2018-05-31 / Around Town

Film Offers ‘New Way of Seeing’ van Gogh

FILM REVIEW
By Loren King


“Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing” takes the viewer through the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The film screens at the Jane Pickens Theater June 3. “Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing” takes the viewer through the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The film screens at the Jane Pickens Theater June 3. Vincent van Gogh’s life and work is now the stuff of legend, portrayed in many films, from “Lust for Life” (1956) to last year’s gorgeous, animated “Loving Vincent.”

The documentary “Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing,” from the Exhibition on Screen series, which brought “Cézanne: Portrait of a Life” to cinemas earlier this year, is a sober, sensitive assessment and straightforward presentation that reminds viewers of van Gogh’s humanity and breathtaking art. Directed by David Bickerstaff, the film screens at the Jane Pickens Theater on June 3.

The 2015 biopic is an excellent introduction to the iconic artist for those who don’t know much about him. More informed viewers will be grateful for a “new way of seeing” van Gogh’s work, courtesy of the experts from the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which opened in 1973 and serves as a guide to his short, impassioned life.


Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. The film takes us on a chronological journey. Born in 1853 in Groot-Zundert, Netherlands, van Gogh was the eldest of six children and heavily influenced by the protestant work ethic imparted by his father, a country minister. Van Gogh even attempted his own ministry after moving to a rural mining town in the south of Belgium, but people didn’t take to his long, scripture-heavy sermons.

The film makes clear that van Gogh’s prolific output of more than 2,100 works, including 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings and sketches, was as much a product of this punishing drive as it was of his creative genius. It may have been his obsession to produce that later pushed van Gogh into what was then termed “madness” but what seems likely today to be bipolar disorder.

The relationship between the emotionally fragile Vincent and his more conventionally successful brother Theo, an art dealer, is the backbone of the film, which uses Vincent’s voluminous letters to Theo over the years as narration. There’s also insightful commentary from Theo’s great-grandson, Vincent Willem van Gogh, about the family history, including how relatives hung Vincent’s works in their homes without acknowledging or appreciating their merit.

It was while in Belgium that van Gogh, influenced by French landscape painters such as Jean- Francois Millet, produced scenes of nature and peasants working in the fields that began to distinguish him. He made numerous studies of peasants’ faces, which are part of the van Gogh Museum’s collection, that would result in his first masterpiece, “The Potato Eaters” in 1885.

One of the liveliest chapters in his life and in the film is van Gogh’s move to Paris in 1886. Influenced by impressionism and pointillism, he engaged with the avant-garde of Montmartre, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Both men painted working-class women who owned or worked in the cafes frequented by artists, a radical subject for the time. Van Gogh also produced paintings that reflected his ongoing interest in Japanese woodblock prints, such as the lush “Flowering Plum Orchard” (1887).

Van Gogh’s move to the countryside in Arles triggered his most productive period, during which he completed 200 paintings, including the iconic “Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers” in 1888. Arles was where friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin visited, leading to the infamous fight in which van Gogh cut off a piece of his own ear, an act that seems a prelude to the more severe mental illness that eventually landed him in a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Remy, France. It was there, in his studio-cell, that van Gogh rendered the swirling, turbulent sky of “The Starry Night” in 1889, the year before his death by suicide at age 37.

Famously unsuccessful during his lifetime, supported by his brother and with only a handful of paintings sold, the film’s depiction of van Gogh’s personal and professional struggle is heartbreaking and gives added power to the vast amount of visionary work he produced.

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