Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Lust for Life 2 - van Gogh and Gauguin

Vincent van Gogh: A Pair of Shoes. Paris, 1886. Oil on canvas. 45 x 37,5. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Photo: WikiArt Visual Art Encyclopedia.
Lust for Life is a study of the solitude of Vincent van Gogh and his struggle to establish communication on the most profound level.

Vincent studies to become a preacher but does not pass the examination. Yet, "I want to help the unfortunate. Use me". In Borinage during his sermon he realizes that his words are empty and he must truly learn to know the coalminers, to become one of them. By committing himself to them he alienates himself even further from the official religious administration. "I don't believe in the God of the clergymen. I believe in the God of love". This aspect of Lust for Life has an affinity with other masterpieces of the 1950s such as Europa '51 (Rossellini) and Nazarín (Buñuel).

Vincent's closest ally is his brother Theo, and they are also soul brothers. All his life Theo and his family help Vincent; Théo dies only half a year after Vincent's premature death. Their common mission is "to be of use, to bring something to the world".

Vincent the amateur artist keeps drawing and painting. He is self-educated and highly self-critical. He is being helped generously by his cousin Mauve who gives him equipment, paints, and even plaster models for study exercise. Vincent paints in the wind at the coast of the sea. He struggles to overcome the iron wall between his vision and his expression, to the end agonizingly frustrated because he sees more than he can convey.

The Paris of the Impressionists is a revelation for Vincent: the colour, the light. There are vignettes in the movie on fellow artists like Camille Pissarro ("take in everything at once, trust in your first impression") and Georges Seurat (the scientific, the mathematical method, painting systematically in the studio). Père Tanguy and Toulouse-Lautrec make brief appearances. Later in the care of Dr. Gachet van Gogh learns about Cézanne, Daumier, and Manet to whom Gachet has also been a mentor. Paul Gauguin is openly scornful towards almost everybody. With the exception of van Gogh. When Gauguin sees Gogh's A Pair of Shoes he recognizes in the painting something "direct, vigorous, and honest".

Gauguin goes to Normandy, van Gogh to Provence, which inspires him to an ecstasy of creativity. The exalted Van Gogh invites Gauguin to share a house he has discovered in Arles thanks to a genial postman. But although Gogh and Gauguin connect on a deep level, they are opposites in many ways. Gogh is chaotic, Gauguin orderly. Gogh eats whatever he can grab, Gauguin can cook. For Gogh facing the living reality is essential in order to paint, Gauguin can also create without a model. Gogh worships the sacred in work, Gauguin has no patience with such matters. Gogh adores Millet, Gauguin despises him. Gogh is spiritual, Gauguin is practical. Gogh suffers from loneliness, for Gauguin loneliness is the human condition. For Gogh the inside matters, Gauguin works on the surface. Gauguin seems tough and cynical but we sense that it is his hard shell to protect his sensitivity. Anyway, shocked at the failure of communication Gogh cuts his ear off.

Little by little van Gogh approaches "a terrible lucidity". Simultaneously his seizures get more and more agonizing, until he cannot take it anymore.

Vincent van Gogh: Le docteur Paul Gachet. Auvers, 1890. 68 x 57. Musée d'Orsay. Gift of Paul and Marguerite Gachet, children of the model (1949). Photo: Google Art Project.

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