Archive for April, 2012

Analysis: Altman’s “Vincent & Theo”

April 22, 2012

Professional critics have called this film “a masterpiece,” a “tragic story,” and a “brooding biopic” that concentrates on “mad-artist” Vincent’s co-dependent relationship with his syphilitic art dealer brother. The sum of all reviews is that Altman’s rendition of the core of van Gogh’s life portrays perhaps the unhappiest of artists, despite enormous talent. And therein lies the real tragedy: that viewers, especially young students of art and art history, may be baptized into van Gogh’s world by forceful immersion into a swamp of imagery that defines Vincent van Gogh in terms of suffering, sorrow, shouting, and insanity pounded at the audience through a bride-of-Frankenstein soundtrack. 

Our initial puzzlement was: How can one renowned artist (in this case, Altman) not have a better grasp of another renowned artist? The Vincent & Theo DVD includes a featurette: “Film as Fine Art” which provides a clue when Altman expresses doubt that “film” will ever become a fine art, which informs our sensibility that Robert Altman was not actually an artist. He managed performing artists, but he himself can be better understood as having been a highly talented but not very inventive craftsman, which is something very different. His pragmatic impulse was to craft a two-hour commercial entertainment piece rather than the four-hour artful masterwork the BBC had envisioned. 

So, while we all understand the importance of youthful influences, Altman was coolly comfortable in lopping off the first two hours that would have provided some treatment of Vincent’s earlier years. In his DVD featurette, Altman flatly and falsely declares that Vincent “didn’t care about” Theo, portraying Theo as little more than a financially burdened source of support for his “mad as a hatter” brother. Altman further says that Vincent’s letters indicate that Vincent “wasn’t very interested in anything but himself,” that Vincent “hustled” his brother, which tells us that Altman could not have read many of those letters or understood the brothers’ relationship at all. Moreover, it confirms our finding that Vincent & Theo is not a source of reliable information—it’s an offense. 

The truth that PluribusOne™ perceives is that Vincent and Theo were not only the closest of brothers; they shared a vision for artistic achievement and commercial success. They were essentially business partners, each investing his most accessible plenteous resource in an inspired and yet very pragmatic way. We see, for example, in a letter from Vincent to Theo, in March, 1888, Vincent saying, “… if we work in that faith [that they were founding a “new art”], it seems to me there is a chance that we do not hope in vain.” Meanwhile, as Theo provided funds to Vincent, Vincent provided paintings that Theo held (and legally owned) until inherited by Theo’s wife, Johanna. 

Countering the impression that Vincent cared nothing about Theo, we see Vincent’s words to Theo: “… it’s my constant hope that I am not working for myself alone.” Vincent had expected them to experience commercial success before this point. And his further words of caring for family, such as: “… I thought of you all… and in me arose the words and emotion: Keep me from being a son that maketh ashamed…” The best evidence against anyone’s “mad as a hatter” claim is the work itself. Are van Gogh’s paintings images of madness? If so, “madness” is a gift and normalcy is the saddest of pandemic diseases. “These canvases,” he said, “… tell… the health and restorative forces that I see.” 

Did Vincent see himself as a tragic figure? “In my opinion,” he said, in 1883, “I am often rich—not in money, but rich—because I have found in my work something which I can devote myself to heart and soul, and which inspires me and gives a meaning to life.”