Frida Kahlo has had one. J. M. W. Turner has had one too. Now, continuing the popular trend for artist biopics in cinema, the post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh is to get the big screen treatment in Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s Loving Vincent.
Strictly speaking, van Gogh has already been the subject of several cinematic biopics, with everyone from Kirk Douglas to Tim Roth taking up the palette in Lust for Life (1956) and Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo (1990), respectively. What makes this latest contribution to the artist’s biography stand apart, however, is that it holds the honour of being the world’s first ever fully oil painted feature film.
The attraction of Vincent van Gogh for both filmmakers and actors is a fairly obvious one, in light of the mental torment with which he struggled for much of his adult life, particularly in the prolific period of painting that occupied his later years.
Born the son of a pastor, on 30 March 1853, the young van Gogh showed little interest or proclivity for art as a child. In spite of this, at the age of 16, he was employed by his uncle to work at the family’s art dealing business. Throwing himself into the job, an indefatigable study of the history and techniques of art did little to mask an ineptitude when it came to dealing with clients.
First marginalised and later sacked from the dealership, the young Vincent next turned to careers in teaching and then religion, following the footsteps of his father, to little avail. Not academically gifted enough to become a pastor, and fired from another position in the clergy for excessively distributing items to the poor – van Gogh’s depressive illness quickly set in.
It was then, on the recommendation of his brother, Theo, that he turned to the production of art itself. Given manuals and, thereafter, a new sense of drive, van Gogh fastidiously devoted himself to drawing, slowly but surely discovering the style so beloved today. Depression is, however, not so easily suppressed. Two stays in asylums later and van Gogh found himself under the care and guidance of Dr Paul Gachet in a commune to the north-west of Paris. Whilst there, he would produce much of his greatest work. On 29 July 1890, however, in a wheat-field in Auvers-sur-Oise, a bullet would puncture van Gogh’s abdomen, ending his life before the month was out.
This is where Loving Vincent steps in. Douglas Booth plays Armand Roulin – of the very Roulin family so often painted in portraits by van Gogh – who is sent by his father (Chris O’Dowd) to deliver a letter to Theo van Gogh. It is a journey that leads Armand to Auvers-sur-Oise, to the villagers who live there and the feuds that occupy their lives, and to discovering the tragic truth about the death of Vincent van Gogh.
For Kobiela, bringing the story to life has been a very personal, seven-year process. Having struggled with depression herself, the filmmaker found solace in the artist’s work and life. “I was inspired with how strong Vincent was in picking himself up from similarly terrible life setbacks as a young man in his twenties, and finding, through art, a way to bring beauty to the world,” she said.
Aiming to portray this very beauty through the film itself, Kobiela and fellow writer-director Welchman decided early on that the film should be an animation, crafted in the style of van Gogh. Thus,125 professional artists and animators from across the globe were hired alongside an ensemble cast of nine actors, converging at art studios in Poland and Greece. The film was first shot in live-action, with the footage then broken down into a reel of images – essentially, all that film is. These images were then projected on canvas, frame by frame, for the artists to meticulously paint over in oils, matching the works of van Gogh. 65,000 individual paintings later, and high definition photographs of each were assembled and edited together to produce the film.
Van Gogh’s lack of critical and public success during his lifetime is a well-known and devastating truth. Today, he stands among the most popular painters in the world; his output having been reproduced more than any other artist in history. Over 2 million international tourists visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam every year and, if this latest film inspired by his life is anything to go by, his popular appeal shows no sign of ebbing out.
A remarkable achievement and breathtaking pleasure to behold, Loving Vincent was screened in art galleries across the UK on Monday, simulcast with its London Film Festival premiere, ahead of its wide on 9 October.
Depending on the success of Loving Vincent, made on an estimated budget of around €5 billion over five years, this could be only the start.
After van Gogh, perhaps we can expect the treatment for Bosch, Kahlo or Hockney? When it comes to the history of art, the possibilities are endless.