Animated Film Stars Vincent van Gogh

The new "Loving Vincent," is a true art film — its images are based on hand-produced oil paintings

click to enlarge A painting-inspired image of the artist from "Loving Vincent" - PHOTO: Courtesy of Good Deed Entertainment
PHOTO: Courtesy of Good Deed Entertainment
A painting-inspired image of the artist from "Loving Vincent"

There’s actually a very practical reason why the first feature to be animated from hand-produced oil paintings is titled Loving Vincent. Opening Friday at the Esquire Theatre, it’s about Vincent van Gogh and is told mostly by using painted recreations of his Post-Impressionist masterpieces. As the film’s narrative points out, he closed a letter to his beloved brother Theo with the signature, “Your loving Vincent.”

But, looking at the artist’s legacy, there’s a broader reason why that’s such a good choice for a title. We love van Gogh. The Cincinnati Art Museum’s 2016-17 ticketed exhibition Into the Undergrowth, inspired by the museum’s restoration of its “Undergrowth with Two Figures” painting by the artist, proved to be its highest-attended show (per day) since 2000. Over the course of 73 days, it attracted 784 people per day — a total of 76,615. Ironically, the show was chosen by its European curator Esther Bell, who had departed two years before it opened.

By comparison, only nine special exhibitions at the museum in the past 10 years had even 400 visitors per day. Spurred by Into the Undergrowth and also the very popular, free exhibition Tiffany Glass: Painting with Color and Light, the museum just had its largest attendance — 253,935 — in the past six fiscal years (Sept. 1-Aug. 31).

It perhaps could have been predicted that an animated movie about van Gogh, one that tried to find an innovative way to use his art to tell his story, would be successful. After all, the interest in his art and life keeps getting stronger. The rich colors, pronounced brushstrokes, enhanced details and sometimes-skewed perspectives of his paintings appeal both visually and psychologically for what they may say about the artist. That the Dutch-born, France-based artist suffered — possibly selling just one painting during his lifetime, severing a part of his ear in a moment of rage, using a gun to kill himself at age 37 in 1890 — makes him all the more compelling today. 

But Loving Vincent is a risky project nonetheless, because of the arduous and expensive work involved in bringing it to fruition. According to its U.S. distributor, Good Deed Entertainment, Polish director Dorota Kobiela first thought of the idea (as a short) in 2008. Before the feature-length movie was finished by Kobiela and her husband/co-director/co-writer Hugh Welchman, it required 125 painting animators and 65,000 frames of individual oil paintings on canvas — each second of the film requires 12 frames. Some 120 of van Gogh’s artworks are referenced in Loving Vincent. It was first shot as a live-action film with actors so footage could be used as reference material.

Storywise, Loving Vincent uses a familiar Citizen Kane narrative structure that should appeal to those interested in the tragic aspects of his life. A year after van Gogh’s death, young Armand Roulin — son of a postman — travels to the French town where van Gogh died, Auvers-sur-Oise, with the painter’s last letter to his beloved brother, Theo. It’s been undeliverable because Theo died shortly after Vincent. But in that town, Armand becomes interested in the mysterious circumstances of Van Gogh’s death, so the film takes on something of a whodunit nature. 

This storyline gives an ample opportunity to bring figures well-known from van Gogh’s paintings to animated life — postman Joseph Roulin and son Armand, Dr. Gachet and daughter Marguerite, Adeline Ravoux and the wild-haired “Young Man with Cornflower,” to name several. It also weaves glimpses of other famous van Gogh paintings such as “Starry Night” and “Wheatfield with Crows” into its visions of the landscape.

So what is the overall result? I found the artwork very convincing and the animation often evocative, for the most part. The story can be very poignant, especially when dealing with van Gogh’s depression and despair. Nonetheless, sometimes the plot mechanics seems contrived. This is clever and thoughtful, but I prefer looking at the artist’s paintings and imagining what the lives of his subjects were like.

But it’s a film I plan to see more than once, especially in a theater. And nominations are open for what artist Kobiela and Welchman may want to tackle next. I’d like to see Jackson Pollock, but I doubt this approach would work very well with an abstract painter. Or would it?

Contact Steven Rosen: [email protected]

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