Notes From the Margins…

At Eternity’s Gate

  • April 06, 2019
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A few years ago I visited the artist Ray Atkins at his farmhouse in the French Pyrenees.  For the last few years Ray has painted the forest that surrounds his home, and he had just finished another of his forest paintings on the day we arrived.  I remember he took us into his garden and the canvas was still standing there on its easel, about four foot by three.

At first sight the forest around Ray’s home can seem oppressive and even monotonous.  You look around you and you see nothing but the same dark green.  That wasn’t the forest I saw on Ray’s canvas.  On the contrary, what I saw was an explosive semi-abstract eruption of colour, with all kinds of shades, points and nuances that I hadn’t even noticed – and struggled to see even when I looked at what Ray had been painting.

On the one hand that painting showed me how painters can see parts of the world that our own eyes may have missed.  At the same time Ray’s painting was his own unique creation – and a reminder that no one ever sees the same landscape in the same way.

I thought of that encounter last night when I went to see Julian Schnabel’s astonishing study of Van Gogh At Eternity’s Gate.  I have to admit that I don’t know much about Schnabel as a painter.

I never paid any attention to him until The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  I was attracted to that film because I’d read the book, and I was interested to see how a film might deal with a heroic but tragic tale that consisted, for the most part, of the observations and thoughts of a paralysed man who was unable to communicate except by blinking.

Suffice to say that I was knocked out by it.  Schnabel turned Jean-Dominique Bauby’s horrific illness into a genuinely life-affirming statement.  At the end of the film, as its doomed protagonist finally slips into death, Schnabel concocted a series of stunning dreamlike images that celebrated the world that he was prematurely leaving, and also reminded us how lucky we are to still live in such a world.

So naturally, in these poisonous political times, I was keen to see what he would do with Vincent Van Gogh, and it didn’t disappoint.  In the past Van Gogh’s life has lent itself Hollywood melodrama, in Kurt Douglas’s Lust for Life.  Or the misty-eyed sentimentality of Don MacLean’s saccharine hit Starry Starry Night.

Schnabel’s take could not be more different.  It is first of all an intimate study of a painter by a painter, which explores the relationships between Van Gogh’s art and his disturbed personality.  On a broader level, its a meditation on the importance of art and painting that recalls Victor Erice’s classic The Quince-Tree Sun.

The film is driven by an astonishing performance by Willem Dafoe.  His Van Gogh is part-madman, part-holy innocent, a man with the sensibility and vulnerability of a child, tormented by mental illness that neither he nor anyone else understands, while simultaneously intoxicated by the natural world that he is compelled to paint for reasons that he also barely understands.

There are some wonderful scenes of Van Gogh tramping through a luminous landscape of southern France that we instantly recognize from his paintings, rolling on the ground or swirling round in a state of ecstasy like some medieval hermit or Sufi mystic.

Schnabel’s moving camera tracks Dafoe’s movements from a distance and then also in close-up, from his twisting hands to his pained, expressive eyes, before panning round to the light and landscapes that Van Gogh celebrated in paintings that had to be completed ‘in a single gesture’, as he puts it.

The camerawork also acts like a ‘brush’,  capturing the light and colour that Van Gogh saw, and there are scenes in which you only see Van Gogh’s hand (or Schnabel’s and the other two painters who collaborated in the film) laying on brush strokes in some of his iconic paintings or even copying some of them.  Schnabel wants us to see and feel the world as Van Gogh experienced it, with its sunshine and cold, its poverty and disappointment.   We see the dirt under his fingernails and the holes in his socks, his battered boots, and the tormented expressions of his fellow-patients at the lunatic asylum.

At certain moments the camera becomes deliberately blurred – a technique that captures Van Gogh’s very tenuous mental grip on a world in which he is essentially an alien and a stranger – except when he is painting.  Schnabel also overlays fragments of conversations that have already taken place, as they pass through Van Gogh’s head.

Many of these conversations revolve around painting, particularly in the dialogues between Van Gogh and Gaugin, and address the questions of why Van Gogh painted, why he painted the way he did, and how he responded to the artists of his own time and to the nineteenth century ‘culture industry’.

Some of these reflections were taken verbatim from Van Gogh’s own journals, and they never feel pretentious or extraneous.  Schnabel includes them as part of his exploration of Van Gogh’s art and personality, and also because he believes in the necessity of art and painting. This marvellous film makes us believe it too.

In the final scene, Van Gogh lies in a coffin, while mourners look at his paintings and take them away like trophies.  It’s a poignant sequence, which you could read it as a bleak comment on the predatory nature of an art world that turns everything into money.

But is also suggested – to me – that Van Gogh’s art transcended the torment and marginalisation that dominated much of his life and reached beyond ‘eternity’s gate’ so that even now in the 21st century, we are still able to feel and see what he saw and felt,  and we can still be moved by it.




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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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