Steven Naifeh is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has a new book out called Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved. He’ll be joining us today to learn about the 2018 movie At Eternity’s Gate.
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Dan LeFebvre 01:52
We’ll talk about some of the details in the movie and a little bit. But before we do that, from an overall perspective, how well do you think the movie did capturing the essence of Vincent Van Gogh’s life?
Steven Naifeh 02:03
Well, that’s a difficult question. Let me see if I can answer directly. It was okay from a sort of representational very similar to perspective. But I’m not sure that’s what it was aiming for. My thinking is that most biopics can only come so close to the reality of a person’s life, that even a book which allows a whole lot more detail. And more intimacy than a film does, can only achieve accuracy in terms of portraying the person’s life to a certain extent. But in a film, it’s even more difficult, I think, but you’re you you know more about this than I do, because you focus on it. And I’m not sure that this movie really even tried to represent Vincent, accurately from it either from a psychological or a biographical standpoint. So I’m not sure that it would be fair to Julian Schnabel who made the film to criticize it for not doing those things, but I’m happy to answer the question, does it? I started wanting to set that up so that any comments I make don’t sound like they’re criticism of him. They’re just an answer to your question. How realistic is it? My overall feeling is the movie is really about Schnabel and not about Van Gogh. Meaning that what he’s trying to convey is the heightened awareness of the visual heaping novel is the heightened awareness of the visual world of the natural world on the part of an artist. So an enormous amount of time in the film, is given over to Vincent walking through nature, literally just walking and walking, and walking, and looking and experiencing. And my feeling, watching I watched you twice now, once for this recording, is that I think Schnabel was really trying to convey to the reader his way of seeing the natural world, and the beauty of it and the intensity of it, rather than specifically tried to convey bancos perception of the natural world. Does that. Does that make sense? Yeah.
Dan LeFebvre 04:22
So early on in the movie, we are introduced to Paul Gauguin. And the impression that I saw from this meeting was Vincent looked up to him, but it doesn’t really explain why can you give a little more historical context around who he was and if he looked up to him?
Steven Naifeh 04:39
First of all, it’s I’m not sure he met him at that point. We’re not quite sure when they met. So it’s a reasonable screen device to have Vincent meet him there in advance of Gauguin going to live with him and in our old Gauguin was a little bit more professionally accomplished than Van Gogh was At that moment, he has sold a little bit. He had a circle of admirers. Gauguin did, especially upon Yvonne on the coast. You know, he had been to Martinique and an artist had gone with him to Martinique. So there’s reason to believe that Vincent would have looked up to him to a certain extent, because he thought of him as slightly more successful and more a part of the artistic community than Vincent himself was. But the differences were not extreme meaning. Gauguin was not tremendously successful at that point. Vincent’s brother Theo is an art dealer, and go cocaine was interested in in Vincent, as were the other artists, to the extent that they were interested in him, because he was a conduit to do. There were very few art dealers in Paris at the time, who were showing the work of the most recent avant garde In fact, even the Impressionists that had very few dealers who were interested in them. And while Vincent was in our oil, about the time that Gauguin went to live with him, Theo had what has become a famous show of Monet and rotacap. It gives you a sense of of how significant Theo was in their world. So what does it really felt towards go again, was the opportunity for making a social connection. In addition to feeling unsuccessful professionally, even more intensely than that. Vincent felt terribly lonely, he had no friends, his psychological problems, which were significant, prevented him from making genuine, easy connections with other people. It helped, as I just said, in Paris, for the two years that he was there, that getting to know Vincent was a way of getting to know Theo. So he was able to make some connections, but they weren’t really good friendships. Early on, he decided to go down was what when Vincent that leaves Paris after two years, and goes to our oil in the south of France, he’s instantly even lonely, because at least in Paris, he had his brother, and he had a few connections, sponsored by his brother, he gets to our oil, and he’s essentially all alone. And he desperately wanted to create what was later known as the Yellow House. He himself called it the Yellow House. And he wanted to invite not just one artists, but many artists come and live and work together there as a kind of monastic community of artists. And there were numerous people that he tried to entice to join this fraternity. But high on the list was go gap. Gauguin showed some interest because he wasn’t selling well enough. And Theo offered him a stipend, if he was willing to go down and live with Vincent. So was there was a kind of professional background to their, to their involvement. It wasn’t so much friendship, the moment in the film where they to meet the two of them meet. Having spent 10 years writing the biography banko the life and thinking about him and reading his letters, you develop a pretty mental image of the person you’re writing about, and the most important people in in that person’s immediate circle. And my mental image of Van Gogh, especially when he’s interacting with people is much more intense than is conveyed in the film, it tends to the point of that it was uncomfortable to be around him. And people talked about the fact that his combination, he had to because of his, what was likely temporal lobe epilepsy, he had a very unfortunate combination of argumentativeness mean he could not have a sustained conversation without immediately arguing with the person he’s talking with. And viscosity. viscosity means wanting to get too close to the person you’re talking to. Meaning wanting to almost adhere to that person in ways that are not that are beyond
Dan LeFebvre 08:56
the normal, like physically too close or like emotionally, emotionally too close, like wanting to
Steven Naifeh 09:01
sort of envelop that person in your life immediately. No sexual or romantic standpoint, but just from intensity of social interaction. You can imagine the combination of this person wanting to get too close to you, and wanting to argue with you all the time. It’s among the reasons why he had a very difficult time making any friends, including man sustaining the relationship with veal, even it was impossible for you to live with him there in Paris. And by the same token, go camp comes across as a kind of sort of smug, arrogant, suave, but slightly creepy guy. You know, he prided himself on not only his way with Wuhan, which was real, but you know, having fostered a lot of illegitimate children and making all this Mark musement this is amusing is that go down was very short. So he was this sort of very short. Well Theriault who dressed in weird ways. He’s sort of dressed with out in slightly outlandish ways. And there was, as I said, a kind of smugness to him. In the meeting in the movie, you don’t get any sense of that go against seems perfectly sort of normal, whatever that means. And Van Gogh seems more normal than he really was. I mean, I think the the confrontation would have been more intense. And we don’t really know that they actually met in person until Gauguin shows up in our oil. And we know that that’s almost from the second thing met in our oil. Gauguin was planning to leave. And he could not handle being with Vincent, immediately which writing his friends and parents saying, I gotta get out of here. So that gives you a sense of the relationship between the two of them, which is not insignificant because it was the other than Theo, the only person that Van Gogh lived with in the last few years of his life.
Dan LeFebvre 10:57
Well, you mentioned Theo, and I wanted to ask you about something that the movie shows about him. It shows that when Vincent leaves Paris and goes to the Yellow House that you mentioned, as well, that Theo is sending 250 francs a month to pay for his expenses did to actually pay for Vincent’s expenses? Yes, he
Steven Naifeh 11:17
did, although, as I recall, the number was 150 francs. And those are the kinds of differences who cares, you know, but he was not only paying Benson 150 but he was paying coca 150 while Gauguin was there, which was one of the reasons why kokand thought this was a reasonable thing. All of this money was supposedly against sales. I mean, he was supposedly it was an advance from Theo. But the only been paying this 150 francs for a very long time. I mean, for years and years, in addition to sending him materials. And vanko never sold anything. He sold one painting that we know of during that entire period. Whereas Gauguin started, the minute he moved to our oil field, sold a major painting of his and then began to sell, not an enormous number. But he began to sell regulate. So the financial transaction with Gauguin was successful. This financial transaction with his brother Vincent, was just a way of supporting him, because there was no sense that he was going to be able to sell any events. That’s where
Dan LeFebvre 12:19
I also want to ask you some something that you had touched on, because throughout the movie, we do see Vincent walking in nature a lot, you know, he’s carrying his supplies around, he doesn’t really seem to be trying to find a job. He I think at one point he talks about, like menacing spirit threatening him and going out in nature and painting helps him calm down. So my interpretation was that Van Gogh’s motivations for painting was not about the money, but rather to kind of calm his inner demons. Is that a fair assessment of his motivations?
Steven Naifeh 12:52
I think that it did calm him down. But in terms of motivation, he saw himself as a professional artists. So I think it would be problematic to suggest that he was not doing this, essentially, for the standard reasons that professional artists wants to do it, which is, first and foremost, to make things that can be sold. And as you can see, since he only sold one painting, it was in not just frustrating, but incredibly humbling and humiliating event and one of the problems with Gauguin was that the fact that Gauguin was selling and that Theo of all people was selling Gauguin’s work. And Thea, who could be a little bit unkind, was selling was sending Gauguin letters saying, oh, everybody in Paris loves your work. I’m getting in addition to the sales I’ve already made, I’ve got lots of people are interested. And there’s poor Benson, with nothing like that from his own brother, Theo. So, I do think that when he was painting, especially, it did calm him down. In fact, there was a it was a Dutch Protestant thing that work made you helped alleviate the anxieties and the and the terrors of life, and his own mother admonished her kids there were there were six kids in the family. And her one of her principal lessons to all of her children. Was that, you know, work hard, work hard. Well, we’ll get you through the day. Hard work? Well, I think it is certainly true that Vincent who was very unhappy, and very lonely, and and also psychologically troubled, was least troubled when he was intensely engaged in the act of painting.
Dan LeFebvre 14:45
And that was something that came through as I was watching the movie that that the act of painting helped him mentally.
Steven Naifeh 14:53
I think the movie caught that very well. There was a couple of moments that were very nice when he arrives in not In the Yellow House put in the place. He first lived in Oro, and he takes his shoes off and puts them on the floor and arranges them a little bit and then makes a painting of them. I thought Schnabel really caught that very nicely. The painting wasn’t didn’t look much like Vincent, which is neither here nor there. But the act of seeing the shoes and imagining the painting. And it was also very beautifully filmed, as is most of the film. So I think Chavo caught that particularly well.
Dan LeFebvre 15:29
There’s a scene in the movie where Vincent starts naming off some of the painters that he likes. France Hall’s Goya, Velazquez, Veronese and Dale acquire the ones that are mentioned specifically in the movie. Was the movie correct to suggest that Van Gogh’s style was inspired by those other painters?
Steven Naifeh 15:47
Yes, and in fact, I’ve just written a book about Van Gogh and, and the artists who inspired him straightforwardly called Van Gogh, and the Archie lug, and virtually all artists are inspired by other artists. I mean, it’s really hard not to be but Van Gogh? Well, first of all, he had a wonderful way one of the many things about him that’s so lovely. And so ennobling is that he, he wants told do, people should love more artists more, because he wasn’t cranky about his selection of artists he liked artists have many different styles have many different ability abilities. And added to that he had a near photographic memory. So that in an era when, you know, especially unless you lived in a big city, yes, he did, quite often his life. But in the last two years of his life, when he did most of the paintings that we know best, most of those masterpiece pieces were painted in the last two years of his life. And in those two years, I had no access to museums. We live in such a visual world where we not only have color, you know, art books, we have on our phones, the entire history of art, on our phone at any time in color. Vincent didn’t have that, despite that, every time he went to a museum, he just drank in the painting the light, and he could remember them in my new detail later. And because he loved us so much, so many artists, for so many reasons. That process was constantly informing his art, and I think is one of the things that you know, because he had psychological problems. And because he was, he had all kinds of psychological problems, probably the epilepsy being the dominant one, but he was manic depressive, and he was drinking something called the absent which we had a psychotic, which was a drug and not just a form of alcohol. And he drank too much. He was, and and, and his childhood have been terrible. there was all kinds of PTSD throughout his life. We have this image of him as being crazy, which in some ways, he was mean the family almost committed into an insane asylum until he fought it and made it impossible. At the same time, he was an incredibly thoughtful, alert, coherent painter, who fully understood the culture out of which he came, and the art forms out of which he came when he did have psychotic episodes, but he never painted during those episodes, he sort of like Jackson Pollock, the other artists that Greg Smith and I wrote about who was a terawatt coholic. But he didn’t paint when he was drunk. And in Vincent’s case, he didn’t paint when he was in a psychotic episode.
Steven Naifeh 18:42
And he did when he was painting, have the benefit of his knowledge of all the art that came before him. So that, for example, we think of him as a revolutionary artist, which he was, he took things he sort of took things further than other artists had. But other artists have been moving in that same direction before he got there. For example, He loved what it’s called the law of simultaneous contrast, which is where you get an intensity of color by contrasting opposites on the color wheel, red and green, blue and yellow. That comes out in Delica. Let me tell you that it comes out at color theorists, but dellacroix made it one of the sort of principal forces in his painting. This bright, the brushwork is thick brushwork that we know him. we seen in Van Gogh’s paintings that there was an artist named Monicelli, whom Vincent and Theo were very admired enormously and bought several modern Chinese paintings and Monicelli decades earlier, painted with incredibly thick paint. Some of the sort of recent styles in Paris pointillism what Georgia rock was known for, of ease of recreating the visual world with tiny little dots of pure color, rather than mixing them together. So the eye takes them in and resolves them. You In the mind, it’s a way of creating a sense of light that Surat, and the other panelists were a luminosity that the Surat and the other artists, panelists were trying to create Van Gogh. He not only painted finalise paintings while he was in, in Paris, but there were plantlets details, even in the paintings that he did thereafter. He also was a great lover of prints, and especially black and white and gradings. From that, that he knew in England and he collected thereafter, and a lot of this brushwork was sort of directional brushstrokes come directly out of those prints. That’s a, that’s a long way of saying that he was very much aware of the artists who came before him. And all that awareness, significantly influenced and enriched the art that he made himself.
Dan LeFebvre 20:49
If we go back to the movie, after Gauguin leaves, he’s got returning to Paris. The movie shows that Vincent admits that the two had some fights, but he’s not really sure if he hurt Paul at all. But then he says he took a razor cut off his ear, and then gives it to a girl at the bar, assuming that she’s going to then give it to Gauguin as a way of apologizing to him. Of course, she gets this blood here and calls the police. How well did the movie do showing how Vincent’s ear was cut off?
Steven Naifeh 21:23
Well, I thought it was an interesting choice on Shabazz part not to actually film The incident itself. And I don’t know that that was, I can’t imagine it was done for financial reasons. I mean, it would have been more expensive to film that. So I think he just wasn’t, I think my guess purely a guess is that he was afraid that he would overwhelm the film, if you if you left the film, and the dominant image in your mind was this incredibly bloody, terrible incident. That’s my guess he didn’t want that to overwhelm the sort of poetic message he was creating. But in terms of what happened with the year, I think it’s dead on I think snoball got that exactly right. And what’s important there is that the literature is not an absolutely consistent on what happened at that point. Because there were there were people, art historians, especially but historians who wanted to believe that he gave it to the prostitute as a romantic sort of crazed, romantic gesture. And in fact, the prostitute he gave it to was not the girl that he saw on that Bravo. It was the girl that go gas on that problem. So it was to give, he did go there to give the ear to the separate here to this girl to give to go Yeah, and Greg Smith, and I definitely believe that it was that this incident was about to go again, and not about some girl in the problem. It happened at Christmas, Christmas was it was always a difficult time for Vincent. Because he was yet again away from his family. And Christmas was absolutely the central event in the in the year of his father who was a pastor, he was a preacher. And Christmas was extremely important. And it was the symbol of family and all of a sudden he was he wasn’t welcome in the family home. So he was already Christmas was already a troublesome time for him. And then that Christmas with that go again threatening to leave. It was was terrified him that that again, again, he was going to be all alone. And we think that some combination of those problems triggered one of the psychotic episodes he may not have painted during a psychotic episode. But he did cut off his ear pretty if we weren’t there. But it’s pretty clear he was in the middle of a psychotic episode when he did it. And it was triggered in part by Gauguin’s departure.
Dan LeFebvre 23:49
That almost answers the next question that I had, because the next question I have for you actually is from my best friend, she’s passionate about art history. So she’s told me about some of the controversies surrounding these fights between Van Gogh and Gauguin that are really only briefly mentioned in the movie. And one of those being the possibility that Gauguin was the one who cut off Van Gogh’s ear and Van Gogh was then covering for him. What do we know about the circumstances around how Gauguin left Van Gogh and the possibility that he might have been the one that cut off and goes here?
Steven Naifeh 24:21
One of the problems with Van Gogh is that there is no other artists who attracts the amount of attention that Van Gogh does. I don’t think that’s a even a marginally outrageous statement. I mean, we don’t have millions and millions and millions of people are going to these immersive experiences all over the place. You know, there’s these are so popular sometimes to have them in a single city. And there are people spending, you know, 4050 $100 to go participate in Van Gogh’s world for a short period of time. So anything that happens to Vincent is front page news practically. So, we knew this because Greg and I decided that we don’t need to Go into that here, although it’s actually relevant to this, if you want to later we’ll go into it. Our deep analysis of the research materials indicated that Van Gogh did not shoot himself that he was shot by two boys. And that was World News. I mean, there were like 150,000 articles of one kind or another when that happened. So a lot of other people have said some newsmaking things about Vince’s life that may or may not be accurate. Let me give you an example that you’re sort of pointing towards and that is, there were two historians who said that Van Gogh that suggested that the ear was severed in essentially a swordfight and the fact is go gap was a fencer, but it was in the middle of the night in the dark in a street with a fencing foil not with a sword but with the fencing foil that thing go that go gang could have sliced off Vincent’s here seems or that he would seems really ridiculous. So yeah, I guess I’m just use the word ridiculous. I don’t think there’s any any merit to that claim at all.
Dan LeFebvre 26:12
One thing we see in the movie after he cuts off his ear, Vincent goes to the asylum, sand roommate, and that’s on the advice of somebody named Dr. Felix Ray. The movie doesn’t really give any sense of a timeline, but it doesn’t seem to be very long before we see him leaving the asylum. And then while he’s on the road to our oil, he comes there’s a woman tending a flock of sheep. He asked her to pose for him to draw, she agrees, but he kind of moves around. She doesn’t pose the way she likes, and then she struggles against him says she doesn’t want him touching her. So then we find that the people of ARL have a petition signed against him returning. It seems kind of vague about how all of that has happened. Can you fill in some details from history on that?
Steven Naifeh 26:56
The timeline there is completely jumbled meaning that in the film, it suggests that Theo comes down to visit vengo vengo Vincent before the or incident it also indicates that the incident happens after he’s in the in at least some asylum some mental institution when in fact of course it was the incident that sent him into the into the first an asylum in ARL and then eventually the asylum in Samara me. He was in Samara me for about, if I remember correctly, about nine months. And he does go back to our oil he gets his request for a leave of absence is granted to go back in his in Vincent’s mind to see Madame she knew who is a character in the film. But she never saw him. And he was appears to have been either an EBE rated or in some sort of psychological distress. And he took her a gift of a painting, and he lost the painting. And the end of the back, ended up back in the institution. So the timeline there, and the activities that you just described are jumbled in the film. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A screenwriter has the right to change the ordering of things to get dressed, man, if he knew that was something that did seem, first of all the girl on the on the way that he asked to pose for him. We don’t know that incident. But there were times, especially earlier in his painting career, where Van Gogh tried to get villagers to pose form, he usually had to pay them because he was considered as crazy man. Literally, that was the word they use. And so they didn’t want to get much to do with them any and I think now we’ve got from our book, the fact that he poked and prodded these people in ways that was uncomfortable. So the the incident with this girl on the road, didn’t happen, at least we don’t know that it happened. But the circumstances of it are not entirely unrealistic, much more unrealistic, because we know the details are the association with management MC knew back in ARL where she offers First of all, she seems very nice. Again, she may have been nice to a lot of people. But she was she found Benson off putting and stiff arm Jim at every opportunity. So the place where he, where she offer asked him to paint her. And then he sort of shows disinterest seems to be the exact opposite of the situation, meaning he wanted desperately to painter and she had no interest in doing it. And in fact, it was only when Gauguin comes to RL and the the movie does kick it does show this somewhat, only after Gauguin’s there and and allows Gauguin to paint her. Vincent in the film he comes into the room and starts painting or to in reality, the two of them were sitting there, met him she knew is looking at that gap. She’s not looking at Vincent and freako camp because he worked much more slowly. Did a drawing which Vincent then used as the basis for five paintings. So it was an important incident, but the movie doesn’t quite indicate the extent to which she knew. And like almost other people found, go gas somebody they could interact with comfortably and didn’t find this and somebody they could interact with comfortably.
Dan LeFebvre 30:20
That’s that’s a trick. Yeah, they show that that Vincent paints a lot faster. Then again,
Steven Naifeh 30:27
he did two paintings of her seated seated at the table in the film, one of them is in the Orsay and in Paris, and the better of the two is at the Metropolitan New York, and Van Gogh, whichever came first. I think it was the one that said the Metropolitan, he painted in something like 45 minutes. And you’re quite proud of the fact that he worked that quickly. And just imagine this masterpiece of the man’s, one of the most popular paintings in that institution was dashed off in 45 minutes by our genius here.
Dan LeFebvre 30:57
He really puts it in perspective for sure. If we go back to the movie, the way it shows it says he’s not welcome in oral anymore. And not wanting to stay in a big city like Paris. Theo then sets up for his brother to stay at an inn at reverser was. And that’s where Dr. Pol cache can help him. And so that’s when we see in the movie. The next shot is is Vincent painting. Dr. caches? Was that really how Vinson ended up there and meeting cache?
Steven Naifeh 31:26
Yes. What happened is that geshay was a weird guy affected. There’s a wonderful sentence from Vincent one of his letters to Theo saying, saying, I think he’s as crazy as I am. And he was not far off. He was a homeopath. He wasn’t really a medical doctor, as we think of it. But he was himself an artist of sorts and was a printmaker. And in fact, you can go to his house so anybody listening to this should go to overige because it’s really very touching. You can see his grave or he’s very next to do. You can see the room at the end where he died. You can see the wheat fields you can see the church he painted, you can see the town hall he painted and you can go to caches house, which is also open to the public. And you can see the table where he put the painting was made and you can go upstairs in the house and see that the printing press where Van Gogh made an etching of cache under caches, tutelage. geshay, being an artist, had a whole following of artists. I can’t remember the full list but I think my may had seen him and I think Pizarro had seen him. And there were a number of artists living in, you know, there, St. JOHN had lived there. Bizarro visited doby, he had a sequence of houses there. And Cairo and dome, a visited Joby knee there so he was an artist community. God pray the barbershop painter lived in a town it’s only a couple of miles away. So when Theo actually this is more detailed than the movie was able to get into Theo went to Bizarro who is desperate for money, they bizarre, the great impressionists, and whose wife was a bit of a shrew and was constantly screaming at him for not making any money. And there’s a terrible, terrible incident in Pizarro, his letters where he goes to Paris in the in the middle of winter and to borrow a few francs and he couldn’t get anybody to loan him any money and that’s given those financial circumstances, FeO asked Pizarro to take Benson in and Mrs. Pizarro who was tough and sensible set on No, I don’t care how poor we are. We’re not really that crazy guy. So Pizarro came up with the idea of having him go over there, where, where Gosh, Shay could watch over Vincent. But as I said earlier, Vincent was so different difficult to be around this combination of viscosity and argumentativeness that then began to fight almost immediately. And so this what Theo hoped for, which was that got Shea would watch over Vincent, and almost immediately, but Vincent was only there for 70 days, so he wasn’t there for a very long time because he died after a little over two months.
Dan LeFebvre 34:17
You alluded to that earlier and near the end of the movie, we see Vincent with a gunshot wound in his stomach. We do see some flashbacks and voiceover Vincent says that he was dressed like Buffalo Bills. We see two boys one of them is a pistol coming up to Vincent but the movie also doesn’t really count like with with the ear incidents it we don’t see anything actually happening. You know, we see the boys there we see hear the sound of a gunshot. But then later on, we see Dr. geshay asking Vinson if he shot himself, and he says maybe I don’t remember. Don’t blame anyone. And then you do comes but at that point, there’s nothing to be done. So, in your opinion, does the movie accurately reflect how you Vincent van Gogh died.
Steven Naifeh 35:02
I’ve never met a novel so I can’t ask this. But I do know that Willem Dafoe read our book and there’s no way that Chabal didn’t, I’d be stunned that he didn’t. And I think he took that whole account from our book, which is flattering, and I’m delighted that he did. In fact, the movie loving Vincent, which is all about the death is also pretty clearly based. In fact, the right the makers of that film contacted us before they made that film about accessing the book and Greg died soon thereafter. So nothing came with that. But Greg died before you can see this novel film. I’ve now seen it twice. I think it’s an extremely accurate account of the end. I’ll give you the three minute version, which is that there were too many unclear things about Vincent di, why would he go out and paint the day that he was going to kill himself what happened to the easel and to the paints, which in the movie, Schnabel has them burying them in the farmyard. These two boys clearly got rid of the easel and the paints was somebody had to do it because otherwise they would have been found. Also, the the indications from within the community were that the gunshots took place in a farm yard along the river and not way up on the, in the wheat fields above the town, which was part of the original assumption about how he died. And it never seemed real that with a bullet hole hole in his belly, that he could walk that far down the escarpment to get back to the end, it would be much easier on level ground to walk from the farmyard to the end. Also, you know, if what happened to the gun? Where would Vincent have gotten the gun? They were very rare in in rural France at the time, or even in France generally at the time. Where do you get the gun? And as we’re sort of asking those questions with me, were not the first people to find this. somewhat uncomfortable. The facts didn’t sort of add up. We found two things. One was an indication from from john Greenwald, the great art historian who was in France studying in the Sorbonne, before World War Two, he had to leave because he was Jewish, and the Nazis were raging. But he was there early enough that he would go to over there. He was studying Satan in particular, and Cesaro had been there. He would he met all the villagers mind you this was in the 1930s. Vincent died in 1890. So there were lots of people in there who had been alive when Vincent was there. And when Vincent died, and rewald told everybody that he met that the villagers of obear said that Vincent didn’t shoot himself that he was killed by two bullies. So we have that in our minds. And then there’s an interview with a guy named Rene secretaria. Made in 1957, I believe it was 56 or 57, in which he’s asked about this crazy painter that he and his brother guessed on knew, when they were boys, teenagers living in over there, where their father other rich creations, submerge. And he admits that the gun was their gun, and that he and his brother tortured Vincent, they put red hot pepper on his paint brushes, because he used to chew his paint brushes, they put salt in his coffee, they would take him to cafes and get him drunk. They tried to they put a snake in his in his paint box. And interestingly, and this is where it comes from in the movie. That summer, there had been a big fear of the big fare in Paris, that it just happened. The biggest draw was Buffalo Bill. And they sold Buffalo Bill costumes. And Renee who was I think 15 at the time had one of these costumes. Another person who bought the costume at that fair, this is very amusing was Paul Gauguin. And when Paul Gauguin comes off the boat in Tahiti years later, he’s wearing his Buffalo Bill costume. Just imagine that image for a moment. Anyway. And he’s so he, they he doesn’t, they were they were quite successful. gastone became a singer and cabaret artists. But Rene became one of the great sharpshooters in France, and was a banker and quite wealthy. And he doesn’t admit to shooting Vincent. It was it would have been he wasn’t going to commit. But it seemed to me very unlikely, he would admit, admit in an article that he had committed a murder in a way that would still could still have been prosecuted at that point. But you have the rumors in the town, that these two boys are the two boys that shot him, then you find out that they knew Benson and knew him pretty well, and that it was they’re gone, and that they were torturing him. So what it would explain the comment at the at the end that you mentioned earlier, which is when asked by geshay or I think it was a policeman who actually asked the question, did you shoot yourself and he says I think so don’t blame anybody else, which is a very weird thing to say. I should tell you that really this is not an art historical question. It’s a forensic question. It’s for criminal experts. And we show the material to quite a few forensic experts, including the leading American forensic expert on the issue of handguns used to either for suicide or for murder, his name was to Mayo, would go into crime scenes, and it specifically where there was some confusion as to whether a handgun had been used by the victim
Steven Naifeh 40:40
to kill himself, or whether it had been used by someone else in what was essentially a murder. And he looked at the material and so there was no question that Vincent had not shot himself having to do with, first of all, the way he could have had, it would have been very hard to hold his gun. And to shoot himself in the in the in the stomach, it was just it would require a kind of gymnastics with the gun, that would have been very unlikely. The dimaio mentioned that they’re there, the first thing that the doctors would have noticed about the entry road, and geshay did inspect the wound would have been that event Vincent headshot himself, the whole area around the wound would have been singed, because it would have it would have burned him in because they didn’t have smokeless powder at the time. And if he’d been shot at that proximity, at that close to himself, it would have cinched the whole area around the wound. And it would be in the first thing the doctors would have mentioned in their description of the wound, and there was no such mentioned so because the Suicide is such a big part of the story as related by Irving stone, both in his novel in the 1930s. And then in the film, with Kirk Douglas in 1956. Watch for life. Yeah, and because it’s been in the meat, it’s been in books. Ever since then you have the phrase when Vincent shot himself has been written and published show many times. It’s been, there are people who said, what we wrote was pretty clear. But there have been a lot of people, especially in the field, who don’t want to give up the under the accepted version of the death. So it was gratifying to see snoball except our version of the death so completely, and to film it so nicely. And in the movie we’re talking about.
Dan LeFebvre 42:34
So it’s mostly that because Vincent had said not to blame anybody else for it. And that he was, I think he said, I think so was that is that mostly Why? The police didn’t investigate further?
Steven Naifeh 42:47
Yes. And the end the people around Vincent didn’t assumed he’d done it. I mean, he didn’t. He didn’t describe the either. Theo didn’t press him for the details when he finally got there. Or Vincent, just in line with not wanting to blame anyone. No one really questioned it, you know, they’ve criminal he was dying. He was in great agony. He was a great pain. People were running around trying to get to there early enough to be there with Vincent before he died, which he and you had to get on a train and get word that word telephones, yeah, to get their word back to Paris, do it get on the train yet come to the end. By the time you got there, Vincent was in terrible shape, they could barely change a few words. And so they accepted this idea that he had done it himself, and didn’t press it. And then only a couple of people thought this but the word started spreading from one person to another. So a lot of the people who believe that Vincent shot himself will say, well, so and so thought he shot himself and this other person probably shot himself. And they’ll give a list of seven or eight people will they all heard it from the same person. You know, so it really was only one source. And that person didn’t press Vincent on it. One of the greats in my feeling and I think the maybe the movies suggest this is, you know, people light, the crown of thorns aspect of him killing himself at the end, meaning it was a sort of a part of this romantic arc to Vincent’s life, that he finally couldn’t take it anymore. And he shot himself. Great. And I always thought, first of all, one of the great, noble aspects of Vincent’s life is that he persisted in the face of all this misery, you know, the bravery of just not only pushing off, but of creating this vast body of extraordinary work, one of the great groups of paintings ever done is certainly in that kind of timeframe. In the in the face of all that misery is really that that’s much nobler than the sort of romantic story of him of a crazy artist killing himself at the end. And it was part of instance, one of his other most attractive qualities was this sort of generosity. Spirit. We talked earlier about Vincent leaving Paris after two years. It was an enormous act of self sacrifice to leave. And he left mostly because he understood that Theo who was sitting as much, who was ill to what’s being, damn, he could see that his brother was being damaged by living with him and being so difficult. So the really there are many people that people have tried to figure out what had been said, finally, he spent his whole adult life wanting to live with you, he finally gets to parents lives with you. And he just gets up and leaves town. And Greg and I believe that the principal reason and there are indications in the letters that support this, that he left because he knew that being there any longer with me, will and Theo did die, six months after Vincent did it, and even younger age in an insane asylum. So Thea was ill. But it still was an act of self sacrifice, to take off and leave. And that’s of a peace with not wanting these two boys who were teenagers to have their lives ruined, especially if they didn’t murder. I mean, Greg and I don’t think and I don’t think the movie suggests that there was an out now murder. I mean, basically, Renee was wearing this Buffalo Bill costume. They had borrowed the gun from the innkeeper, that’s where they got the gun, and it didn’t really work terribly well. And they were playing cowboy and Indian all summer. And so they got into a scuffle. This is the likely explanation got they got into a scuffle with Vincent, the gun went off and Vincent dies. And in the clarity of his last hours, it seems an act of incredibly noble act to decide. This has already happened, you know, in some ways it he may have even welcomed it on a certain level, you know, now I don’t have to be miserable any longer. And why ruin these two boys lives? unnecessarily it’s not going to get it’s not going to bring me back to hell. That would be an even nobler and Mr. Wonderful and defenseless life than this sort of Leicester life histrionics?
Dan LeFebvre 47:05
Yeah, no, it makes sense based on what you’re talking about earlier if you know if he was difficult to be around and everybody that was around him, knew about his mental instabilities that they would just believe that Oh, he decided to kill himself and they wouldn’t really question
Steven Naifeh 47:24
everybody in town knew they had been an insane asylum and because of the sheer incident in his marriage missing so people knew that he and also as I said earlier you know his behavior was odd you know he was he was intense and way beyond he almost should people would describe it almost shaking with intensity and so the everybody knew he was crazy. So this crazy and they call them some of them and he was cause he was constantly being mistreated by young young boys some of whom in French call them the food of the food route, which is French for crazy redhead. Yeah, so the the he was actually called crazy by the townspeople who wanted nothing to do with them. So the fact that he died of a gunshot wound Yeah, it seems in the absence of another explanation, but interestingly over time, the town came to the opinion through whatever information we don’t know how the opinion developed but by its by the 1930s it was pretty well assumed that he had not shot himself as I said earlier that the that bullies in the rumors unnamed, but it had to be the two secretaries voice and so it was their gun and they were the right age and they knew him. And Greg This is quite wonderful. Greg found a drawing of Rene in the Buffalo Bill costume by Van Gogh in the in the collection of the of the Louvre so we you know, there’s this was actually a drawing of Rene by Vincent, it’s dashed off but it’s charming. It’s in our it’s in the biography so you can you can see the drawing.
Dan LeFebvre 49:04
As the movie comes to a close we see Vincent’s body surrounded by his paintings in Theo’s gallery, and people start coming in and I got the impression that it wasn’t long after Vincent’s death that his paintings finally started to sell. How long did it actually take before people started to appreciate his work?
Steven Naifeh 49:23
This is one of the sort of sadnesses and it also runs counter to the murder theory. He was becoming famous even before he died, meaning that in January, he died in July. In January, there was a big article by a man who became quite famous, named RCA, about Benson in which he calls him the greatest living painter in a journal in Paris. And it was a very long article, it’s it’s hard to read it’s, it’s it’s very much of its period, but he unmistakably says Vincent is the most interesting painter out there. So people were reading this And then Bo contributed several of Vincent’s paintings to a group show. And a lot of people were taking notice. And then, just before he died, his paintings were shown at a very important exhibition of contemporary art in Brussels. And among the artists who noticed them and said this is this is something very interesting is happening here were Claude Monet, and the Belgian panelists, a very important painter named Teo, Ben reisel, bear. And Toulouse slow track who had known Vincent very slightly in Paris, also began to look at the paintings at that moment and admire them enormously. So even before Vincent dies, people as important as to lucilla Trek and Monet are beginning to see that this these are not the ravings of an insane person. These are very important paintings. And then, shortly after his death, this, the new book that that’s coming out in November, has a wonderful afterward by Andrew ma of the Royal Academy in London in which he traces what we’re now talking about, which is his quick rise to fame after he died. And the heroine of the story was Theo’s widow, when pheo dies, his widow, you’re no longer translated all Van Gogh’s letters into English. And she managed the sales of his work and the loans of his works to exhibitions that very cleverly, and astutely and brilliantly even managed his quick rise to fame after he died.
Dan LeFebvre 51:32
I mean, that would make perfect sense then why, I mean, if he’s finally starting to get some of this acclaim, even before he died, then yeah, why would he? Why would he kill himself at that point?
Steven Naifeh 51:43
Why would he kill himself, if people were already thinking he was complicated, he went already a call him the world’s greatest painter, if he didn’t really know how to even assimilate. You know, he’s just, he’s in an insane asylum in the south of France, and nobody bothering to visit him. And he’s reading this thing and thinking of me, and he was also very proud of it. And he started writing letters to everybody he knew saying, you might want to take a look at our article to talk about and, and he was terribly proud that people like Monet were looking at his work and taking it seriously. You know, it was, it was, in some ways, the best moment in his life, you’re quite right, one of the reasons why it was so Why kill himself now. And also the other day, I’ve talked to psychiatrists about this. He talked about suicide, with some frequency throughout his life, but he never, you know, he never did it. And, you know, the people who actually do kill themselves, I want to talk about it a lot, that people will go out and do it. And I don’t want to distort the trajectory of our conversation. But like two days before the incident where he died, two days before the gunshot wound, he said, feel a long list of materials that he needed paints and canvases. So he was not in an end stage cycle. He was not, he was not thinking about death in those last few days, he was thinking about, and he was also incredibly productive. He was making a painting every single day, you know, you’re not terribly depressed, if you’re getting up every morning. And many of those paintings are masterpieces. I mean, the world’s greatest museums are filled with the paintings he made in his last 70 days. So it was not a period of depression, it was a period of understanding that he was beginning to be seen and understood. And therefore sales might happen, and feel and his wife and child are only living a 30 minute train ride away. He’s no longer in an insane asylum. You life was difficult, but it was actually pretty good there at the end. And God knows all of us are the beneficiaries, because we, you know, we see these paintings like that, I can go through the list, but a lot of the most famous paintings were done there at the end. But one of the sad and sadness things about him dying at this young age, is that he was moving towards abstraction. There’s a landscape at the National Gallery in Washington from this period, that’s all green, and white, and yellow, and just a swirling brushstrokes. And you can see that it’s a landscape, but it’s it’s moving in the direction of complete abstraction. And some of the drawings he did, you know, there because in addition to the 70 paintings, he did a lot of drawings are stunningly abstract. So, you know, given that he only painted for 10 years, that almost all the paintings we know, well, were done in the last four years. And that all most of the major masterpieces were done in the last two years. Imagine he painted two more years, five more years or 10 more years. What would they what would the paintings have looked like? I think the they would have been even more audacious than they were, and the quantity would have been overwhelming. If he could paint all those paintings that we know in two years, imagine what he would have been able to do in 10 more years. So there’s, there’s plenty of sadness in having his life cut short that way.
Dan LeFebvre 55:05
It sounds like that increased productivity is also another clue that he didn’t kill himself because like you were saying he never painted when he was in one of those states. And so
Steven Naifeh 55:17
exactly, it was not good point. One of the points we actually make in the biography is, if he chose himself, you’re probably like the year incident, like cutting off his ear, and probably would have happened in a psychotic episode. He was out painting, he had this, he’s only in his paints, and he was doing, he was working, he was not in a psychotic episode.
Dan LeFebvre 55:36
There is a bit of text at the very end of the movie that ties into something we see earlier in the movie happens when Vincent asks Dr. Ray to return some items to Madame monster, you know, along with a book of his drawings as a gift. And in this, we see this ledger and then at the very end, that there’s some text that says there were 65 drawings inside, and they weren’t discovered until 126 years later in 2016. Is that true?
Steven Naifeh 56:05
Well, this is a place where lawyers might get involved. But let me let me be really careful what I say here. notebook. A ledger did emerge in the last five or seven years. And I don’t know how I think it is accepted that meningie new gave him a blank ledger to work on. Let me just say that the, that the drawings in that ledger are not entirely accepted by all the the authorities on Van Gogh. And I invite anybody who knows Van Gogh at all, to take a look at those drawings, and decide for themselves within think Vincent made those drawings.
Dan LeFebvre 56:50
I could, when I saw that I was like, I could only imagine that discovery. If, you know if it was real, you know, what, what sort of discovery that would be to find anything like that, I believe,
Steven Naifeh 57:03
a lot of attention. And although not as much attention, as I think it would have gotten if there had been consensus about the authenticity of Banco is the person who created those drawings, that there really
Dan LeFebvre 57:19
wasn’t since a lot of people use movies as a way of understanding history. I want to ask you, what’s something about Van Gogh that most people wouldn’t know if they just watched this movie and stopped there and they didn’t dig any deeper,
Steven Naifeh 57:33
I think the visual sophistication and the and the intellectual sophistication, the artistic sophistication of Van Gogh, because the paintings are so raw, you know, the color is so bright, and it was seen as a lot brighter back then, you know, we’ve seen Warhol, Jeff Koons in the interim, not to mention industrial, you know, commercial advertising. Those that the that intense palette seemed shockingly intense to the people back in 1888 8090. And the brushwork is so immediate. And it’s done with such vigor. That people I think people who who haven’t read the letters, and don’t know him intensely as, as a person, as a thinker, will be shocked to understand what an intellect, intellectual he was, and what a knowledgeable person he was. And this new book that is coming out in November, not only do I pair paintings by Van Gogh with paintings by other people, many of which he knew. And you can you see the complex artistic associations between their work and his, without even having to read anything, you can see his mind working through what the artists before him had done in a very sophisticated artistic way. But the other thing that I was able to do in the book, is to have quotes from Vincent, about those paintings or about those artists. And, my God, if you haven’t read the letters, I mean, he would have been important, even if he had never painted anything, because the letters are so brilliant, and so that erudite and so dazzling in his knowledge that he had this encyclopedia, this photographic memory for art, he had photographic memory for poetry and for for literature. He could remember wide swathes of German romantic poetry for once he’d read it. He could read in not only in Dutch, and in French, but in English and German, and he spent about five hours of everyday reading. He would find an author and like what they had written and read everything they wrote. Then he would read it again later in life. So he read Shakespeare, all of it multiple times. The French naturalist is Lola and Balzac. He read over and over and over again, in things you wouldn’t expect. He loved Dickens. He also loved Harriet Beecher Stowe, one of his favorite novels was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which he read every Christmas. So one of the things that’s so exciting about Van Gogh is that he’s talking about everybody. He is liked by everybody in every country, he’s loved by everybody of every age range. In five year olds love him. 90 year olds love him, you know, people who rarely ever go into a museum. Think of the millions of people go in these immersive exhibitions who may or may not ever gone to an art museum to actually see the real paintings. He’s loved by people who may never see one in the flesh. And these looked like I have never met an art historian who did not like Van Gogh’s work, the consensus is complete. I mean, there is not an art historian can be wrong. But I don’t I’ve never met an artist trained who didn’t admire if you didn’t just enjoy Van Gogh’s work, but admired it as one of the great creative enterprises in the entire history of art. One of the reasons is that, Ron, that that sort of authenticity, which helps explain why you so appealing to people who you might not like other great artists, and by every, you know, museum curator and art historian who spends their whole life looking at art, is that in addition to the authenticity is this unbelievable sophistication? So to your question, that’s the one thing that I think not everybody might know about this.
Dan LeFebvre 1:01:35
Since since he was so into literature and poetry, and obviously he wrote a lot to Theo and letters. Did he ever try to get into literature or poetry or write anything like that?
Steven Naifeh 1:01:47
No. And in fact, one of the things that Greg, my co author and and life partner discerned in Greg spent three years reading those letters, like a Talmudic scholar reading the Bible. I mean, he read them incredibly intensely and carefully. And one of the points that Greg made was, you have to understand these were not written for posterity, he had no idea that anybody would ever read these letters. He wrote them for Theo. So they’re very manipulative. You know, they’re they’re constantly asking, we talked earlier about the fact that Theo was supporting him. Well, Spencer was always coming up with reasons why they should at least advance him some money, or should increase the amount of money he was giving him. There, these long arguments, they can sometimes cover several pages in a row. Why, basically that the message being give me more money. And often, Vincent did draft these things, and rework them before he did the final draft that went off to Theo. Now, not all the letters are asking for money. So he because he was so lonely. And because he had such an agile mind, he desperately wanted to share his thinking with somebody and that somebody was Theo, he had these letters. So if he’s reading something, he wants to share with Theo, his excitement, it’s some new passage in Shakespeare or some passage in in some French novelist, or some bit of poetry, or something about his own paintings that some of the thinking that’s going into is what he’s working on at the moment, or something about a painting by an artist who inspired him. It was all done in the intimacy of this complicated relationship with Theo he never to answer your question. Never imagined writing for outside the framework of his correspondence with his brother
Dan LeFebvre 1:03:42
it’s a another thing that kind of ashamed that he passed away so young because I mean, if you maybe if he got more popular and more famous, maybe he would have
Steven Naifeh 1:03:52
been there’s some passage it’s one thing in the in the new book about the artist, he Vincent van Gogh and the artist he loved his, his a passage about he wrote about religion a lot. And thought about religion because he wanted to be a pastor, his original intent in life was to be a pastor, like his father. And in fact, he went to study religion. And then he pulled away from religion and became essentially an atheist by the time he died, but he never stopped thinking about religion and wrote about it beautifully. And there, there are a couple of paragraphs about God and about our place in the universe, that are not just beautiful, but are philosophical on a very deep level. It was a beautiful mind. It was a seriously beautiful mind that behind these very beautiful paintings,
Dan LeFebvre 1:04:39
you mentioned it, they’re a great segue into your brand new book that just published today, a book called Van Gogh and the artists Khaled, can you give someone listening, an overview of your new book and where they can get a copy?
Steven Naifeh 1:04:53
Sure, what’s available from you know, Amazon and all the other likely places and independent bookstores and museums and But, you know, in a biography and Greg, you know, I spent 10 years writing the bingo the life, you can’t really illustrate the paintings very well. I mean there, the there are some color illustrations in there, but most of them are black and white. And they’re very small. We always were frustrated that we couldn’t show Vincent’s paintings as well as they need to be shown. And the book the biography was about the life if you just change the the aperture slightly, instead of seeing the art in the context of the life, you can see the you can see the art directly and have the life simply help you understand the art. And so the book, there are over 300 illustrations, most of them full page, the entire book is in color. And God bless Random House, they produce this 448 page book. And it’s less than $34 on Amazon. It’s a great big, juicy book, if I may say so mostly because Random House did a brilliant job of producing it. And they because they printed enough copies. It’s it’s available for this remarkably small amount of money. So you have this opportunity to see these beautiful paintings with the paintings of the artists that he admired. For example, we mentioned earlier in the show that when they were with members you knew and the Yellow House pictured in the in the film, Gauguin’s doing the drawing, and then Van Gogh make bass because he left the drawing with Vincent van Gogh made five paintings based on that drawing. He lost the one on the way taking it to madam she knew but all four of the others are there are shown in the book next to the drawing by Gauguin you can see these wonderful associations and and the variety, the the four that are left by the for painting oil paintings by Vincent, you can see how he played with the color palette, from one to the other in these marvelous, marvelous ways. Then you can see, you know, subjects that an early artists had treated, for instance, a wonderful field of poppies by Vincent, in a European collection. Actually, it’s in The Hague, and Monet had done the same scene and you see how matte Monet handles it. Then you see what Van Gogh does with it, and they’re both marvelous in their different ways. Some of the olive groves who have a van Gogh did several different series Vala grows with Monet did the series before Van Gogh did. And it’s hard to imagine Vincent didn’t know. Monet’s paintings. Because the Monet’s are magnificent. The van Gogh’s are just sublime. And I could go through example, after example, and he also thinks it is, as I say, in the book, it is hard to imagine another artists who continue to make copies of other artists work as far into their careers as Vincent did. He did it early on, as many artists do, to sort of learn crack the craft and to and to assimilate the ideas of other artists. But Vincent continued to make copies right up to the end, and make copies of for example, and some people may not know this, he collected in addition to black and white wood engravings, he collected Japanese prints, he owned about 1000, Japanese prints, he loved them, and three of his paintings were essentially they weren’t exact copies, he would take he would take the Japanese print, and which tend to be quite small, and make it a large painting and make the colors much brighter and, and manipulate the images in in various ways to make them his own. So and and meet the artists he probably loved the most was no Francois meais, the peasant painter, and dozens of times he took a small black and white image by me a for instance, the print me I did at the sower, and then he would do these big colorful paintings. Based on me as image show, I think it’s a wonderful opportunity, not only to see mangoes are, but to see it in the context of the art that that inspired it. And I think you don’t have to be an artist story, to be excited by the process, you know, the excitement that mango felt, in looking at this art, loving it so much and making something at least as exciting and very new, out of the earlier art. And that’s what I think the new book accomplishes that like to help with us.
Dan LeFebvre 1:09:21
Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
Steven Naifeh 1:09:23
Thank you, Dan. It’s a real pleasure. Thank you so much.