Van Gogh

By Alleva, Richard | Commonweal, November 6, 1992 | Go to article overview
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Van Gogh

Alleva, Richard, Commonweal

The late Marvin Mudrick once wrote that "for the mass media...Poe, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec are spectacularly visible, they are public images congenial to a visual medium .... Poe's dank tarns and ghoul-haunted baggy eyes, Toulouse-Lautrec's half-sized legs, the piece of Van Gogh's ear that he sliced off and carried as a gift to one of the girls at the brothel .... TV and the movies don't make their choices without a reason."

I wish Mudrick had lived long enough to see Maurice Pialet's Van Gogh. If he had, he might have shaken his head and growled. "Never trust a French director with a public image."

Those public images may be bequests to the movies but then they are reshaped by the movies. And by biographies, biographical novels, poems, plays, TV plays, songs, comic strips, et al. For instance, the Lincoln who roams my imagination is a composite creation by Benjamin Thomas, Walt Whitman, Shelby Foote, Lord Charnwood, Aaron Copland, Carl Sandburg, Henry Fonda, Walter Huston, Raymond Massey, and the Classics Illustrated comic book I read when I was nine. These contributions to my personal Lincoln may jar and jostle but there is also some overlap, some agreement. Some Lincolns stand majestically erect, some gangle, none is short. Some are easy in the company of women, some are shy, none is a Don Juan. Fonda may play it coy and cagey in John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln and the hero of Gore Vidal's novel may be downright Machiavellian, but no Lincoln of biography or fiction can be a blackguard or a dunce. There is a sort of tonal center to the image of each famous historical character and each biographer, novelist, and moviemaker strays from that center at his peril.

Up to now, up to the release of Pialet's Van Gogh, this has held true for moviemakers creating fictionalized accounts of the Dutch painter's life. Both Vincent Minnelli and Robert Altman boldly juggle the facts of Van Gogh's life but without fundamentally tampering with the image of Van Gogh as the Great Martyr of Art that has been with us for a century.

In Minnelli's Lust for Life (script by Norman Corwin from Irving Stone's novel), Kirk Douglas's Vincent is all crouched, pleading fury, a fury caused by his love--for individuals, for humankind, for art--being constantly rejected. He may lust for life but life boots him up the backside. Whether denouncing the stuffy clergymen who forbid him to minister to miners, or on all fours to cousin Kai, pleading for her love, or imploring smug tough guy Gauguin for a little understanding, Douglas's Van Gogh is kin to all those misunderstood kids of fifties movies like Rebel without a Cause or East of Eden. He's James Dean with a beard. The image most people take away from this movie is that of the bandaged, self-mutilated Van Gogh thrusting his face out of a window and screaming at the jeering crowd below: "Leave me alone! Leave me alone!" In the decade of The Organization Man, Minnelli made of Vincent the Disorganized Man, too clumsy to fit in, too sensitive to love. But oh, how he would love to be loved ! This is a partial view, soft-centered and masochistic, for it leaves out the Vincent who drove brother Theo nearly nuts with whining and needling, kicked one of his asylum attendants in the stomach and offered to give one of his analysts "a really close shave" when he surprised the poor doctor at his morning ablutions. Yet Lust for Life also has a firm purchase on its corner of the Van Gogh story. After all, Vincent was a self-made pariah, constantly yearning to love, yet constantly insuring by his actions that love would never come to pass. Lust for Life may be a bit too simplistic, but it is an honorable tearjerker.

Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo (script by Julian Mitchel) presents another partial but valid view of the painter. This Vincent is an angry, even ferocious young man. The film begins with his decision at age twenty-seven to dedicate himself to art.

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