Fade to Black

Tadao Cern, a Lithuanian-based photographer and architect, digitally recreated Vincent Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait as a modern photograph.

I watched Julian Schnabel’s Vincent Van Gogh biopic, At Eternity’s Gate, last night. Schnabel is no one-hit wonder. He’s a true polymath. I enjoyed Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Both were solid films: audacious, artistic, and deeply moving. I just found his Vincent to be blah: the movie was too quiet, too hushed and awe-filled, like the chapel of a saint long after his beatification, where his tribulations have been smoothed over and forgotten. This was too close to hagiography for my taste. But then this is the Vincent we are used to, more or less, isn’t it?

Willem Defoe looks the part, intriguingly, but plays Vincent as perpetually wide-eyed and awed; occasionally wounded, as if pricked by a pin; and oddly self-possessed in company. This last premise, on which this iteration of the character is based, seemed the most blah of all. Everyone in the film is tres poli, using their indoor voices. We get some small sense of Vincent’s well-documented “mood swings,” but Schnabel always fades to black when things start to get too intense, or even a little interesting. This, coupled with his use of POV shots, suggests that what Schnabel is giving us is his version of what it was like to be Vincent, but only when Vincent is on his best behavior. To be fair, in interviews Schnabel has said he was not trying to do a biopic, but rather likened his concept for the film to a walk through a gallery: “Let’s take all the things that we’re attracted to and put them together and then let’s extrapolate on those things.”

What we don’t get are the nasty bits. Every time Vincent gets problematic we unceremoniously fade to black. This is especially troubling in a pivotal scene when Vincent, who has just walked out of the asylum, encounters a young peasant woman and attacks her. This is a nod to enduring speculation that Van Gogh may have assaulted or raped one of his models. His behavior around women is conspicuously, even defiantly, glossed over here. After the attack, which is “redacted” with a fade-to-black, and a sulky interlude, Schnabel imagines him back in the asylum meeting with a priest (played with just the right dash of Hannibal by Mads Mikkelsen, in uncomfortable close-up) who doesn’t really want to talk about the assault (he mentions that the people of Arles have signed a petition to keep the artist out), and quickly gets down to the important business at hand. Pulling out a small canvas (Field with Two Rabbits, 1889), he says to Van Gogh: “you call this a painting?”

Everyone in Schnabel’s imaginary universe wants to talk about art. Even the poor shepherdess Vincent attacks before blacking out seems totally fine lying in the tall grass in the middle of a field when a rapey stranger says he wants to paint her. There is, here, no appreciation of how repulsive the person of Vincent likely was in real life. There is one small stab at verisimilitude early on in the film, when a chambermaid tells him “you should wash yourself sometime. At least once a week.” I have a sense that one whiff of Van Gogh would tell us more about his difficulties in life than all the paintings combined. We do know that his attempts at intimacy were all doomed. They are often portrayed as “tragic,” “unrequited” “loves.” The truth is likely much more prosaic. All of Vincent’s relationships, not just those with women he fancied, were fraught.

He was unkempt, smelly, a heavy drinker, and just not the most charming of blokes. He was likely incapable of carrying on the kinds of conversations we see in the film in real life. The fact that he was an articulate and prolific letter writer should not blind us to the fact that in real life he likely resembled a troll. There is only one actual photo of Vincent extant, from when he was 19, and, trust me: he could double for any average basement-dwelling modern incel. The missing element here is the same. We may be encouraged by the sad, sometimes tortured letters to Theo, to, again, gloss over the sad, tortured reality of Vincent for a sentimental version, in which everyone he met was privy to his sensitivity and genius. But the fact is: Vincent was clearly a bundle of anti-social traits, whether or not he understood himself as such, and his behavior in public and private exacerbated his isolation. I kept waiting for Schnabel to make the connection between Vincent’s turbulent paintings, which he worked on in a constant manic frenzy, and his life–how he was in life.

The most disappointing aspect of Schnabel’s film should have been the highlight: the odd-couple bromance between Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, portrayed with such unfortunate restraint by Oscar Isaac. Gauguin was, of course, anything but restrained. He could not be restrained. That was the whole of his brand. To this day, unlike Van Gogh, Gauguin’s problematic sexual history is not glossed over — it couldn’t possibly be, since it is all over his most celebrated canvases. It was part of his “genius,” and is part of the modern myth of the “bad boy” artist for which Gauguin is an archetype. As a recent review of a retrospective at the Tate Modern gushed: “Colonialist, chauvinist, exploiter… Gauguin may have been all these things and more – but, as the Tate’s brilliant new show reveals, his faults are what make him great!” His wife, Mette-Sophie Gad, with whom he had five children, kicked him out when he couldn’t give up the struggling artist gig and support them. His Tahitian bride, Teha’amana, was thirteen (by his own reckoning), while his other two brides were both 14. He drank and whored around incessantly, and clumsily, egotistically, and often ridiculously, pursued the life of the fin de siècle artiste. By the end of his life he was riddled with syphilis, a lecherous old man who would lure young women to his quarters, which were filled with porn, and grope them. 

Oh, and did I mention: a brilliant artist!

Gauguin would be a great dinner guest. You know, hide your wife, hide your kids, and say goodbye to the silver and the good china, but that would be a night to remember. Van Gogh, on the other hand, would no doubt lurk in a corner, leering at the other guests, muttering threateningly as he quietly downed a bottle of absinthe, until suddenly, out of nowhere, he smashed the bottle, overturned the table, and started ranting about killing himself and everyone there, then weeping and collapsing in a crumpled heap in Gauguin’s arms. The next day he would write to Theo that he had a vague sense that he should apologize, but wasn’t sure for what.

I mean: Odd Couple anyone? This is 1970s sitcom gold, y’all.

But seriously, Gauguin, like everyone who came across Van Gogh, knew he was troubled. Like: way beyond wearing silly hats and passing around syphilis troubled. It is not surprising that Vincent stalked Gauguin via post. Again: letters and canvasses being his media of choice. Van Gogh had a legendary man-boner for Gauguin, who was everything he was not in person and on canvas, and dreamed of joining him in the South of France to start an artist colony there. Gauguin was constantly kicking around for gigs, but even Gauguin could see that this Vincent dude was not right. He wrote in his memoir that “a vague instinct forewarned me of something abnormal.” And this was Gauguin speaking. If Gauguin had misgivings, imagine literally everyone else. In the end, Vincent’s brother Theo had to bribe Gauguin, advancing him money on promised sales of his paintings, to get him to join his brother in the tiny, squalid yellow house in Arles. 

In this part of Schnabel’s movie, the two have stilted conversations about art and their future in the pantheon of great artists, usually in quiet, sun-drenched walks through the French countryside. Their aesthetic quarrel is reduced to “you paint too quickly” and “stop painting what you see; paint what’s in your head.” That is as churlish as it gets. There is no hint of Vincent’s absinthe habit, and very little of Gauguin’s carousing (to be fair, the latter recalled he “could not get up much enthusiasm” for the local women). It is a very respectable portrayal that leaves the viewer utterly baffled as to what fueled the frenzied pace of their output and led to Vincent’s most famous breakdown and the rupture between the artists, who never spoke again. Schnabel again fades to black. 

There is nothing in Schnabel’s account that hints at a psychotic break, although this is likely what happened. In Gauguin’s final days in Arles, the artist recounts:

Vincent would become excessively rough and noisy, and then silent. On several nights I surprised him in the act of getting up and coming over to my bed. To what can I attribute my awakening just at that moment? At all events, it was enough for me to say to him, quite sternly, “What’s the matter with you, Vincent?” for him to go back to bed without a word and fall into a heavy sleep.

The popular, sentimental versions of what happened next that many people are familiar with rarely even mentions Gauguin. The facts are represented, but selectively. What we know is that Vincent cut off his left ear, wrapped it in paper, and delivered it to a woman at a local brothel. The sanitized version I remember from my grammar school days seemed to suggest that this was a desperate gesture of unrequited love, and we were left to assume that it was the unlucky woman who had received the ear for whom it was meant. Case closed. Most serious art historians acknowledge that the incident involved an altercation of some sort with Gauguin. In some versions Vincent, out of the blue, threatens Gauguin with the razor he would later use to cut off his ear. A recent, more interesting version put forward by Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, suggests that “during one of their more heated rows, Gauguin, a keen fencer, actually lopped it off with a sword.” They say Van Gogh may have taken the blame to cover for his friend. 

This actually aligns beautifully with Schnabel’s portrayal of Vincent’s death. In Schnabel’s film, it is not by suicide. He follows closely the account of Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in their massive 2011 Van Gogh: The Life. In it, they detail the artist’s relationship with local boys Gaston and René Secrétan. In a 1957 interview René copped to owning a pistol he said Van Gogh may have taken. The story is sad and somehow very fitting: René was known to be a local bully. He had a thing for cosplaying Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Wild West Show he had seen in Paris. He had a whole Buffalo Bill get-up, including the pistol. In some versions of this developing counter-myth, Gaston was Vincent’s favorite among the local youth, the counterpoint to wicked René, and the artist was worried on his deathbed that Gaston would be implicated, and so covered for them both. This has become part of the local lore, a story already in circulation in the 1930s, when art historian John Rewald went to Auvers to investigate. This was, according to locals, the great tortured genius’ last act of martyrdom, and seems to jibe with his widely quoted deathbed insistence: “Do not accuse anyone… it is I who wanted to kill myself.”

But other than a couple of flashes of unprovoked malevolence from the local kids, there’s no hint in At Eternity’s Gate of just how much of a sore thumb Vincent really was in Auvers. One art historian imagines a richly cinematic scene:

By the time René arrived for the summer, Van Gogh was already the object of rumor and ridicule. He trudged through town with his mangled ear and awkward load, setting himself up to paint anywhere he pleased. He drank. He argued fiercely in an unintelligible tumble of Dutch and French. René cozied up to the lonely painter at his café conversations about art. He paid for another round of drinks. Afterward, René would mock the strange Dutchman to amuse his merry band of mischief-minded summer boys.

In the 2007 film, The Yellow House, which details this period as well, with at least some reference to the effects of ego and absinthe on the relationship between Van Gogh and Gauguin, the reason for this oddly subdued and one-sided version of the tortured artist might be gleaned from the film’s post-script, which reminds us that in the short time they were roommates, they produced “forty acknowledged masterpieces,” and perhaps more to the point: “the current value of the collected works of the Yellow House is about 1.5 billion dollars.” This last piece may literally account for the durability of the whitewashed myth of Van Gogh. We love the idea of the tortured genius who is vindicated in death, but beatifying such a person with the imprimatur of modern capitalism means the creepy bits, the smelly, screamy bits, and, oh, yeah, the rapey bits, kinda get glossed over. Van Gogh was a production powerhouse, and eventually it paid off for collectors, who essentially posthumously own that means of production. It’s a fairy tale, starry night kind of ending… for someone (Christie’s, Sompo Insurance in Tokyo, and a few others, in fact).

Schnabel is no art world slouch. What he does here implicitly is what we have done with the beatification of Van Gogh in general: he has taken all the bad behavior out — literally blacking it out, as if cinematically redacted — leaving only the sweet, soft-spoken, tortured genius. Again: Schnabel was not trying to do a biopic. “Let’s take all the things that we’re attracted to and put them together,” he’s said, “and then let’s extrapolate on those things.” And isn’t that, in a nutshell, the myth of Vincent Van Gogh?

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