A portrait of Vincent van Gogh as a tormented soul

Art critic

November 16 at 11:18 AM

God, it’s beautiful. The world I mean. Sunlight. Sunflowers. The faces of old women. Gnarled hands. Night skies. Cypresses in the wind. The world as Vincent van Gogh saw it.

A new film by Julian Schnabel, “At Eternity’s Gate,” with Willem Dafoe playing the man we refer to, by common consent, as “poor Vincent,” captures this beauty. It’s an understated, yet insinuating and ultimately stunning work, one of the most credible and convincing artist biopics ever made.

Dafoe is superb in the role. With his intuitive physicality, his earnest, enraptured stare and his bewilderment, he captures the profound awkwardness of this great artist, and in doing so, reminds us that even today, we are confused about what to do with van Gogh. We don’t know whether to canonize him, medicate him or just pat him cautiously on the head, like an eccentric, troubled child.

Poor Vincent. How can you say anything else? It just wasn’t easy being him. He was mocked, abandoned, bullied, tormented. Stormed by beautiful visions, he was also assailed by demons.

But, a question lingers: Is all this plausible? Do we have time anymore for the old cliche of the tormented genius?

Van Gogh, more than any other artist in history, embodies the cliche. But isn’t it, by now, outdated? Isn’t it time we arrived at some more benign and realistic view of creativity?

We have been taught in recent times to treat the idea of the tortured genius with skepticism. The notion is either domesticated (by sentimentalizing it with saccharine songs, movies and gift-shop kitsch) or explained away with psychopathology: Was van Gogh bipolar? Schizophrenic? Was it temporal lobe epilepsy? Borderline personality disorder? Cycloid psychosis? It doesn’t matter: Van Gogh is the patron saint of every mental illness you can name.

But it’s worth removing some of these layers of sociological and psychopathological varnish and returning to older, dumber questions. Why, for instance, was van Gogh bullied and mocked?

Primarily, I think, because the people around him struggled to understand. And when understanding breaks down, those prone to jealousy lash out. They mock, they isolate, they inflict suffering.

The more benignly inclined might try to do better. But even they often only project their wishful thinking, their romantic idealism, onto the thing they have fundamentally failed to grasp.

Let’s face it: It is very hard to grasp what van Gogh achieved, or how he achieved it. He was not gifted — at least, not conventionally so. He had to teach himself. His early efforts were woeful. He painted all 860 of his paintings in 10 years. More than half of these — and almost all of the best of them — were done in the final two years of his life.

That is just astonishing. You try to imagine what it was like to be him during these years, and pretty quickly you just rub your eyes and give up.

And that’s it, isn’t it? You can question the idea of creative genius all you like; you can explain it away with psychology, genetics, sociology and what-all else; but you must still find a way to account for van Gogh. Or Franz Schubert, who died at 31, having composed 600 songs, seven symphonies, and a vast body of incomparable chamber and piano music. Or John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who wrote their 230 songs — so many of them indelible — over a single, insanely tumultuous decade. Or Mozart, who . . . well, where to begin?

High-level creativity is rare. It is produced by our fellow creatures, who snore, fart, have bad teeth and succumb to pettiness like the rest of us. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t astounding. It is also demanding, and full of risk. It requires breaking with the herd, which is socially dangerous, and putting your whole self on the line. It is fueled by fear of failure, and its victories, sadly, are only ever partial. (McCartney still wakes up every day, I suspect, and thinks: How did we do that?)

There are, they say, compensations. Part of what makes Schnabel’s film so convincing is the simple, unpretentious poetry with which he conveys the bliss of creativity, the euphoria. Throughout the film, the jumpy, roaming camera approximates what it might have felt like to see through van Gogh’s eyes. We feel him marveling at the yellow leaves filtering the sun, or blissed-out as he trudges through long grass. We see him out in a field in the gloaming, so ecstatic in the face of nature that he scoops up the plowed soil and pours it onto his face, as though yearning to be one with it. Somehow, it’s not cheesy.

Instead, it reminds us that successful creativity often emerges from a state of mind that is hugely enviable — a sense of being on a roll, of being connected to forces bigger than yourself, a kind of radiance, perhaps, and of operating according to a new set of rules, according to instinct rather than custom, with all your faculties in perfect alignment, enjoying a sense of expanded license, freedom, fresh possibility . . .

It goes without saying that shy writers who lead quiet family lives might feel this rush as much as tortured post-impressionists, guitar-smashing rock stars or carousing abstract expressionists. But the rest of us are fascinated by this state of being, and very often, I think, jealous. What gives them the right? we might wonder, as we clock in for another shift or rush to pick up the kids.

We sense, too, I think, that artistic freedom is subversive. The license artists grant themselves can be socially destructive. Van Gogh yearned for community and wanted to be of service. But let’s be honest: It is impossible to imagine a functioning community of van Goghs. If powerful artists often defy conventional morality, it is probably just because conventional morality dilutes, in endless obligations and self-corrections, the intensity and conviction, the tunnel vision that is required to create great art. Protecting that intensity and conviction demands degrees of selfishness.

That’s hard for the rest of us. We say “poor Vincent.” But, of course, we might also say “poor Theo.” If Vincent is the rare visionary, the seer, the man born ahead of his time who suffers for the sake of those millions who will later find solace in his art, Theo, Vincent’s brother, represents the best in the rest of us: the more prosaic souls whose patience and forbearance are tested to their limits, but who, even as they shake their baffled heads, can summon up kindness enough to tend to those they love.

It was not easy being Theo. The film’s most moving scene is in a hospital in the south of France, where Theo has rushed by train after receiving word of Vincent’s troubles. Vincent looks desperately lost. Theo climbs into the hospital bed beside him, just as they did as young boys. The relief, for Vincent, who has been mocked and bullied and treated as a fool by the local townspeople, is tremendous: “I’d like to die like this,” he says.

Yet, within seconds, he has to face the fact that Theo must soon abandon him and return to his life of work and family, leaving Vincent alone with his euphoria, lost (as the philosopher Galen Strawson wrote in another context) “in the vast selfishness of [his] odd lack of ego.”

These days, the idea that to be an artist you have to experience madness and psychic breakdown is one we no longer find credible, let alone wish to encourage. That’s because it is, in many ways, false and pernicious.

And yet, it does still seem that in any genuinely powerful artist’s life, the tension between the flow of interior, creative life and the restraints and expectations of exterior, “normal” life is a source of painful conflict.

There is a scene early on in the film, in which van Gogh has come into his cold room, his whole self still tussled by the wind outside. A window bangs on its hinges. Dafoe takes off his boots. And then he simply stares at them. At the boots. The window bangs away some more. And then (an idea has come to him, from where, who knows?) he gets to work. He paints the boots.

Great artists use their imaginations not only to pursue beauty, but to try to break through veils that prevent us from seeing those boots, and by extension, the truth of our mortal situation here on earth. These veils get thicker and more opaque. Today, they come in the forms of advertising, corporate flimflam, political propaganda, moral panics, media distortions, metrics, statistics.

The best artists use their imaginations to return us to reality. They dispel the lies and hypocrisy of so-called “conventional reality.” They pay attention — with the hope that both they, and we, might feel more at home in the world, boots, radiant visions and all.