Sitting in the cinema hall, with the lights turned off, I have been thrown into the life Vincent Van Gogh lived in Hague, Paris, Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise more than a century ago. The mind is struggling to follow the plotline; it is lured into every scene that makes the heart tremble. The thoughts are wandering from Starry Night over The Rhone to Café Terrace in Arles on a September night in 1888, and from The Yellow House where Van Gogh shared rooms with his painter friend Paul Gaugin to Wheatfield with Crows, which is believed to have been painted shortly before his tragic death. A story about Vincent is taking shape, slowly, in my mind, and in my heart.
(Source: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York)
The film opens with that familiar image, the Starry Night. The dark-blue sky taking over the whole stage, the stars shining vividly, the crescent moon in bright yellow looking down to the village, the cypress tree reaching the sky, the swirling purple clouds pushing forward with a tremendous force, the intensity the scene creates is almost unbearable. It is such a great sense of power and vividness, which gradually, and inevitably, turns into melancholy and loneliness.
Standing next to the window in a mental asylum room at Saint-Remy-de-Provence, Van Gogh painted Starry Night in 1889. At that time, he was recovering from a mental breakdown and self-mutilation. The swirling clouds, like waves of thoughts running through his head, instead of settling down, they turn into thunderstorms.
Café Terrace in Arles
In a letter to his sister, Van Gogh expressed his desire for the night colour, “The night is richer in colour than day.” The intimate atmosphere on a late summer night in the south of France was re-created in Café Terrace at Night, a painting from 1888. It was the first time he experimented with a nocturnal background.
On a mid-September night in Arles, the smell of local red wine and pastries have warmed up the chilly air. On a street corner not far from Café Terrace, Van Gogh is absorbed in his thoughts. The paintbrushes are moving in different directions. Those movements, so random, yet so determined.
Van Gogh overhears fragments of a conversation and occasional laughs; it seems the customers, mainly ladies from upper-middle class judged by their outfits, are in a cheerful mood. The waitress in her early twenties, carrying a serving tray, stops at one of the small round tables. She takes the order from the young ladies, and answers some casual questions. For a moment, Van Gogh senses a smile on her face. A gentleman in a dark-green suit and a lady in a citron green dress walk in opposite directions. They give one another a quick glance, a faint smile is exchanged.
A light breeze touches the leaves gently. The air feels so warm, and the sound of the rustling leaves so soft. It comforts him. The paintbrushes are moving a little faster now, yellow, dark blue, purple, green, and orange. The unification of contrasting colours, and the charming scene the colours have brought to life comforts him, immensely.
Starry Night over the Rhone
On another September night in 1888, after having his plain evening meal which consists of dried bread and potato soup, Van Gogh carries a worn-out cotton bag of oil colours, paintbrushes, and a paint palette. He walks slowly towards the banks of the river Rhone. It takes only a few minutes’ walk from the The Yellow House, which he rented for 15 Franc a month. It was supposed to be used as a studio where artists could share their works, their ideas and love of art.
He reaches the riverbank, the scene before him is overwhelming. He stares at the twinkling stars, the gas lighting, and the glittering reflections in the river. For a moment, he looks puzzled. Are the reflections on the water of the gas lighting or the shinning stars? He wonders.
He finds a spot, and sets up the easel. He mixes the paints on the palette, dark-blue, light-purple and glittering yellow.
The blurred reflections are shining through the surface of the river; it brightens the dark-blue water and turns it into light-purple. Van Gogh works purposefully, with an extraordinary serenity on his face.
The stars have lighted up the sky, and a couple come to sight. With her arm crossed his, she leans her head slightly towards him and whispers a few words. A quiet moonlit stroll. Van Gogh pauses for a moment, his mind no longer in the present; it wanders back to those old days in Etten. He was deeply in love with his cousin Kee. His feelings for her, however, were not reciprocated. She left him and never saw him again.
Wheatfield with Crows
Standing at the edge of the wheat field, Van Gogh looks fragile and tired. The wind is roaring fiercely, his right hand holds the easel firmly to balance his weight. The easel was set up half an hour ago, but the terrible wind makes painting an arduous task.
The wheat field oscillates heavily, and the crushing sound echoes in his ears. Van Gogh lifts his head and faces the huge darkening sky. Those crows, are they flying towards me or the distant hills? His vision is blurred. His heart sinks.
The wind has dropped a little, Van Gogh sets up the canvas and tests the colours. With his eyes fixed on the canvas, he paints with extreme intensity. Vigorous dark-red brushstrokes mixed with deep-yellow ones, three winding paths come to sight. They seem to lead nowhere.
Painted in July 1890, Wheatfield with Crows is among Van Gogh’s final works. Does the image of the wheat field leaning in the fierce wind and the dead-end paths convey a message? Do those crows carry a “death note”?
The life of Vincent Van Gogh
I have been haunted by Van Gogh’s spirit since I watched the film Loving Vincent in September last year. I have been studying literary and artistic materials, reading articles, reviews, and hundreds of letters Van Gogh sent to his younger brother Theo from June 1873 to July 1890. My heart has been touched over and over again.
Vincent Van Gogh failed in every aspect of his personal life. He was unable to maintain friendships. He was dismissed both as an art dealer and a preacher. His idea of creating an artistic community for painters in the south of France did not last long. It remained a dream. He was dependent on his father, and later his younger brother Theo, for financial support throughout his life. Among more than 2000 artworks, Van Gogh only succeeded in selling one painting (The Red Vineyard) during his lifetime.
Van Gogh was an outsider, a misunderstood man. His extraordinary talent for painting and drawing was overshadowed by his nonconformity and mental illness. For many of his contemporaries, he was a failure. Only through art did he feel liberated to express his thoughts and emotions, and share his fierce passion for the beauty of nature and humanity.
Theo was Van Gogh’s (only) trusted friend and lifelong support, both financially and emotionally. It was touching to witness the close bond and the brotherly love between Van Gogh and Theo through their letters.
(Vincent in 1872 at the age of eighteen. Source: www.vangoghmuseum.nl)
(Theo in 1878 at the age of twenty-one. Source: www.vangoghmuseum.nl)
“Before the year is gone, I feel I have to thank you again for all your help and friendship. I haven’t sent you anything for a long time, but I’m saving for the time when you will come here. I am sorry that I haven’t succeeded this year in making a saleable drawing. I really do not know where the fault lies…” (An extract from a letter sent from Van Gogh to Theo. The Hague, December 1882)
“…I have in fact no other friend but you, and when I am in low sprites, I always think of you. I only wish you were here, that we might consult once more together about moving to the country.” (An extract from a letter sent from Van Gogh to Theo. The Hague, Sunday night in 1883)
On 27 July 1890, Van Gogh shot himself in a wheat field in Auvers-sur-Oise. He died in his bed two days later. Theo was by his side.
After Van Gogh’s death, Theo wrote a letter to his mother:
“One cannot write how grieved one is nor find any comfort. It is a grief that will last and which I certainly shall never forget as long as I live; the only thing one might say is, that he himself has the rest he was longing for… life was such a burden to him; but now, as often happens, everybody is full of praise of his talents … Oh! Mother he was so my own, own brother.”
Theo’s fragile health deteriorated further after his brother’s death, and he died six months later, on 25 January 1891. They were buried side by side in Auvers-sur-Oise, France.
I did not know much about Vincent Van Gogh’s life when I first came across the film, Loving Vincent, neither was I familiar with his paintings, which are acknowledged as some of the most profound artworks in modern times.
Loving Vincent is an experimental animated biographical drama film co-directed by Dorota Kobiela, a polish filmmaker and former painter, and Hugh Welchman, a British award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter.
When Kobiela first came up with the idea of painting a short animation about Vincent Van Gogh’s life in 2008, Welchman immediately fell in love with the project. His vision for making Loving Vincent as an animated film, however, was considered “completely insane”. It was merely seen as a dream.
Over 100 artists from different parts of the world worked together to make the dream a reality. All 65,000 frames in the animation were hand-painted in oils, using the same technique adopted by Van Gogh. It was the tribute to Vincent Van Gogh, one of the greatest and most beloved artists, whose artistic talent was not appreciated until after his death.
The animated film, Loving Vincent
If you want to gain a deep insight into Van Gogh’s beautiful and remarkable works, as well as his tragic but eventful life, please follow the link to Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam: www.vangoghmuseum.nl.
If you want to deepen your understanding of Van Gogh, both as an artist, and as an individual and brother, please read the collection of Van Gogh’s letters to Theo. You will be surprised by his mastery of words, and touched by his kindness, compassion and love.
If you are interested in the animated film Loving Vincent, please follow the link: http://lovingvincent.com.
Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam – www.vangoghmuseum.nl
Irving Stone, 1937, Dear Theo An Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh, From His Letters, Printed in London Constable & Company LTD