Within minutes today, I watched “Loving Vincent” and emerged, teary into daylight, to go to a local gallery and see copies of Van Gogh painted by John Myatt. (John Myatt famously is a gifted artist who can mimic the styles of a huge variety of famous artists.)
Let’s talk about “Loving Vincent” first. Seems like EVERYbody will have heard of it – the first all-painted animated feature film – although arguably that surely belongs to Disney’s Snow White, 80 years ago? In the early days of cartoon animation, cels were hand-drawn and coloured. The difference is that this new film has been painted onto canvases, with oil paints, not onto plastic.
The result is a flickering version of reality, seeing life through Van Gogh’s eyes – at least how he painted it. And that shimmering, moving sense of surface possibly portrays the excitement and
agitation in the mind of the painter. The scenes in the film are carefully sited to have a background in his most known paintings – the church at Arles, the river Oise, the cafe at night. As well as that, the format of the film is almost square, not widescreen, so it is framed by black onscreen, a little like a painting itself.
Parts of the story are told in flashback, in monochrome, black and white drawn style – which is much sharper and almost photographic. This is essential for visual interest, because otherwise the vibrant saturated colours of Vincent’s palette would quickly overwhelm the human eye.
The story concerns the pilgrimage of the postmaster’s son, to deliver the final letter by Vincent to his brother Theo. At first he is disinterested, simply doing a favour for his father, but along the way he (and we as viewers) becomes interested in who Vincent was and how he died – was it suicide or a fatal accident or…. what? In the film, a variety of people who knew Vincent well give different, sometimes contradictory accounts of the painter and his last few weeks – making him more of an enigma than he already is.
Watching this film was like entering into a strangely different version of life. In one scene, the main character has a dream in which, as we see through his eyes, we become Vincent. The words people speak are full of human insight and sometimes compassion, into what it is like to live with “melancholia”, depression and perhaps suicidal impulses. We see a little of the the family’s suffering after the suicide, the asking “why?” “why?”. Perhaps the practical reason for having concentrated, important dialogue is that every word had to be painted, so you very carefully moderate them. It makes for an interesting thought-provoking script.
This film would be excellent to show as an opener for a discussion about mental illness and depression – and definitely fits well in a film festival programming about such subjects. At the same time, you can watch it as a mystery whodunnit. I was moved by those who showed kindness in the film, especially the postmaster.
Dr Gachet, who supervised Vincent, becomes a disturbing presence, especially as he eerily looks like Vincent. When his collection of Vincent’s paintings and his copies were donated to a museum, experts struggled to tell the painters apart.
The film raises the possibility that Vincent became romantically interested in Dr Gachet’s daughter and that this caused a severance between them and harsh words, suspiciously close to Vincent’s (possible) suicide.
The film ends strongly; the letter reaches a good destination and its carrier is sent a copy, so we finally uncover its contents. The end credits show a picture of the real-life person alongside a picture of the actor, telling us how the real-life person’s life went on. Musical accompaniment is a new, sparse recording of the Don Maclean song “Starry Starry Night” by a woman singer. I was in tears. It’s a film to see in company with someone and then go for a reflective coffee afterwards.
I am left with a new fascination with Vincent van Gogh – as with all great documentaries or biographies – you come away wanting to find out and understand more.
Passersby in Multrees Walk, Edinburgh, were struck by the large painting by John Myatt, hanging in the window, as his exhibition opens there, today (1 -3 pm). “The Starry Night” is hand embellished giclee on Canvas – in a limited edition of 95, each sells for £1,950. At first when I heard this, I expected just a few daubs of paint on the canvas print – but no, when I saw it in person, there was enough paint to create surface texture, all over. It certainly has a lot more presence and visual interest than a flat museum poster, framed. For somewhere in a house where you are seeing it briefly – like, say in a hall – it would be tremendous.
(Admittedly, for a similar price, today, I saw The Frame style of Television – very flat and in a frame, when not displaying TV, it could display a picture scene – or even your own photographs.)
John Myatt was there in person, talking affably with people who had come to see and buy the work. Pictures were selling fast and the tiny gallery was full of interested viewers. As well as being able to paint like Van Gogh, John Myatt is able to do remarkable copies of Matisse’s drawings, Picasso (there is a fantastic cubist picture), and an Impressionist style painting at the back of the gallery, probably Monet, which I couldn’t get close enough to to identify because of people having an earnest conversation.
John has taught classes on TV, each week showing amateur painters how to paint in the style of a master – absorbing viewing – here is the episode on painting like Vincent Van Gogh.