Life is short, art is long


SIMPLE complexity: The Garden of the Hospital, an 1889 drawing in reed pen and ink by Vincent Van Gogh (image courtesy

ASK ANYONE IN the world who Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is and they will answer you with sunflowers, a severed ear and suicide. And they may be able to point out a bit of Van Gogh branding on a t-shirt or a mug in their vicinity. Headed by David Bickerstaff, this astonishingly fine and dignified documentary foray into the life and work of the world’s most recognised painter is at great pains to reveal the soul behind all those sensationalist platitudes.

It’s a documentary that coincided with the rejigging of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh museum in 2015, and it gives you privy to the educated responses of many of the professionals working around the core collection of some 200 paintings and 500 drawings that Van Gogh left to his family, including Dominique Charles Janssens (President of the Institute Van Gogh), Axel Rüger (Director of the Van Gogh Museum) and Louis van Tilborgh and Teio Meedendorp, senior curators in the museum.

While the piece offers incisive and important focuses on the works themselves, the actor, Jamie de Courcey is used to illustrate moments in the artist’s life. Voiceless and silent, they’re a sensitive rendition of the energy behind these paintings, these drawings, these letters, this passion, without forcing a reading of a contemporary character into the mix.

But more than all of this, this documentary is very careful in sidestepping the usual sensationalist suspects in a story about Van Gogh. We don’t get to see the drama with the ear. Starry Night is absent in this litany. Instead, Scottish artist Lachlan Goudie extrapolates on what it is to paint. Initially, you might find this interjection by a fellow artist contrived, but listen to what he says. His focus is about the difficult of painting.

The work as a whole doesn’t lionise Van Gogh in the manner that our society has become used to seeing him. Drawing considerably from the letters that he exchanged with his beloved brother Theo, the tale is detailed and unwavering, engaging with Vincent’s failures and insecurities as much as with the astonishing magnificence of the work.

In doing that this documentary reaches considerably higher than a simple telling of history. It’s about the context of late nineteenth century England, Belgium and France, as it is about the reality of being an artist in this world. Not for the money. Not for the glamour. For the complicated and simple act of making something with your own learned skills. It’s a work about the fierce Protestant work ethic, and the real love that siblings can share, and above all, it’s a work in which you get to take home a lot in your heart.

  • Vincent Van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing is directed by David Bickerstaff. It features a cast headed by Jamie de Courcey. Produced by Phil Grabsky, it features creative input by Asa Bennett (music), Oggi Tomic (cinematography) and Rebecca Dale-Everett and Julia Wilkie (production co-ordination). Release date at Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: August 18 2018. It has just four scheduled screenings between August 18 and August 23.

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