In Vincent's Footsteps: Van Gogh Slept with Countless Prostitutes and Even Gave His Ear to One. but the Importance of Sex in His Life and Work Has Been Ignored in the Sweetly Mythologised Image of Him as a Sunflower-Painting Saint. Waldemar Januszczak Reveals the Artist's True Colours

Article excerpt

I have this creepy feeling that I've been watching a cult being born. All I have really been doing is following in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh for a TV biography on Channel 4. But, at every step of the way, I found myself encountering so much bogus spirituality. People giving themselves to him, as it were. Worshipping him. Preserving his relics. Becoming Van Gogh's disciples. And in order to succeed with this weird sanctifying process, they have had to misunderstand Van Gogh completely. Almost to rebuild him from scratch.

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This is not what the documentary is about: the three films closely follow his life. But the experience of making them was a revelation. What, for instance, are we to make of events in Van Gogh's home town of Zundert? The people there didn't like him much when he was alive, but today he is the subject of an annual flower festival, held in this small Dutch settlement close to the border with Belgium, and therefore full of Belgian madness. During the festival, millions of dahlias are used to create giant floats featuring towering horticultural Vincents, 40 feet tall, which are paraded along the main street to the accompaniment of brass bands, American-style prom queens, kids rattling buckets, and beauty pageants. Vincent with his ear cut off. Vincent suffering behind bars. Vincent committing suicide with the crows. It's bloody noisy, and bloody ridiculous. If you're in the audience, the giant floral likenesses of the world's most popular artist loom over you like deities. Here, remarkably, the Dutch behave like Hindus.

What is also interesting is the money that is being made out of Van Gogh, chiefly in the places where he was least valued when he was alive. Any one who has been to Arles will know how determinedly it tries to brand itself as Van Gogh's town, yet in 1889 the ancestors of these Provencal locals officially petitioned their may or to have him locked up. Now he is the town's chief money-spinner. It doesn't take much of a shift of angle to see all the Van Gogh knick-knacks being peddled in the streets, the T-shirts, the ashtrays, the fridge magnets, as the equivalent of those rubbishy relics that get flogged at religious pilgrimage sites the world over, from the Vatican to the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Money and ersatz spirituality are traditionally bedmates.

Nuenen, up the Dutch motorway from Zundert, where Van Gogh lived and worked in the early 1880s, is even more rapacious. The restaurants are invariably called things like Cafe Van Gogh. Plastic sunflowers pop up in every window. There is even an off-licence on the main street called Sans Oreille ("without an ear"). Nuenen is another town that ran Van Gogh out. After he was accused of making a girl pregnant, the local Catholic priest preached against him from the pulpit and banned any of his parishioners from posing for him.

Vincent Van Gogh has become a weird and absurd contemporary fiction. Given that no artist has ever been as famous, or as popular, as Van Gogh today, and because an unprecedented number of admirers have been involved in the creation of this myth, it seems likely that he is the most widely misunderstood painter there has ever been. …