Love letters to famous artists in popular culture can range from the cringe-worthy to the truly inspired – Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor” could have been regarded as either, for instance, but Barbara Stok’s Vincent fortunately falls far closer to the latter.
Documenting the final days of the eponymous painter, an endearingly simple reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh’s best-known 1889 self-portrait stares out at you surprisingly amiably from the front cover. The style is simple, unadorned, a touch of Microsoft Paint to it – it wouldn’t look out of place in a side-scrolling platform game. As Van Gogh’s own signature attests, however, serving as the title, this basic artwork belies a serious appreciation of the works of the fou roux.
Written and drawn by Stok and translated by Laura Watkinson, the comic opens with Van Gogh leaving his brother Theo in Paris and heading to Provence to paint and recoup. Van Gogh dreams of being a wealthy artist, of starting a whole school of work. We, with the benefit of hindsight, know it will not turn out that way. Stok’s approach to the material is clean, simplistic. There are whole pages without dialogue, just single panels of farmhouses, budding flowers, the details and scenes that Van Gogh documented so vividly.
Van Gogh’s interactions with the provincial Provencians (???) are intriguing, wracked with disappointment and misunderstanding. The main exposition comes in the form of Van Gogh’s own letters to his brother, which cement his portrayal – supported by Theo’s own description of hum – as a profound but also profoundly difficult human being, prone to bad health and bursts of rage, filling the air – as Stok illustrates it – with straggly lines.
The whole thing is strangely understated; the artwork, as I’ve mentioned, couldn’t be more different from Van Gogh’s own textured, layered approach, save for its strong, almost remarkable use of color. Over the course of four panels, we observe Van Gogh in noticing the night sky, in collecting his palate and materials, and in heading out to a field to reproduce it. The result? None other than ‘Starry Night’.
The plot of Vincent is loose, meandering; Vincent himself alone and wandering, through fields and vibrant deliriums, into the madhouse and finally off into the field in which he will take his own life. Stok spares us that indignity, focusing instead of the genius of the man himself: the simple domicile he turned into ‘Bedroom in Arles’, the eponymous ‘Wheatfield with Crows’. Van Gogh’s amputation of his own ear is presented matter-of-factly, almost offhand; the bandage it forces him to wear after is more significant than the act itself.
Stok’s appraisal of Van Gogh’s downfall, as a man too much the genius, may not be particularly new (Don McLean’s song, ‘Vincent’, accorded much the same), but her presentation of the artist as a doomed man moving through landscapes of his own creation is remarkable. At 150 pages, in other hands such a project might have seemed at best a conceit, at worst like pure vanity; in Stok’s, it’s enough to wish that Van Gogh had been shown the same love and appreciation in his own lifetime.