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Film review: Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing

Film & TV

Brought back to Australian cinemas amid the buzz surrounding new van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate, which has garnered actor Willem Dafoe an Oscars nod, this documentary emphasises the Post-Impressionist painter’s artistic development.

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Interest in Vincent van Gogh never seems to wane. Movies, exhibitions, documentaries, books and essays all cater to the demand.

The Exhibition on Screen documentary Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing, directed by Australian David Bickerstaff, was originally released in 2015 but is being re-screened in select cinemas this month.

It presents a potted story of van Gogh’s life that understandably emphasises his art, not least because it was commissioned by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to coincide with rehanging his work in a striking way.

The photography of his works and relevant features, such as houses and landscapes with which he was connected, is arguably its best attribute. On the other hand, while the succession of grabs as numerous experts from the museum’s curatorial team seize their moment to elucidate his purpose is informative, it is ultimately dull. Only the lone artist among them adds intriguing insight.

The documentary traces van Gogh’s artistic development, showing some less-often-seen very early and comparatively crude works, after which he doggedly pursued his craft. The material comes in large part from the hundreds of drawings and paintings left to his brother, Theo, a supporter and long-time confidant. A welcome touch is to have Theo’s great-grandson, an advisor to the museum’s board, on hand for an additional perspective.

Van Gogh had strong religious convictions, including a period of evangelising, though we might see this characteristic as less religion-bound than reflecting a quest for spiritual enlightenment. His painting was a way of connecting to that goal and, consistent with a Protestant ethic, financial reward was not part of the equation. He certainly didn’t get it, but rather a mysterious death that may or may not have been suicide.

Not much is demanded of Jamie de Courcey in the leading role except to strike poses and sit at a desk with pen in hand, but his resemblance is a good one. An isolated and troubled figure, the real van Gogh wanted only to be known through his art as Vincent, which is how he signed his paintings.

Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing is not such a new way. It is less arresting than 2017’s Loving Vincent, a remarkable oil-painted animation that presents a version of his final days through letters he wrote and received, but is nonetheless pretty and earnestly informative.

Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing is showing in Adelaide this weekend and next week at Wallis Mitcham, Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas and Palace Nova Prospect.

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