“We Cannot Speak Other Than By Our Paintings”

Vincent van Gogh is one of the most renowned painters in the world. In a stunning visual undertaking, Loving Vincent pays tribute to the artist by reinterpreting his paintings in the world’s first painted feature-length film.

By Serena Ypelaar

Moviegoers often remember visually stunning films for years to come. Beautiful cinematography, outstanding production, and vivid imagery stays with us – that much is certainly true with the biopic Loving Vincent (2017), a feature-length film about Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.

A still of Vincent van Gogh as depicted in Loving Vincent (2017). Photo: Medium

Starring Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd, Helen McCrory, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jerome Flynn, Aidan Turner, and Robert Gulaczyk, Loving Vincent is a Polish-British co-production exploring the end of Van Gogh’s life. Though the film’s pacing is somewhat drawn-out at times and the plot is speculative, it stands out for one reason: it was entirely hand-painted in the style of Van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh, “Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky” (1890). Image: Wikiart

Loving Vincent is the first feature-length painting animation film in the world. 94 of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings were reimagined for the film, along with new visuals. Dorota Kobiela, the film’s co-director alongside Hugh Welchman, launched the project after reading Van Gogh’s letters. She felt a profound desire to tell his story by capturing his art and its subject matter from a biographical perspective. Kobiela thought it was only right that the film should be painted. Despite pitching a seven-minute short film in 2008 and having been told it would be impossible to pursue a feature-length film, Kobiela started a successful crowdfunding campaign and set to work.

You may wonder how paintings can integrate seamlessly as a film. Surely they were supplemented with computer-generated imagery (CGI)? The answer is no – the actors performed their roles and CGI was only used to supplement the visuals captured on film, as well as to add the movement of the backgrounds. However, none of that footage was really used in the final cut of the film, which was entirely comprised of paintings. Every single frame was its own painting, with 12 frames per second. That’s 66,960 frames – which means just as many individual paintings were created by hand.

From left: Eleanor Tomlinson during the live-action filming phase; Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (1890); the final keyframe for “Loving Vincent”. Photo: Loving Vincent
Vincent van Gogh, “Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin” (1888). Image: Wikiart

Production took place largely in Gdańsk, Poland, with 80 highly skilled painters recruited from worldwide to paint each frame of the film. These paintings interpret the story of Van Gogh, diverting us from details we’ll never know for sure and redirecting our attention to the essence of his visual art. The delivery of this film is what captivates us – its sense of movement brings Van Gogh’s work to life. Some of the famous paintings used in the film had to be extended or reimagined; Van Gogh used many different sizes of canvas for his works, whereas the film had to be one frame size. Producers also changed some colour palettes of well-known paintings on a seasonal basis, as Loving Vincent takes place in summer.

For the sake of authenticity, actors who closely resembled Van Gogh’s portrait sitters were cast – though their questionable accents and pronunciation slightly hamper the film’s impact. There are no French accents to be heard, though the film is set in France, and Van Gogh does not sound Dutch – the actors also anglicize the pronunciation of Van Gogh’s brother Theo’s name (which would be “Tay-OH” in Dutch). If these slight details were presented more accurately, the film could be even more absorbing; it’s definitely a tad distracting to hear the dissonant accents. Nevertheless, the true marvel lies in the visual spectacle.

Chris O’Dowd as Postman Roulin in “Loving Vincent” (2017). Each frame of the film required an individual painting. Image: Loving Vincent

How might Van Gogh feel if he saw this film? Would he be flattered, touched, or feel it invasive? Some may question the artists’ approach of directly imitating Van Gogh’s style, from his signature brushstrokes to the colours that grew more vivid over his career. In fact, there is a long-standing tradition whereby painters engage in artistic “schools” of thought or technique. You may have seen portraits “in the style of” Hans Holbein the Younger, for instance, or heard of numerous students of Rembrandt van Rijn. Even today, artists often have a team of painters who do some of the work when creating large-scale paintings. With this in mind, it might therefore be an oversimplification to call Loving Vincent‘s paintings plagiarism rather than an act of reinterpretation.

Vincent van Gogh, “The Night Café” (1888). Image: Wikipedia

Whatever your opinion on a brigade of artists painting literal thousands of Van Gogh-esque paintings – whether you think they’re a form of uncanny talent, plagiarism, or a bit of both – the production team working on this biopic took the ultimate risk, both financially and creatively. Loving Vincent could have been a flop; it could have been poorly executed (some may think it is). But I feel it’s a gorgeous treat for the eyes, one that pays tribute to Vincent van Gogh the best way it knows how: by bringing his paintings to life.

As Vincent himself said in his penultimate letter to his brother Theo (which was found on Van Gogh’s body after his death): “We cannot speak other than by our paintings”. If anyone lived up to that edict, it was certainly Van Gogh. He constructed the most beautiful scenes for us, telling stories in landscapes and portraits we still love over a century later – all through his paintings.

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