Vincent: The Full Story Review

In one of a series of arts programmes made for Channel 4, the Sunday Times art correspondent Waldemar Januszczak takes a look at the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Despite being one of the most popular artists across the world, whose paintings continuously set new records at auctions, very little is commonly known about Van Gogh’s life apart from a few famous incidents, such as the cutting off of his ear and his suicide at the age of 37. Januszczak, in the three-part Vincent: The Full Story, attempts to shed some light on the turbulent life of the great, troubled artist.

Part One takes us first of all to the birth place of Van Gogh in Zundert, a small Dutch town on the Belgian border within which the Protestant Van Gogh family were even more isolated in the wider Catholic community. Other than visiting the town where Van Gogh was born in 1853 however, there is very little examination of the artist's formative childhood years, but his father was a preacher and his brother Théo, an art dealer and both of these professions come to have a great deal of influence on Van Gogh’s later life. Much more is known of his later years, since Vincent was a prolific letter writer, recording his impressions of the places he visited working as an art dealer in the Hague before moving to London in 1873. Van Gogh’s life is well covered here, the poverty and misery of Victorian London and the works of Dickens making a great impression on the young man living in Brixton. Part One also follows his progress through Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels and Etten, driven by a missionary fervour. His path takes him back to the Hague, where, still relying on his brother for financial support, he takes up with a prostitute and decides to become an artist, having failed in every other occupation.

Part Two of Vincent: The Full Story continues to trace Vincent’s struggle to maintain a dissolute lifestyle through mental and emotional instability – a starving artist, he contracts gonorrhoea and syphilis and lives in poverty, inspired in his early work in Holland by the peasants working in the fields in grim, drab landscapes and weaving linen. Little is known of Van Gogh’s spell in Paris in 1886, as he stayed with his brother Théo and consequently didn’t write letters to him, however, living in Montmartre it seems likely that he spent most nights drinking absinthe with Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. It was not an unproductive time however, Vincent discovering the work of the Impressionists, and producing 230 paintings in his two years in Paris.

Part Three covers the famous final 30 months of the artist’s life, the tempestuous period during which he created some of his most famous works. This incredibly prolific period commences with Van Gogh’s move to Arles, his "Sunflowers" paintings, his stay in the Yellow House and the 2 months he lived there with Gauguin, a friendship which ended rather badly with Vincent threatening Gauguin with a knife after they had an argument, before cutting his own ear off and presenting it to a prostitute he frequented. The programme does attempt to throw some light on this strange behaviour with a good comparison to the cutting off of the ears of bulls at the bullfights in Arles and taking a serious look at the mental illness he was suffering from. Following a petition from the citizens of Arles, Van Gogh was subsequently admitted to the asylum at St-Rémy in 1889. He spent a year there and made 150 astonishingly brilliant and eautiful paintings, some of which are well-examined here, relating them to his circumstances. Discharging himself from the hospital, Van Gogh went back to Paris to Théo, staying at Auvers-sur-Oise, where he painted an incredible 80 paintings in 69 days, not counting sketches and drawings. Feeling rejected by Théo however, Vincent shoots himself and dies at the age of 37, having been an artist for only 9 years.

Then overall impression of the programme’s look at Van Gogh is rather scattershot and anything but “the full story”. Part One adds up to little more than building up a collection of Van Gogh name-plates on houses across Europe and with very little explanation given behind the impulses that drove him to move from place to place. It also fails to adequately examine the formative years that give rise to some very clear character traits and behavioural patterns in the artist's later life – the religious zeal he applied to his own life, his pilgrimages across Europe, his self-lacerations, his attraction to dark women, widows and prostitutes, and his inability to deal with rejection - all of which contributed to his premature death. Some examination of the artist’s relationship with his mother might have shed some light on this, but no information is presented, or is perhaps not known. Even the traits that are mentioned are never fully dealt with. His turning to religion is covered for example, but its incipience is never questioned nor when or why he turned away from it. Did he ever finish the version of The Bible that he was simultaneously translating into four languages while at university in Amsterdam? Many such facts are just thrown in with insufficient context and not followed through. Similarly, in Part Two, it is mentioned that his family attempted to have Vincent committed to a mental institution – and they go to the institution to have a look at it, but the programme never tells you anything about Vincent’s time there, how long he was there or even if he actually was admitted. Part Three goes into unnecessary detail on the Algerian soldiers, the Zouaves, without them being really significant in Vincent’s life. The programme is quite unbalanced in this way, with curious gaps.

The programme certainly aims for accessibility, but strays a little too far into true-life sensationalism with not enough in-depth examination of the artist’s work and methods. Obviously, primary sources are limited and there is not the same abundance of footage, photographs and documents that made the Picasso: The Full Story so interesting, but more use could have been made of interviews with other Van Gogh experts. Januszczak himself is a personable enough presenter, there is a sense that there is some tabloid style journalism in his dumbing down of the material, delivering salacious facts with a declamatory tone that on occasions is reminiscent of an advert for the “super soar-away Sun”. There are interesting academic points made – the use of reeds for the stippling effect in his Arles ink drawings is fascinating – but these are few and far between. Even one of the central incidents in Van Gogh’s life – his period in the Yellow House with Gauguin - isn’t sufficiently covered. I’m sure it was covered in much more detail Januszczak’s Gauguin: The Full Story – which may well make its way to DVD as part of this series and was much more interesting than the approach taken in Vincent: The Full Story.

Vincent: The Full Story is released by Revolver Entertainment alongside Picasso: The Full Story, as part of their new Cultura label, focussing on accessible programming in the arts arena. The DVD is packaged as a 2-disc set and is encoded for Region 2. Recorded for Channel 4, the quality of this DVD release is equivalent to television broadcast quality, with a mainly artefact-free transfer to DVD over two single-layer discs, with fine, clear Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. Each part is 49 minutes long, Parts 1 & 2 on Disc One, Part 3 on Disc Two. I’m sure a dual-layer disc would have been sufficient for this. There are no subtitles on the release for hard of hearing, which is a serious omission for a release that has academic content, and unsurprisingly no extra features.

Vincent: The Full Story presents a very unsympathetic portrait of the artist as a needy, selfish person who was emotionally unstable, a manic depressive, violent, sexually dysfunctional, syphilitic, predatory towards women, insanely jealous and incapable of handling rejection, all of which may be true, but the programme doesn’t sufficiently trace these behavioural instincts to a source and it certainly doesn’t balance this with an adequate examination of his creation of some of the greatest works of art ever seen. Most of the facts that are known about Van Gogh are here and the programme covers much more than the famous thirty months leading up to the end of his life, but it spends too much time on his early life – flitting about in a random style jumping from places to place on the trail of Van Gogh’s wanderings without giving any indication of their relevance – and not enough attention to the most important events in the artists life.

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