Winslow Homer, The Army of the Potomac – A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, 1862

November 15, 1862

Winslow Homer’s The Army of the Potomac-A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty a wood engraving based on a painting, is published in Harper’s Weekly.

Black Lava Bridge, Hana Coast No. 1, by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1939
Black Lava Bridge, Hana Coast No. 1, by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1939

November 15, 1887

Georgia O’Keeffe is born.

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

November 15, 1989

The composer Leonard Bernstein declines a National Medal of Arts, awarded to him by the White House, in protest of the NEA rescinding a grant for an art exhibition on AIDS. As a gay man and AIDS activist, Bernstein says he cannot stand by without making a statement, especially as the NEA is responsible both for recommending him to the White House and for revoking the grant money.

Cy Twombly, Three Dialogues (Phaedrus), 1977. The vandalized panel was the white one.
Cy Twombly, Three Dialogues (Phaedrus), 1977. The vandalized panel was the white one.

November 15, 2007

A woman who vandalizes a painting by kissing it with red lipstick is sentenced in court for the crime. The painting is a panel of the Cy Twombly triptych Phaedrus, of which she says:

It was just a kiss, a loving gesture…I thought the artist would understand…. It was an artistic act provoked by the power of Art.”

Her sentence is to pay €1,000 to the painting’s owner, €500 to the Avignon gallery that showed it, and €1 to Twombly.

365 Days of Art: November 14 – Monet is Born

Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise, 1873
Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise, 1873

November 14, 1840

Claude Monet is born.

I appreciate all of his contributions to art history (dedication to working in series, careful observation of atmospheric conditions and how they change perception, working outside the establishment) and have spent quite a bit of time teaching his work. I didn’t realize what a scoundrel he is, until beginning this project, and how he receives a free pass in art history for it. You never hear what a dirty scoundrel he is. If this blog were giving out awards for that, he’d get one.

365 Days of Art: November 12 – Art Forger Convicted, Replica of David Installed on Roof as Originally Intended, Bacon Sets Auction Record

Han van Meegeren in the witness box at his trial. One of his forgeries is behind him.
Han van Meegeren in the witness box at his trial. One of his forgeries is behind him.

November 12, 1947

Han van Meegeren, one of the most famous art forgers ever, is convicted of fraud and sentenced to a just one year in prison. He never serves any time, since he dies of a heart attack on December 30, before going to prison.

Fiberglass replica of David, installed on roof of Duomo in Florence.
Fiberglass replica of David, installed on roof of Duomo in Florence.

November 12, 2010

A fiberglass replica of David is installed on the roofline of the Duomo in Florence, so that the world can see the artwork as the original commissioners intended for it to be exhibited. This installation is for one day only.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969
Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969

November 12, 2013

Francis Bacon’s triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, sells for $142.4M at Christie’s, the most ever paid for a work of art. In an exciting moment for live auctions, the bidding keeps pace for ten minutes. When it finally stops, the crowd bursts into applause, and two losing bidders leave the room.

365 Days of Art: November 11 – Calder Dies, Vietnam Vet Shoots Avedon Photo

Alexander Calder, Crinkly avec Disc Rouge, 1973
Alexander Calder, Crinkly avec Disc Rouge, 1973

November 11, 1976

Alexander Calder dies.

Richard Avedon, Generals of Daughters of the American Revolution, 1963
Richard Avedon, Generals of Daughters of the American Revolution, 1963

November 11, 1986

Ellis Nelson enters the Black Forest Inn in Minneapolis, pulls a gun from his coat, and shoots two holes in an original Richard Avedon photograph hanging on the wall. The bullets strike two the subjects of the photo, women attending a Daughters of the American Revolution convention, one in the chest, and one in the eye. Nelson surrenders and by way of explanation says: “That photo always bugged the hell out of me.”

The owner of the Black Forest Inn, who was given the photo by Avedon himself, decides not to repair it, but to leave it as a tourist attraction. He has said that: “[Folks] like to stick their fingers in the holes and take pictures.”

It may be a coincidence that Nelson, a Vietnam veteran, vandalizes the photo on Veterans’ Day.

365 Days of Art: November 10 – Frida and Diego Arrive in SF, NY Times Reports on Nazi Looting, Gorky Exhibits at the Whitney, Hockney Faxes an Artwork

Diego Rivera, Allegory of California mural, SF Stock Exchange Tower, image via jvsquad.us
Diego Rivera, Allegory of California mural, SF Stock Exchange Tower, image via jvsquad.us

November 10, 1930

Frida and Diego arrive in San Francisco, where he has mural commissions to work on.

Monte Cassino, destroyed by Allied bombs in February 1944.
Monte Cassino, destroyed by Allied bombs in February 1944.

November 10, 1943

The New York Times reports “Unique Collection of Art Treasures Taken Away by Germans in Italy”, referring to the trucks carrying artwork for Goring’s birthday party.

Arshile Gorky, Organization, 1933
Arshile Gorky, Organization, 1933

November 10, 1936

Arshile Gorky’s painting Organization is exhibited the Whitney’s Third Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting. From here on, he will regularly be included in the Whitney’s shows.

David Hockney, Tennis, 144 faxes, 1989.
David Hockney, Tennis, 144 faxes, 1989.

November 10, 1989

David Hockney, exploring new technology, faxes 144 sheets to the 1853 Gallery, in front of a live audience. The 144 sheet together make an image called Tennis.

I guarantee this is the most boring live event ever. And I’m sure some of you are asking “What’s a fax?”.

365 Days of Art: October 29 – Tortured Witness Testifies Against Artemesia, George Luks Dies After Bar Fight, Art Forger Goes on Trial

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1611-1612
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1611-1612

October 29, 1612

The manuscript from the trial of Artemisia Gentileschi’s rapist shows that Artemisia’s studio assistant gives testimony against the victim, his boss…while being tortured.

Nicolo Bedino, who ground and mixed colors for Artemisia, is stripped naked and hung from a rope while testifying that he had delivered letters from her to several men. This evidence is used to imply that she was a loose woman, and that it isn’t a case of rape at all.

George Luks, "The Wrestlers", 1905
George Luks, “The Wrestlers”, 1905

October 29, 1933

George Luks dies after a bar fight in NYC.

Han van Meegeren in the witness box at his trial. One of his forgeries is behind him.
Han van Meegeren in the witness box at his trial. One of his forgeries is behind him.

October 29, 1947

The trial of art forger Han van Meegeren begins in Amsterdam. He becomes one of the world’s best art forgers ever, deciding that he has something to prove after art teachers and critics call his work unoriginal and uninspired. One of his forged Vermeers is hailed as one of the finest “Vermeers” ever.

His forgery is discovered after World War II when when a forged piece (believed to be authentic) is discovered in Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring’s private art collection. Dutch authorities charge Han with giving away Dutch cultural property and arrest him as a Nazi conspirator. Han decides to admit to the forgery, a lesser crime, rather than be sentenced to death for treason.

365 Days of Art: October 8 – Serial Art Vandal Arrested After Attacking Rembrandts

Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, 1656
Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, 1656

October 8, 1977

Serial art vandal Hans Bohlmann is arrested, after vandalizing four paintings, including two Rembrandts, the day before. Bohlmann is known for targeting faces in his attacks, which I’m sure a psychologist would have plenty to say about. Unlike some vandals, Bohlmann also doesn’t limit himself to artwork; he’s also known for setting a fire in a church and spraying swastikas on hundreds of tombstones. Like many serial criminals, he enjoys reading about his crimes in the papers and very much enjoys his notoriety.

365 Days of Art: October 7 – Lover’s Death Inspires Hartley Portrait, Rothko Painting Vandalized

Marsden Hartley, Portrait of a German Officer, 1914
Marsden Hartley, Portrait of a German Officer, 1914

October 7, 1914

Marsden Hartley’s lover, Karl von Freyburg, dies in World War I; his death inspires Hartley to paint Portrait of a German Officer.

Vandalism of Mark Rothko's Black on Maroon
Vandalism of Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon

October 7, 2012

Art vandal Wlodzimierz Umaniec uses indelible, dripping ink to scribble his name and a slogan (“12 a potential piece of yellowism”) on Rothko’s 1958 painting Black On Maroon at the Tate in London. Wlodzimierz, who compares himself to Marcel Duchamp and claims he improved the work and its value, goes to jail for two years. Despite initial doubts that the piece could be saved, conservation experts work some real magic and the painting, one of the Seagram murals, goes back on display about two years later, to the delight of the Tate and Rothko’s family.

The damage to the work is especially wrenching because the painting has a special place in art history. Rothko personally donates the painting to the Tate, and it arrives at the museum on the day Rothko commits suicide.