Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s Loving Vincent is the world’s first oil painted film. Over one hundred artists contributed to its animation, creating a series of 65,000 oil-painted frames in Van Gogh’s neo-impressionist style. Well worth the effort. The result is both striking and bizarre. We enter the world as Van Gogh saw it, crooked, swirling, and filled with feeling.
Loving Vincent is not so much a biopic as a murder mystery. The majority of the plot is set after Van Gogh’s death. Postmaster Roulin (Chris O’ Dowd) sends his son Armand (Douglas Booth) to deliver a letter to Van Gogh’s brother Theo. Though Armand fails to find Theo, he becomes obsessed by the ambiguities surrounding Van Gogh’s death. Armand questions Dr. Gachet, Adeline Ravoux, and Dr. Mazery in search of answers, and these familiar faces from Van Gogh’s portraits come to life. Ultimately we are given the impression that Van Gogh might well have been shot. “Blame no one,” says Vincent on his deathbed.
Whenever an artist/filmmaker makes a bold decision with method or technique, we are left to wonder whether it was a brilliant innovation or if we had been duped, lured in by the weird and wonderful at the expense of meaningful content.
Is this film a gimmick or a masterpiece? The storyline, which offers little character development, seems like an excuse for an ambitious artistic experiment. We never get inside Van Gogh’s head, but we see the world through his eyes.
Still, there is something refreshing in using Van Gogh’s vision to create distance from his inner life. Van Gogh has been pegged as the quintessential tortured artist; we have turned him into an archetype, a cultural meme. For the most part, we are content with this two-dimensional rendering, as it is romantic, and familiar, and it allows us to identify our own darkness with possible brilliance. But Kobiela and Welchman resist.
In an online review of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ MoMa writes: “To know van Gogh is to get past the caricature of the tortured, misunderstood artist and to become acquainted instead with the hardworking, deeply religious, and difficult man.”
This, Loving Vincent achieves. We are spared the director’s rendering of Van Gogh’s inner life, which no one but Van Gogh himself could ever hope to express. Instead, the camera turns outward. He is brought to life through the eyes of other characters; Van Gogh assumes a social identity and we see in him what other’s see; he paints in the rain, he’s shy around women. By allowing others to imagine Van Gogh through his own aesthetic, Kobiela and Welchman seem to suggest that all individual perceptions are as slanted and emotionally charged as Van Gogh’s. In fact, this is what makes the mystery of his death so difficult to solve. Everyone has their own story.
But perhaps Loving Vincent’s greatest achievement is that it provides its audience with an entirely new experience of familiar images. We move through Van Gogh’s artworks. There are moments on screen that approximate specific paintings, I can recall an almost replica of Van Gogh’s ‘Marguerite Gachet at the Piano’. But then we are given more. We are given a perspective of Marguerite as Van Gogh approaches her window, we watch as she moves towards it, and we stand by her side as she smokes a cigarette. We occupy new spaces in the rooms Van Gogh had previously painted and we discover his subjects in different contexts.
As I thought about the effect of Van Gogh’s work on screen, I recalled Walter Benjamin’s essay, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In it Benjamin looks at film’s potential to radically change our relationship to all arts. We stand alone as individuals before a painting. But we view films in a theater, surrounded by others. Nobody walks out of a film and feels unqualified to judge what they have seen. Film, as a medium, invites us to form collective conceptions, to feel collectively.
A collective viewing of Van Gogh’s work (or its likenesses) feels particularly meaningful in 2017. Van Gogh is now a canonical artist. Seeing a work by Van Gogh is not simply about enjoying a painting, but about taking part in a larger movement, participating in cultural memory and conversation. Surrounded by others in the theatre we can feel ourselves doing just that, on more than one level.
While we have grown to appreciate impressionist painters as masters of fine art, we do not often look to animators with the same kind admiration. The crew of artists involved in this film approximate Van Gogh’s style, sometimes very closely, but their work remains unique, a variation on a theme. In the end Loving Vincent is not only a nod to the work of Van Gogh, but a loving ode to the art of animation; animation as masterpiece.