Thursday, May 01, 2008


I watched "Vincent and Theo", directed by Robert Altman in 1990 about Vincent Van Gogh and his brother, Theo.

After trying to work as an art dealer, missionary, enter a university's theological school, and generally driving his family to frustration, Van Gogh followed his brother's advice to pursue art full time. For ten years, Theo supported Vincent as he worked at developing his skills and produced 2000 works of art. The film covers those ten years as both brothers sank deeper into depression over failed love relationships and futility, especially when Theo finally married and could not support his brother and his wife and child at the same time.

Van Gogh also tried to establish an artist's commune in Arles, but it met with disaster as tension increased between him and Gauguin when his mental health broke. Van Gogh as a result cut off a piece of his ear, which landed him in an insane asylum. While he was there, he was allowed supervised walks in order to paint. His masterpiece "Starry Night" was painted while he was a patient. After a few years, he was discharged under the care of a doctor, whom Van Gogh described as sick, if not sicker, than he.

Not long after, while painting in a wheat field, Van Gogh shot himself. The film leaves it up to the viewer to decide if it was suicide or an accident, since Van Gogh possibly used the gun in order to scare up the crows that he painted in his last few works. Ironically, when the gun goes off and Van Gogh drops into the cover of the wheat, the scene from his last painting was created as the crows fly out of the field and into the air. It makes you wonder if that was intentional. After shooting himself, Van Gogh packs up his art equipment and walks back to his room above a cafe, not knowing that his wounds were serious. He died two days later. His brother died a few months afterward succombing to the last stages of syphilis.

The music is jarring and the movie is uncomfortable to watch, especially since Altman does not cover up the dirt and squalid living conditions that Van Gogh, his mistresses (he shows one using a chamber pot while the artist sketches her) and his contemporaries lived in. You get a feeling that Theo is on a higher level of existence, but not by much and in the end, Theo ended up worse than his brother. The only beauty that these brothers experienced was probably through their art--Theo made it possible, and in many ways was just as much a part of producing it--that transcended their circumstances. Theo described a painting he once saw as a child that was so magnificent he wanted to walk into it and live in it.

I have been wondering if Van Gogh in the haze of insanity, still thought about God from time to time even towards the end of his life. And if the nature that he loved to portray in his art was somehow communicating to him the love and presence of the Creator. Because of his mental disease, his thoughts and feelings were not likely coherent. But I would like to think that his art says something spiritual even though Van Gogh himself could not. To me, to be eternally in the presence of God someday in Heaven is like a painting so wonderful that I would want to walk into it. Van Gogh's art reminds me of this spiritual longing to be at home with God.

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