Biography and Artistic Work Essay

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Hollywood Artists

Vincent and Theo…and Robert?

Popular lives of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) tend to gloss over most of their subject's short life and career in order to focus on the artist's breakdown, intense final period, and suicide. This is partially a function of the documentary sources available -- the famous correspondence with his brother Theo is somewhat fragmentary before 1882 -- but also reflects abiding interest in portraying the artistic passion of van Gogh in opposition to the conventions of formal training and participation in the artistic community. As a result, highly regarded biographies like Julius Meier-Graefe's Vincent van Gogh: A Biography rush through most of the artist's life in a scant 15 pages in order to spend approximately eight times as much time telescoping events of 1880 to his death.

Events and themes that would be considered foundational to any other career receive short shrift. For example, van Gogh's relatively long tenure as an art dealer (1869-76), while ultimately unsuccessful, can represent an embarrassment of sorts to those who wish to portray the artist as essentially divorced from all commercial activity, or as necesssarily a failure in all attempts to succeed in bourgeois life. In actuality, van Gogh was "very happy" in his early years at Goupil & Cie (van Gogh 3), and as late as 1874-5 his letters still occasionally radiate enthusiasm for his work -- and afterward, regret that he had not been better at it.

This early career also flies in the face of romantic attempts to situate van Gogh as a sort of fin-de-siecle "outsider artist," an unschooled but divinely gifted amateur whose talent emerges miraculously to oppose the artistic establishment. As an art dealer, he actually received professional training through exposure to contemporary European painting (in a bravura 1874 letter (van Gogh 6) he lists 61 artists he "particularly likes") and was already dabbling in landscapes of his own. The idea of the genius materializing full-formed around 1880 to promulgate a radically "new style" is thus revealed to be a myth; in reality, van Gogh approached his later experiments from the perspective of someone already intimately familiar with the concerns and limits of conventional academic French and Dutch landscapes and genre painting.

Furthermore, the myth of the artist as secular saint fails to grapple adequately with the equally lengthy "missionary period" of 1875-81, in which van Gogh (still in his 20s) pursued a new career in what we would now consider social work. While he eventually abandoned this purely religious vocation for art, attempts to paint the artist as somehow unsuited for working life due to introversion, sensitivity, or simple "passion" are probably misguided; although rural ministry was by no means courtly, letters from this period reflect continuing engagement with both other people and with art. Ironically, the artist who supposedly never sold a single painting in his life occasionally supplemented his income during this period by trading his drawings (van Gogh 79), and his thoughts often returned to Meryon, Millet, and other painters as bridges between art and the religious life.

Van Gogh's early and largely self-taught "northern" period (the Potato Eaters of 1885 and others) must be interpreted in the context of his long acquaintance with Millet's work, yet the "romantic" biographies often entirely gloss over these early paintings and connections. Instead, great emphasis is placed on the 1885-7 introduction to Japanese and Asian-inspired contemporary European painting as the "formal" baptism of a putatively unschooled van Gogh into the world of art (Van Gogh Gallery).

To be fair, this is where the mature artist says "all [his mature] work begins." However, even the Japanese influence is not simply the enthusiasm of an outsider, but is mediated through van Gogh's immersion in contemporary European art. By 1886, van Gogh had already made the acquaintance of youthful idols (Mauve, whom he abandoned in 1882), contemporaries (Theophile de Bock among many others), and more than a few luminaries of the Impressionists, who were the first to embrace Japanese styles. Far from being an isolated giant, van Gogh exhibited his work with both the Neo-Impressionists and the Independents, and even organized exhibitions himself on occasion (van Gogh xxxi).

All of these interactions left their imprints on the artist's mature style. The vivid color sense that would become famous in interior scenes like Bedroom in Arles and the Night Cafe (both 1888) did not spontaneously emerge, but developed after exposure to the Neo-Impressionists' chromatic theories, while the stippled brushwork of paintings like the 1887 Self-Portrait and arguably even Starry Night (1889) can be traced to the pointillist surface treatments of Seurat and his circle. Interestingly, van Gogh's iconic relationship with Gauguin, which is often highlighted in the popular literature surrounding the artist, does not seem to reflect much mutual influence at all. Instead, according to the Van Gogh Museum, the relatively brief time the men spent together in Arles (1888) forced them to evolve new techniques in parallel in response to conditions that both found challenging.

After Arles, van Gogh's tragic trajectory becomes the often-revisited stuff of myth (Meier-Graefe 84-147): the lost ear and subsequent breakdown, the extremely productive rehabilitation at Saint-Remy, his eventual self-inflicted martyrdom and shabby funeral, posthumous glory forever. While the intensity and sheer volume of his work in these final months are truly luminous, these last paintings were not executed in a vacuum, nor should they be treated as such.

In the crowded genre of van Gogh films (including Lust for Life, Vincent, and the associated segment of Akira Kurosawa's Dreams), Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo is relatively expansive for focusing on roughly the last nine years of the artist's life rather than on the mythic 1888-90 period. While it takes some minor liberties with the sequence of events and often blurs the passage of time, on the surface -- and on the whole -- it is also a relatively accurate cinematic depiction of an artist's life.

If anything, a van Gogh scholar could watch the film and rattle off dates as the years go by: 1881, van Gogh confesses his ambition to become an artist; 1882, life with the prostitute Maria Hoornik; 1885, art school in Antwerp; 1886, "a hundred Japanese prints." However, given this otherwise careful attention to historical accuracy, the occasional apparent error can be glaring. Why, for example, did the filmmakers consider it necessary to introduce Mauve in what appears to be July 1882 (since Maria gives birth in the same scene), when van Gogh had already broken with his former mentor by January of that year? So many other historical characters come and go (in Altman's oblique signature style) in Vincent & Theo that the scene could easily have been structured differently or even eliminated altogether, but as it is, the insertion of Mauve here lends the character weight in the narrative that he might not otherwise deserve.

(Although attributing the ear episode unequivocably to self-mutilation would be controversial today in the light of new arguments (Samuel) that Gauguin actually injured his friend in an argument, Altman was on historically firm ground on this front in 1990 .)

Ultimately, where Altman's fidelity to documentary reality really falters is in treating van Gogh as an ideal type animated by biographical details, and not as an artist or an individual in himself. As we have seen, this impulse to romanticize the artist -- and van Gogh in particular -- is nothing new. If anything, Altman avoids the worst excesses of the genre by keeping his subject (literally) grounded in mud, grime, and working-class diction; Tim Roth's van Gogh is never an effete or unworldly saint, but instead tends to reflect the crudest aspects of 19th century poverty. This artist, pointedly, is proud to be a "working man," uses "the cheapest paints," and appears somewhat flustered when confronted with the class ironies of the evidently comfortable Dr. Gachet contrasting idealized "artists" to "working people." Everything "sophisticated" is given to Theo; everything "real" Vincent retains.

However, by depicting van Gogh as a brute, Altman perpetuates the myth of the man as a type of artistic savage completely innocent of artistic history or formal technique. Once again, the long period of self-apprenticeship is ignored in favor of a comic scene showing the unconventional "genius" submitting to -- and subverting -- a bourgeois atelier. The equally long career on the commercial end of the art industry is dismissed with another laugh; of course the great and uncompromising artist was fired from the gallery! In Paris, the historical van Gogh's vibrant relationships with the great artists of his age (beyond Gauguin, here as ever as integral to the legend) are also curiously missing from such an otherwise sprawling biographical epic, reduced to the unnecessarily sad (and strange) spectacle of touching pigment and watching the artists talk about "isms." What, indeed, is the "point of Paris" in a film that turns its hero into an outsider?

Altman's relationship to the art itself demonstrates a curious ambivalence where the paintings themselves are concerned -- instead, just… [END OF PREVIEW]

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