Vincent van Gogh’s Life as a Graphic Novel

Vincent COVERDutch artist and writer Barbara Stok’s Vincent is the second graphic novel I’ve read from SelfMadeHero’s “Art Masters” series, after reviewing Munch last month. It’s another biographical study of an artist, in this case of Vincent van Gogh. Oddly, though, the drawing style and the subject’s vibrant shock of red hair reminded me most of Agatha.

The book focuses primarily on the time van Gogh spent in the South of France. He settled in Arles, staying first in a hotel and then in a large rental house he hoped to turn into an artists’ colony – he temporarily attracted Paul Gauguin before driving him away with his strict, workaholic ways and his temper.

IMG_0303In presumably authentic letters to his younger brother Theo (an art dealer who supported him financially) back in Paris, van Gogh details his progress and tells of his fondness for the Provence scenery. I particularly love the panels where you can spot the direct inspiration for some of van Gogh’s most famous paintings: wheat fields, cypress trees, sunflowers, irises, a starry night sky, and even his cluttered bedroom.

We also get insights into the philosophy behind van Gogh’s work: “An artist has to put character and emotion into his work, not just paint whatever sells,” he insists to an art dealer who expects him to pander to public taste. “I use lots of different techniques, all mixed together. I like to exaggerate the colors in order to capture the soul of the subject,” he explains to a couple of fellow painters who take an interest in him. He used thick, confident brush strokes and painted quickly, making him annoyingly prolific in others’ eyes.

Vincent UK_MEDIA KIT 5

Stok does a wonderful job of depicting van Gogh as a misunderstood genius who drove people away with his lack of social skills, and sensitively introduces the breakdown during which he famously cut off his ear. He admitted himself to a mental hospital, where he could be treated for his epileptic attacks and continued to paint natural scenes under supervision.

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The striking colors of the breakdown scene

The book closes on what seems to be a fairly positive note: van Gogh voluntarily leaves the hospital and moves to Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, where he can be closer to Theo and his young family. “I foresee a future full of problems, but I’m not pessimistic,” he declares to his brother. And yet the final page shows a pair of gravestones: Vincent died in 1890 at age 37 and Theo just a year later, at 33.

Turn back one page and you see what might actually be a rather ominous scene: van Gogh has been painting in a wheat field; in one last two-page spread, he has disappeared from view and a flock of crows has taken off and filled the sky. Were they startled by the gunshot of his attempted suicide? While still true to the facts of van Gogh’s life, it’s a refreshingly subtle ending.

Stok perfectly captures van Gogh’s personality amid the warm colors of the French countryside, and whetted my appetite to read his letters for myself. I’d recommend this to anyone with an interest in the lives of artists, whether you think you’re a fan of graphic novels or not.

With thanks to the publisher, SelfMadeHero, for the free copy. Translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson.

My rating: 4 star rating

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7 thoughts on “Vincent van Gogh’s Life as a Graphic Novel

  1. A very positive review, and kind, about a complicated man. The author, and you, caused me to have empathy and respect for van Gogh.

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    Liked by 1 person

  2. OK. You’ve convinced me. I’m going to have a go at a graphic novel – at last. Interestingly, the Today programme was talking about another Van Gogh book this morning. Apparently, Rebecca Front will be reading from Bernadette Murphy’s book ‘Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story’ for BBC Radio 4’s Book Of The Week, starting on Monday 25 July at 9:45am. I’ll have to try and listen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The artwork really is stunning.The colours, especially, are great. She gives such a good sense of his work without actually copying any of it. Be warned: the scene of him cutting off his ear is a little gory…

      Liked by 1 person

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