Genre: Biography

Author and Illustrator: Barbara Stok

Translator: Laura Watkinson

Publisher: SelfMadeHero 2014

Subthemes: Art, mental health

Timeline: The years between 1888 and 1890


Vincent from from SelfMadeHeroe’s ‘Art Masters’ series is a delightful sojourn into one of the most significant and defining periods of Vincent van Gogh’s life. Spanning over the years between 1888 and 1890, the novel is an overview of van Gogh’s time spent in the South of France in Arles and later on in Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris. The narrative takes one through an exploration of the artist’s increasingly fragile state of mind even as his art crystallizes and truly comes into its own.

The storyline focuses on Vincent van Gogh, the main protagonist, and explores his relationship with his brother Theo and the other celebrated artist Paul Gauguin in the interim years. The narrative is essentially a piecemeal autobiography of the artist’s life and works, and van Gogh functions as the focal point of the narrative. While written in a third person voice, the plot mostly follows the eponymous artist’s stream of thoughts with occasional shift to the other characters’ perspectives. The text focuses considerably on bringing out van Gogh’s philosophical outlook on life and death, and most importantly, the value of art. The artwork of the graphic novel is striking and central to its aesthetic and textual value. It successfully captures the resemblance with the artist’s features, and more importantly, achieves a striking likeness while depicting the creation of some of his best known works.

The plot begins with van Gogh’s departure for Arles from his brother’s house. It traces the artist’s initial experiences, starting from the mundane on to the more intense in his engagement with his surroundings and expression through art. The author remains loyal to true events while depicting the flow of his experiences. His intimate relationship with nature comes across very strongly and is shown to be one of the major influences on his style and subject of art. As he settles into the artistic life in Arles, his constant correspondence with his brother Theo and the latter’s unflinching support for his sibling even to the extent of monetarily supporting him is a much emphasized theme. Another aspect that is reiterated throughout the narrative is van Gogh’s financial concerns and frequent brushes with hardship, certainly a contributing factor to his immense levels of anxiety and mental instability. Several anecdotal instances highlight the artist’s mercurial temperament, something that often exasperated even his long suffering brother and caused much friction and misunderstanding with his acquaintances in Arles. A major chunk of the plot revolves around van Gogh’s period of acquaintance and cohabitation with Gauguin, who he had invited to Arles to join him in his work. At this time, van Gogh was driven by the idea of creating an artist’s colony in Arles, a place which he found to be immensely rewarding and inspiring in terms of his work. He hoped to make Gauguin look at the place with a similar perspective and gain his assistance in achieving van Gogh’s dream of building an artists’ community. But Gauguin was unnerved by van Gogh’s obsessive focus on his work and suffocated by his constant talk about his plans. This was the period when van Gogh’s hallucinations were on the rise, and after a particularly bad argument that led to Gauguin leaving Arles, van Gogh chopped off a part of his ear with a razor and sent it to his local paramour to her brothel. This infamous incident is described in a breathless frenzy through the artwork, and is rightly marked as a watershed moment in the artist’s life. The rest of the novel focuses on van Gogh’s continuing mental health conditions, the social ridicule he faces and his wilful stay at the Saint-Remy mental asylum. There are occasional detours to Theo’s life, his marriage to his friend’s sister and the birth of their child, the young Vincent. Eventually the narrative draws to a close with van Gogh’s shifting to Auvers-sur-Oise under the care of a local doctor. The family get to spend more time together here, and though van Gogh’s predicts hard times ahead, he seems to have found some temporary peace and comfort in the place.

The highlight of the novel remains the depiction of the creative process of a quintessential misunderstood genius. The timeline encompasses the creation of some of the best known of van Gogh’s works, including The Starry Night, Starry Night Over The Rhone, his studies on the wheat field and sunflowers in a vase. Some of the remarkable evolutions in the artist’s work is  captured in this novel, most significantly his use of broad and confident brushstrokes that allowed him to complete many paintings in a short while, as well as his deepened understanding of hues of violet, purple and blue. The novel ends on a subtle note of melancholy, with an increasingly distant image of van Gogh painting in a wheat field, before coming to a close with the picture of two tombstones of the two brothers, an ominous indication of his having taken his own life within a year. 

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