By Carter B. Horsley
Vincent Van Gogh is considered by many to have
been the greatest painter of all time: an artist whose oeuvre
abounds in masterpieces of brilliantly colored, intensely emotional
works with bravura brushwork.
Van Gogh, however, was not successful during
his lifetime and was tormented and was a misfit.
His passionate struggle to do something fine
with his life is agonizing and even when he finally blossoms as
an artist he is beset with severe mental problems, so much so
that even in a flurry of incredible creativity he shoots himself.
His life is about unrequited love, a savage
thirst to be "used" and to contribute somehow to alleviating
humanity's harshness, and the passion to capture the beauty of
life. It is also about the very, very touching love of his younger
brother, Theo, who supported him unstintingly.
Because of his remarkable artistic genius,
Van Gogh's suffering is extremely fascinating. One might be tempted
to attribute his great artistic achievements to his suffering,
but his suffering did not end with the maturing of his talents.
So much for the psychiatric notion that understanding the nature
of one's problems leads to their solutions.
Van Gogh apparently was a "manic depressive,"
and also a very impatient, abrupt, self-centered individual, consumed
with his "persona," his destiny, and "at ease"
only when feverishly working on his drawings and paintings.
His quest was the fundamental, basic search
for a "meaningful" existence and perhaps because he
was the son of a minister such meaning was equated to a great
extent with "good works," the aiding and salvation of
others. For a while, he thought of following in his father's footsteps
but his unorthodoxy did not sit well with religious hierarchies
although he did work for a while as a minister in a coal-mining
"Lust for Life" is the film version
of Irving Stone's same-named biography of Van Gogh, which was
based in large part of the letters of Van Gogh to his brother.
It is a spectacular achievement. Many of Van
Gogh's original paintings are shown and the film faithfully recreates
many of the scenes in some of his most famous works. Kirk Douglas
as Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin are uncannily like
some of the artists' self-portraits and their performances are
very, very memorable. (Also uncanny in resembling the subjects
of famous Van Gogh portraits is the casting of Everett Sloane
as Doctor Gachet, and Niall MacGinnis as Roulin.)
Douglas ranges from forlorn sullenness to hysterical
rage, from tender nuance to joyous exhilaration. He is a caged
animal, full of nervous energy and anguish, and very lonely. His
crazed intensity animates almost every scene.
Inconceivably, he lost out to Yul Brynner in
"The King and I" for the best actor Oscar. (Brynner
was wonderfully flamboyant and histrionic, but Douglas, who was
also nominated for best actor for his roles in "The Champion"
in 1949 and "The Bad and The Beautiful" in 1952, gives
the performance of a lifetime and one completely different from
his superb title role in "Spartacus" (see The
City Review article). (He finally received an Oscar, albeit
an honorary one, in 1995.)
As portrayed by Douglas, Van Gogh is agitated
but not ambitious, restless and unable to control his passions,
yet decisive and bold. Although one of the great heroic, "action"
actors in film history, here he is, in essence, an ineffective
individual, incapable of conforming to established mores, yet
not a rebel with a cause, incapable of sustaining relationships,
except with his brother Theo, incapable of controlling or understanding
his mental states.
One is tempted to attribute the boldness and
forcefulness of Van Gogh's paintings to his driven personality
but the film and Douglas's performance do not adequately explain
them artistically, and indeed such explanation is probably not
possible. Certainly they are the product of tremendously focused
concentration that perhaps only the lonely can achieve.
The movie's greatest scene is a dialogue between
Van Gogh and Gauguin who has just arrived to stay with him in
Arles where Van Gogh hopes to create a "Studio of the South,"
the title of a great art exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago
in 2002 on the two artists.
Gauguin, another eccentric, was far more famous
at the time than Van Gogh, and his approach to art was diametrically
opposed to Van Gogh's. He painted what was in his mind, not the
glories of nature that absorbed Van Gogh.
Gauguin is impressed with Van Gogh's recent
work when he arrives and Van Gogh is eager to see Gauguin's recent
paintings from his stay in Brittany. Gauguin's personality is
much more reserved than Van Gogh's. He is, of course, full of
gusto and passion, but artistically he is much more intellectual
and disciplined and derides Van Gogh's impasto-rich brushwork.
Van Gogh argues that he is pre-occupied with emotion and wants
his emotional response to what he sees to ooze out to those who
see his work.
"You paint too fast," Gauguin chides.
"You look too fast," Van Gogh retorts.
"I want to create things that touch people," he proclaims.
Both artists smoke pipes and drink and lust
after women and are unconcerned about convention.
In this classic clash of these titans of the
mind and the heart there is no winner: Gauguin eventually leaves
after Van Gogh slashes off his ear concerned that his continued
presence might be fatal to Van Gogh. History, of course, places
Van Gogh's art higher than Gauguin's, but Gauguin is indubitably
great and the bold palettes of both led to many later artistic
revolutions. Their "competition" may be likened to that
between Michelangelo and Raphael, between voluptuousness and classicism.
Michelangelo and Raphael, of course, worked within the "system"
with great patronage, while Van Gogh and Gauguin were "outsiders."
Gauguin was convinced to join Van Gogh in Arles
by Van Gogh's brother, Theo, who was willing to give his financial
support to the visit in the hopes that Gauguin might be the person
to "calm" and nurture his brother. Theo worked for Goupil,
the famous Parisian art dealer, and he strongly supported many
of the "newer" artists such as the Impressionists. He
introduces his brother to the "new" artists and Van
Gogh discovers the glories of color and in one scene, he takes
his brother to visit Pissarro who extols about the virtues of
not focusing one individual colors but a scene's entire light
environment while, on a separate visit, they hear Seurat expound
on the virtures of his scientific Pointilism.
Anthony Quinn deservedly won an Oscar for best
supporting actor for his very powerful performance. It was his
second such Oscar for he won for his role in "Viva Zapata"
Theo is played by James Donald (who was also
featured in "The Bridge On The River Kwai") with tremendous
empathy and saintliness. Long suffering but undeterred in his
devotion to his older brother, Theo at first is only concerned
about his brother's welfare and finding happiness, but comes to
believe that he has the potential to become a great artist.
In supporting roles, Lionel Jeffries, Pamela
Brown and Noel Purcell are fine as Doctor Peyron, Christine and
Anton Mauve, respectively.
The score by Miklos Rozsa, who also did the
scores of "Spellbound" and "The Lost Weekend,"
is quite good.
Although the movie is a little slow in the
beginning in Van Gogh's pre-artistic days, it gains momentum with
his explosive paintings. Vincent Minnelli has able to photograph
many original Van Gogh paintings and some are shown as works in
progress. Minnelli's direction is quite tight and extraordinarily
sensitive to Van Gogh's art and he makes luscious use of color
in the film.
Irving Stone, the author of the book on which
the film was based, also wrote "The Agony and the Ecstasy,"
about Michelangelo, which was also made into a movie.
Touching and tragic, this is a glorious, brilliant
film that memorializes the world's greatest painter and perhaps
the world's most loving brother.
While its early scenes have a Hollywood look
about them, much of the film is shot outdoors and has a great
breath of air and the free spirit that somehow led Van Gogh to
his incredible and indelible visions.