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"Simon Schama's Power of Art" Van Gogh (2006)

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Madman.

8/10
Author: Robert J. Maxwell (rmax304823@yahoo.com) from Deming, New Mexico, USA
12 February 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There's not really much to say about Vincent Van Gogh, who began painting at 30, and after a brief but stormy career shot himself and died in 1890. Everybody knows SOMETHING of Van Gogh, has met him in one or another of his symbolic incarnations -- through his paintings or through movies or SOMEPLACE. We know what he looked like. We recognize him through one or another of his self portraits, so we know that, after he put on suitable make up, including a deep dimple in his chin, he looked exactly like Kirk Douglas.

Van Gogh was born to a strict Calvinist family in the murky north and after failing at a career as a minister he took up painting the peasants that he had ministered to. If he couldn't have them speaking in tongues he could at least paint them. Schama shows us one or two examples of his earliest work (but not the worst of them) and they resemble the kind of sketches Gary Cooper did in his youth.

But then Van Gogh had a big hit with "The Potato Eaters," which looks a little like a cartoon. His kindly, tolerant, and generous brother Theo agreed to try to sell his paintings for him. Vincent left the burnt sienna of the north and went to Paris, where he was introduced to pointillism or impressionism. This is a technique which was fashionable at the time. The painter makes his picture up out of a mosaic of tiny dots, like pixels. If you stand far enough away, the images emerge. If you stand too close, your eyeballs coagulate.

And this part of Van Gogh's story was new to me, an near ignoramus when it comes to art history. His work, shortly after his move to Paris, looked a lot like pointillism. A picture of a dining room is made up of pixels of paint. And as his confidence (or his intensity or his mania or whatever drove him) grew, the little dots changed to dabs and then to short brush strokes, one next to the other, or on top of the other. I'd never realized that his painting had an evolutionary history.

Of course by the time his technique had matured, in the years before he shot himself in the stomach, his style was sui generis. It hadn't grown out of anything other than Vincent's own head. It has a furious, compulsive quality, not like anybody else's stuff except his imitators. My God, those crows over that brilliant, insane cornfield! And the vortices of those stars in that "Starry Sky"! They'd already left their real-life counterparts far behind.

There's one actor in this episode -- Andy Serkis -- who plays Vincent. He's a good enough actor but he doesn't look anything like Vincent Van Gogh. Vincent Van Gogh went out of his way to look like Kirk Douglas, not like Andy Serkis. Serkis addresses the audience directly and I think the monologues are quoted directly from Van Gogh's letters.

Strangely, we tend to think of him as an artist dominated by the kind of imagery that the right hemisphere might produce if there were an electrical storm going on inside it, but he read a lot too. Long, tough novels. And he wrote enough letters to Theo to fill a big fat book, which they eventually did. (Some of the material less acceptable to sensitive readers, I think, was probably left out.) The letters are as full of color as his paintings. On every page there seem to be terms of color, all hues, all shades, all saturations, cinnamon, chrome yellow, cobalt blue.

In his letters he yearns for the company of other painters, a kind of ashram of like-minded artists. There was a tentative move in that direction when dear old Theo funded Paul Gaugin's trip to southern France so Gaugin and Van Gogh could share a flat. It didn't work out. Boy, did it not work out.

Schama reports that Van Gogh was epileptic, which I didn't know. It seems clear enough that he was what would be called bipolar today -- or manic-depressive yesterday. Fits of depression alternated with bursts of frenetic activity, during which he could produce a painting a day.

The link between genius and insanity has always been denied by psychiatrists and psychologists, at least until recently. It was never investigated, just denied out of hand. I've always wondered why, because there are so many flagrant examples of such a link. I've just about concluded that the link is denied by experts because it's believed by the man on the street. If you want to be an expert at something, you have to disagree with common sense. Otherwise, what kind of an expert are you? It's axiomatic. If the airheads believe it, I have to deny it. As I say, this dynamic is being challenged lately. Try reading some of Kay Redfield Jameson's books. She's a neuropsychologist who knows bipolar illness from the inside.

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