In Defence of Loving Vincent

After attending a preview screening at the National Gallery last October, Sayre co-founders Rosie Best and Lana Crowe praise Loving Vincent for making fine art accessible to a non-museum-going audience.

“What is drawing? How does one get there? It’s working one’s way through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How can one get through that wall?”. In a tortured letter to his brother Theo in October 1882, Vincent Van Gogh described the intense struggle for self-expression which was to dominate his life. Throughout his career – if it can be called that – Van Gogh desperately sought a way to break down the “wall” he describes, and a mere glance at some of his final letters would be enough to convince a reader that he died believing that the wall still stood firm. In an article written in January and published by the Guardian, Jonathan Jones decried the upcoming animated film Loving Vincent, made from 62,000 oil-painting frames painted in the artist’s style, arguing that it will cause viewers to “lose all contact with the true power of his art”. But what Jones fails to recognise is the extent to which Loving Vincent is in touch with the artist’s work and words. Van Gogh’s figurative “wall” is still being broken down and it is artworks such as Loving Vincent that are actively helping to dismantle it.

After attending a preview screening at the National Gallery last October and speaking to Hugh Welchman – one half of the film’s directorial duo (completed by Polish-born animator Dorota Kobiela) – it is clear that protecting the integrity of Vincent van Gogh’s work was paramount to their project. “We thought the only way you can really tell Vincent van Gogh’s story is through his paintings,” Welchman surmised. “If you read his letters or biographies on him, his life is completely bound up with his quest to be a painter, and it is hard to understand him without reference to those paintings.” Despite Welchman’s insistence that “film-making is first and foremost a storytelling medium”, Loving Vincent’s most memorable quality is unquestionably the visual style – created by a team of specially-trained oil painters – which is inseparable from its subject.

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The preview audience at the National Gallery gasped at simple and stunning details (BreakThru Films/ Trademark Films)

Viewers of Loving Vincent are allowed to see Van Gogh’s work in a way that refreshes its impact and serves as a reminder of the innovation inherent in the painter’s work. One of the most distinctive characteristics of Van Gogh’s landscapes is undeniably their ability to suggest movement, making them a natural inspiration for animation: it is difficult to look at his Wheatfield with Cypresses without imagining the clouds swirling, or to see the Wheatfield With Crows as anything but a fleeting moment of energy preceded and followed by stillness. The audience at the National Gallery gasped at such simple and stunning details as the uncanny movement of Marguerite Gachet’s (Saoirse Ronan) dress as she lifted her skirts to stand up from her piano, or the smooth gush of liquid as Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) poured himself a glass of wine inside the Café de la Gare (Van Gogh’s The Night Café). Such scenes do not “insult” the original paintings, as Jones suggest. Instead, the sense of awe brought about by a visual art form that is as overwhelming as it is beautiful brings us closer to understanding what viewers might have experienced when setting their eyes on Starry Night over the Rhône for the first time in 1889.

The increasing sophistication of today’s CGI often leads audiences to forget that computer-generated animation is driven by a vast process of concept art, individual labour and, most importantly, human imagination. However, the resurgent popularity of 16mm and 35mm film screenings may come down to a fondness for visible imperfections. One reason why Loving Vincent is so captivating is because it is filled with evidence of human error. The scenes in the film do not flow in “neat animated sequences” as Jones suggests. Rather, as we watch the characters move we are able to visually unpick and appreciate the very human process by which they are made to do so. Just as every visible brush-stroke on a Van Gogh painting reasserts the presence of the hand that painted it, this unprocessed aesthetic accentuates the craftsmanship of animation. The mediation of Van Gogh’s style through the hand-painted frames of Loving Vincent emphasises, unambiguously, the artistry of cinema.

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Just as every visible brush-stroke on a Van Gogh painting reasserts the presence of the hand that painted it, the unprocessed aesthetic of the film accentuates the craftsmanship of film (BreakThru Films/ Trademark Films)

In insisting that Loving Vincent retains some abstract concept of artistic integrity, however, we overlook film’s ability to make fine art accessible to a non-museum-going audience. Jones’ statement that “Van Gogh has been so comprehensively assimilated into modern culture that he needs to become less, not more, popular” stinks of an antediluvian commitment to the unbridgeable gap between high art and low culture. For a nineteenth-century Dutch post-impressionist painter to be immortalised in everything from a ballad by Don McLean to a poem by Tupac Shakur to a one-man play starring Leonard Nimoy is a testament to the universal appeal of his work, which ranks him among artistic giants like Shakespeare. Rather than defaming the good reputation of accomplished artists, this type of remediation breathes new life into old work, and prevents these masterpieces from being discarded in our world of increasingly vivacious cultural stimulation.

A film adaptation is not something that Van Gogh’s work must be “rescued” from. On the contrary, it ought to be embraced. The problematic notion that art has an untouchable, almost sacred, ‘true power’ places it on such a high pedestal that renders it not only inaccessible but, eventually, obsolete. Ask yourself what Van Gogh would have thought of this movie. With its commitment to his artistic legacy, a unique consolidation of “his paintings, his story and film” itself, we suspect he would have welcomed it. Loving Vincent is a tremendous blow to the “wall” the artist so deeply resented, and helps to discredit the limitations placed on film as an artistic medium. To consider Loving Vincent style over substance is to discount the prospect that the style is the substance.