Sunday, 25 May 2014

Vincent by Barbara Stok Review

Maybe it’s partly because I know so little about him, but Vincent Van Gogh has always seemed a bit distant and cold - a genius but an isolated and seemingly unknowable one. So I’m thankful that Barbara Stok has created Vincent, a wonderful graphic novel looking at the last few years of Van Gogh’s life, which brings a warmth and character to the artist. 

The book opens as Vincent leaves Paris for Provence, an area of France where he would go on to create his most iconic paintings from the sunflowers to Dr Gauchet to the starry night, and of course, die. 

By far the most striking thing about the book is Stok’s art style which, if you can see the cover, is almost childlike in its uncomplicated approach but attractively simple - almost achieving that spareness that artists strive for as the highest level of their art. Couple that with the vivid and enormously effective use of colours and you have an utterly beautiful comic! The simplicity of the lines and the bright colours are qualities I feel Vincent would approve of - he certainly talks effusively about the use of strong colours quite a bit in this book. 

Besides the art is the excellent writing where the reader learns about Vincent and his brother Theo’s close relationship - Theo was his benefactor his entire life, sending Vincent money which allowed him to paint full time - as well as Vincent’s own neuroses about paying his brother back his money, something Theo always told him he didn’t need to do. 

However, this obsession with money drove Vincent to create painting after painting. Getting up early, he would set out and paint fields, plants, the skyline and the landscape, all of which led to the perfection of his style. He hated the image of the lazy artist and devoted every waking moment to his work - when he encounters the artist Dodge, he chastises him for wasting time not painting! 

Unfortunately his admirable work ethic and incredible production rate led to his already fragile health debilitating further. While the country air and change of scenery seems to have done him good in the short term, his unresolved physical problems came back to haunt him. Nobody is really sure what Van Gogh suffered from but in this book it’s put down to epilepsy and severe anxiety where he would black out and then come to hours later, unaware of what he’d done (it’s during one of these episodes that the famous ear-mutilation episode happens).

Stok also highlights Vincent’s obsession with setting up an artist’s studio in Arles, one that would attract painters from around the world as a hub and continue for generations. This leads to him inviting Paul Gauguin to stay with him which saw the two artists create great art but also fall out for good - Vincent was not an easy person to live with! 

Stok’s approach to the book is superb - several pages go by at a time without words as we see Vincent going for a walk, looking for the best spot, and then paint; some pages are filled with words as Vincent writes to Theo; some pages are a pleasing blend of words and imagery. Stok knows when to write exposition, when to introduce dialogue, and when to let the pictures speak for themselves - it’s a masterful balancing act that works perfectly so the reader is never overwhelmed with information and the pages have room to breathe. 

She makes the inspired choice to show Vincent’s psychosis as dots around his head - when he is slightly manic, she peppers dots around his head, and the dots increase the more he loses control, so that when he’s in his most disastrous phase of self-destruction, the entire panel is filled with dots! 

Also, she doesn’t reproduce Van Gogh’s work but depicts them in her own style which is delightful in its own way. The page where Vincent holds his paintbrush like a bow against a violin while his starry night plays in the background as if he’s conducting a celestial orchestra of colours is absolutely beautiful. 

It’s not the most informative book though as the last few pages’ significance was lost on me until I went and read up on Vincent’s last days. Stok closes the book by drawing one of his last paintings - Wheat Field With Crows - which is gorgeous but is important as it’s possible that’s the place he committed suicide, by shooting himself with a gun, a scene we don’t see. 

He wouldn’t die in the field but the bullet would remain lodged inside him as the country doctors weren’t qualified enough to perform surgery and an infection, brought on by the wound, would kill him. Then again, this book doesn’t pretend to be a definitive biography of the artist, but as more of a look at a certain period in his life, through an artistic lens of its own, and chooses to focus on the art and his life, rather than his death. It closes on the landscape he loved, not the drab room he passed away in and that was definitely the right choice. 

Vincent is an enormously enjoyable look at one of the greatest painters of all time, rewarding the reader with glimpses into his life and mind thanks to Barbara Stok’s gifted storytelling. It’s also (importantly for a book on art) one of the most beautiful comics I’ve read all year - an absolutely brilliant graphic novel which I’d recommend to anyone and everyone with an interest in this artist.


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