The last time I was in New York I paid a visit to MOMA to see parts of the permanent collection and the Matisse cutouts on exhibition at the time. The cutouts were lovely but the work that transfixed me and left me thinking about it for weeks afterwards was The Starry Night. Having seen so many reproductions of it – on postcards and prints and fridge magnets and even mouse mats – I thought I was anaesthetised to it, so I was completely unprepared for the effect it had on me. It genuinely moved me in a way that few pieces of art ever have, and I’m not sure I can explain why or how. Next time I’m in New York I’ll be going back just to gaze at it again.
I only mention this because last week I re-watched Vincent and Theo, a biopic of van Gogh directed by Robert Altman and starring one of my favourite actors, Tim Roth. The film opens with an unforgettable scene; documentary footage of The Sunflowers being sold at auction in Christie’s for the record breaking sum of over £22 million, juxtaposed with van Gogh, played by Roth, declaring his ambition to become a full-time painter at the age of thirty. The audio from the auction plays under a fight between Vincent and his brother Theo, who was an art dealer and who didn’t have much faith in Vincent’s ability.
The brothers had a fractious relationship, with Theo unable to understand his brother’s work and unable to find a market for it. Although Vincent famously sold few paintings and was not recognised for his talent in his lifetime, he continued painting, creating great art whilst living in poverty and squalor. His work was his obsession and in little over a decade he produced over two thousand works despite frequent psychotic episodes and hospital stays.
Van Gogh is now regarded as the epitome of the romantic genius starving in a garret, but the film shows the unvarnished reality. For most of his short life van Gogh was penniless, hungry, unappreciated and frustrated. He struggled with mental illness and alcoholism, and as a result his life was chaotic and often without love, leading him commit suicide at the age of thirty-seven.
This was one of the first films of Roth’s that I saw and I loved his performance. He demystifies the artist, making him less of a god-like genius and more of a human being, albeit a human being to be greatly admired given the heroic struggle that was his life and the influence his work has had for generations.