Very much the archetypal “tortured artist”, Vincent Van Gogh lived a life every bit as colourful, dramatic and emotionally fraught as that which he captured in his paintings. Despite the fame and adulation that his work is now met with, when Van Gogh died at the age of 37 in 1890 he had only succeeded in selling one painting. Although he didn’t live to reap the fruits of his labour, Van Gogh experienced an amazing period of creativity towards the end of his life that gave rise to some of the greatest pictures ever painted while also leading to the demise of their creator.
In Vincent Barbara Stok recounts this brief yet tumultuous period in the artist’s life where he left Paris and settled in the quiet, inspirational countryside of Arles in the south of France. Supported both financially and emotionally by his loyal brother Theo, Van Gogh enjoyed a prolific period of painting while at Arles and dreamed of founding an artist colony there at his infamous Yellow House. However, for Van Gogh artistic triumph and personal tragedy seemed always to go hand in hand and his stay at Arles was marred by increasing bouts of mental instability.
Disappointed by the commitment and passion of local artists and feeling betrayed by the decision of his friend Paul Gauguin to leave the Yellow House in favour of Paris and then the tropics, Van Gogh suffered his greatest mental collapse to date, leading to his cutting off part of his ear before agreeing to commit himself to the Saint-Remy asylum for treatment. Despite his obvious devotion to art and his laudable ambivalence to both fame and wealth, Van Gogh was a deeply troubled and occasionally troubling man. Stok does not shy away from describing how difficult Van Gogh could be to deal with and how his blinkered passion for artistic integrity both scared away friends and brought danger to himself.
Barbara Stok’s illustrations in Vincent are truly a joy to behold; her use of bold lines and blocky colours gives a dreamy, almost child-like naive quality to her art which is simply entrancing. Her background work is amazing and it really is possible to get lost in the landscapes and night skies that Stok has created for Van Gogh to experience. Stok mixes into her panels many of Van Gogh’s most famous works – his sunflowers, the yellow cafe, the blue bedroom and his glorious starry night among others are featured – and so is able to highlight the occasions that gave rise to the pictures as well as the differing mental states of Van Gogh when he painted some of his greatest works.
In addition to weaving Van Gogh’s paintings into her work, Stok also makes use of many of the letters that were exchanged between Van Gogh and his brother Theo. This adds further depth and authenticity to her account and really helps to flesh out the character and confusion of Van Gogh. Stok’s approach is doubly effective since her recourse to the Van Gogh letters also allows her to bring out the character of Theo Van Gogh and to highlight how, without his unflinching loyalty and support, the world would not have been able to enjoy the sublime artistic talent of Vincent Van Gogh.
Vincent is a delightful snapshot of the brilliant, troubled life of Van Gogh. With Vincent Barbara Stok has crafted a vibrant, moving account of the period in Van Gogh’s life that held his greatest triumphs and his most bitter of defeats. It might be only May but Vincent is sure to be ranked among the Best Graphic Novels of 2014 when such lists are made.