Film & Television

Loving Vincent, a Masterful Tribute to the Father of Modern Art

From $3 refrigerator magnets to Louis Vuitton’s $4,000 purse, Van Gogh’s iconic images are ubiquitous today. In fact, they are so familiar that it’s hard to believe he sold only one single painting in his short and tortured life.

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born in the Netherlands in 1853, the eldest son of a minister father and an amateur artist mother. When family finances forced young Vincent to leave school in his teens, he went to work for an uncle’s art dealership and eventually emigrated to England. He attempted to follow his father into the church but was unable to pass the necessary exams. He had a temper and a tempestuous love life that included both first cousins and prostitutes. In 1880, with his brother Theo’s support, he moved to Brussels to become an artist, eventually arriving in Paris as impressionists Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissaro and others were innovating the art scene. He moved to Arles in the South of France in 1888 and lived on absinthe, coffee, and bread. As his physical and mental health declined, he was rumored to be eating paint and drinking turpentine. Theo, understandably concerned, paid Paul Gauguin to follow and watch over Vincent. The two artists fought (according to Vincent Minelli’s 1956 Lust for Life, Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) accused Van Gogh of “painting too fast;” Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) responded that Gauguin was “looking too fast”). Gauguin stormed away and Vincent, distraught, famously cut off his ear and gave it to a local whore. “Keep this object carefully,” he told her.

His neighbors in Arles decided that Vincent had become dangerous, and he moved to an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He appears to have found some peace there, painting garden scenes and finally being accepted for exhibition in Brussels. In 1890, an optimistic Vincent moved to Auvers under the care of Dr. Paul Gachet. Six months later, he committed suicide.

Or did he?

That’s the question filmmakers Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman ask in their exquisite and appropriately arty new film Loving Vincent. Based on contemporary (and highly controversial) scholarship, the movie ponders his suicide and examines the theory proposed in Gregory White Smith and Steve Naifeh’s 2011 biography Van Gogh: A Life, that Van Gogh was actually murdered by a local ruffian. Loving Vincent takes place a year after his death and is a mystery and posthumous portrait, along the lines of Citizen Kane. But, the similarity is in narrative structure only. Loving Vincent is unlike anything you’ve seen.

The movie promotes itself as “the world’s first entirely hand-painted feature film.” Every one of the 63,000 frames that make up Loving Vincent was hand-painted in oil, in the style of Van Gogh. It took 125 artists (chosen from more than 5,000 applicants) and six years to complete the project. The result really is stunning.

In Loving Vincent, the audience is encouraged to examine the mind of the painter by quite literally being invited into his paintings. The experience is as close to virtual reality as you can get without donning Google glasses. Kobiela and Welchman incorporated 94 of the artists’s 2,000 works and invented another 40. But, it isn’t simply a 90-minute art history class slide show. Welchman explains that the individual frames aren’t meant to be copies. “They can’t be. There’s a difference between a static single image and a dynamic art form told over time. We spent one year reimagining his paintings for the medium of film, trying to be as faithful as possible, but also adapting them so that they could move.”

At the same time, Van Gogh’s style lent itself beautifully to animation. “Van Gogh had a very interesting way of capturing things. It looks like he used a long and wide lens at the same time,” says Kobiela. “Perhaps it was like that because he used to paint in one position, and then walk around and change it. This way he’d capture the essence of the thing with a very bizarre perspective.”

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