Museum highlights film depictions of Van Gogh through the years

On Thursday, Jan. 6, art/film historian Susan Doll will speak about recent and vintage Van Gogh movies at the Columbus Museum of Art, in conjunction with the exhibit "Through Vincent's Eyes"

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Actor Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in the film "Lust For Life," on location in Europe, 1956.

In the last several decades, filmmakers have tried again and again to capture the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh onscreen. In 2018, Willem Dafoe portrayed the painter in Julian Schnabel’s film about Van Gogh’s final years, “At Eternity’s Gate.” The year prior, groundbreaking animated film “Loving Vincent” used 65,000 oil paintings in a drama that examined the circumstances of Van Gogh’s death. And in 1990, director Robert Altman’s “Vincent & Theo” focused on the relationship between the painter and his art dealer brother. 

But the enduring touchstone is “Lust for Life,” Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 biopic starring Kirk Douglas as a tortured Van Gogh. “It has become the film to which other Van Gogh movies are often compared,” said Susan Doll, a film historian who teaches at Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota, Florida. Doll, who also studied art history at Ohio State, will give a hybrid in-person/virtual lecture on the history of Van Gogh in film at the Columbus Museum of Art on Thursday, Jan. 6, at 6 p.m., in conjunction with the museum’s “Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources” exhibition, which remains on view through Feb. 6. (The lecture is free with registration.)

About midway through “Lust for Life,” when Van Gogh travels to Arles in the south of France, Minnelli begins using conventional cinematic techniques to capture “the vibrancy and energy that is a hallmark of Van Gogh's style,” Doll said. 

In a scene meant to recall one of Van Gogh’s famous paintings of a café with a pool table bathed in yellow light, Douglas portrays the artist drunk on absinthe. “He looks up, and the camera pans up a little bit, and we see this wide shot where the colors are recreated in the production design and lighting, and they match the colors in the painting,” Doll said. “Van Gogh sees this in his drunken haze, and he sees the bright yellow lights, and then that dissolves into the canvas.”

The “Lust for Life” production also boasted three cinematographers, one of whom was sent to Arles in the spring to shoot blossoms and trees. “They went to the actual locations of some of the paintings. … They went across the countryside in Arles with reproductions of the paintings looking for the fields and orchards, and when they saw what they thought was the exact orchard or field or house or view of the town, they would stop and set up and shoot,” Doll said. “Minnelli had a degree of freedom, partly because of his [prior] successes at MGM.” 

While Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate” was aimed more at the arthouse crowd, Minnelli made “Lust for Life” for mainstream audiences, and Doll said both Douglas and Minnelli cited it as their favorite film.  

“All of the directors [of the Van Gogh films] considered themselves artists in some way. Schnabel is actually a painter himself, and Altman always referred to his films as his paintings and the actors as his paint. And Minnelli looked at film like painting,” Doll said, noting that the actors similarly approached Van Gogh from different angles. “Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh is not anything like Tim Roth’s Van Gogh in the Robert Altman film. And it's not like Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh in ‘At Eternity's Gate.’ They go through the same life events … but the way that the character is interpreted is different.” 

In that way, each film perhaps reveals more about the creative engines behind the movie than it does about Van Gogh, whose character becomes a blank canvas for the actors and filmmakers.

“I think Minnelli identified with Van Gogh the outsider,” Doll said. “Even though he was an insider in the Hollywood industry, he always felt like he was outside the Hollywood community socially. And he was as driven in his work as Van Gogh was in his, to the point where personal relationships were destroyed or affected.” 

Doll also praised the intensity Douglas brought to Van Gogh’s persona, appearing like “a coiled animal” onscreen. “It's a kind of acting that people don't appreciate anymore because it is so melodramatic. People use that word in a pejorative way, but oh, my God, he knew what he was doing,” she said. “His physicality, as well as the way he vocalized the torture and the torment... he should have won that Oscar, man. ... He was robbed.” 

After watching all the films again, Doll remains partial to “Lust for Life.” “I think Minnelli did it the best,” she said. “He's often criticized because of the melodramatic pitch of the acting. People snicker at ‘Lust for Life.’ But I think his understanding of how to interpret one medium into another is far more sophisticated than he's given credit for.” 

Debates over each film’s merits will likely continue, but Doll’s primary hope is that her lecture will reveal new layers behind the art of Van Gogh as visitors stroll through the museum.

“Van Gogh is everywhere. You can buy journals with Van Gogh on the cover. You can buy plates or bowls decorated in Van Gogh’s paintings. He's everywhere, and that tends to make you not appreciate it,” she said. “It makes you not see it as a painting. You see it as an object and not as an expression of someone who sacrificed a lot to get it out there on canvas, just like these directors sacrificed a lot to get their films made. And so I hope when people go through the exhibit, they will understand that this is someone who worked really hard to express something that he wanted others to feel, too.”