At his very least, Vincent Van Gogh’s life is recognised for catapulting human expression into our lives. His Starry Night’s and Sunflowers are very pretty to look at in a gallery, but their real worth is proven in the fact that the art that surrounds us now allows us to glimpse into the lives of others, and with this, provides an avenue for us to show others who we truly are.
This was the stated mission of the artist, whose final letter in passing, written for his brother, to whom he was closest: to show everyone who he was and what he could do. And so Vincent, ostracised, alone, and ultimately driven to suicide, is a case study for the lessons we are in the midst of learning here in these early days of the 21st century. Lessons regarding the need to express ourselves and be understood, and the accompanying imperative to reach out and try to accept our contemporaries, friends, and strangers.
The protagonist, Armand Roulin, tasked with delivering this final letter to Theo Van Gogh, Vincent’s Brother and Confidant. Embarks on a Film Noir style journey to France to unwrap the mystery surrounding Vincent’s death. Throughout it, we gain perspectives on suicide, mental illness, cowardice. Most impressively this journey of discovery
engages with the meta-narrative surrounding the Artists’ life. Each discovery Armand makes is lifted out of the many texts devoted to the life and work of Van Gogh, much of the dialogue stems from the discourse surrounding his posthumous discovery. Every conversation he has reveals all we know about the real Van Gogh, which is to say, very little.
In an essay on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ final novel ‘The Autumn of the Patriarch’ John Berger bravely begins by telling us:
“The day before yesterday a close friend of mine killed himself by blowing his brains out. Today in my head his death assembles a thousand memories of his life, which I now see, not perhaps more clearly, but more truthfully than ever before.”
He describes our attempts to figure out motives, rationales: why? These are questions that Marquez, Berger, and the passionate directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman cannot answer. None of us can, the events happened, and as Loving Vincent plays out we are aware that no one shares the same memories of how and why.
For the close friend, Berger’s posthumous recount of his story is but one of many. Undoubtedly many of this man’s other friends each have recounted their own stories of their friend, each unique and formed in solitude, as memories are.
This brings us to the question: how well do we truly know our friends, let alone our neighbours, co-workers, strangers? There are few who we grow old with, who shape us and so in ourselves we know them. Alain Badiou suggests that in the strongest of amorous loves the partners enter a ‘two scene’ where both live as if their lives were one unit, experiencing what the world has to offer from a completely different perspective. However aside from this, even our closest friends and family harbour passions and fears we likely will never become familiar with. If only we had known.
The case of Vincent turns us to mental illness and serves as a solemn reminder that we certainly don’t yet understand it fully as a society. The artist lives surrounded by those who mischaracterize him: the churchgoers proclaim him evil, his friend at his lodging affectionately calls him strange, his doctor professes him a genius and Isolates the sickly Vincent; removing distractions, and interaction from his life. At the beginning of the film, Armand proclaims him a ‘weak’ for taking the short way out of life, only to later risk his life to defend a simple boy unaffectionately known as ‘the village idiot.’ We learn his lessons along the way, that life for Vincent is as confusing for himself as it is for others, the pressure of feeling a burden upon those you love most. We are on a recently begun quest to understand mental illness, and still have a long way to go till those with chemicals less balanced than ours (and we are finding out that many of us fit that category) can feel empowered.
Van Gogh is pertinent here, as he is the champion of individual expression, a martyr for it. His story in my eyes is extended politically in the contemporary quest for acceptance. What is commonly known as “identity politics’ can be interpreted as the often polemic quest to be understood for what one is, and to have one’s value in life recognised. Perhaps there is no greater freedom in life than to be able to, in the confidence of a friend be yourself. Expand this circle of confidence, and freedom follows.
And so we are at a crucial point in history where the dialogue is rapidly expanding to allow for different views and voices to be heard, and for sickness to be accounted for. We clash against those who are different, but we’ve never been so interconnected before, clashes were inevitable. Overcoming these challenges opens us up to a period in history in which we will be able to express ourselves more openly and freely than we ever could in the past.
I propose an imperative to care. Our hands must be outstretched. This is not for me. I consider poor, loving Vincent, cradling his fatal wound alone in the darkness. And I think of John Berger’s friend, just as I think of those close to me, and to my friends, the pain I’ve seen them go through, the love that flowed either way that may have been missed. I think of the uncountable souls of the past, and the present that silently departed this world they believed had no place for them. I feel guilt, I feel sadness, but these feelings must be a stopover and not the destination.
We owe it to each other, and to the future generations, to construct a future of expression. We trust Vincent, for he bared it all, and died for this. Is imagining a future built on trust utopian? I hope not. I’m reminded of Bertrand Russells’ analogy of the tightrope walker; walking so thin a line, we’re bound to fall eventually. We need to walk on solid ground.
Berger offers us comfort; with each of our lives a story, its meaning is deduced by who’s listening. Many end their story prematurely assuming it lacks an audience, and this couldn’t be more wrong. All throughout your life people are reading your story, and as he says: “Such stories begin with mortality, but they never end with solitude.”