For more than a century, the conventional wisdom that is history has informed us that on December 23, 1888 Van Gogh cut off part of his ear. The details of that story handed down through history have varied slightly, but the overriding theme has always contained elements of the painter's exhibition of madness.
A couple of years ago this conventional wisdom was thrown into chaos amid reports that the real story had less to do with Van Gogh's psychological state of mind than with the fellow artist Paul Gaugin's tenuous hold on his patience toward his friend's inconsistent mental state. Several well respected art historians now hold with the brand new theory that Van Gogh lost his ear at the point of Gaugin's fencing sword. Whatever the truth, there may be no better way to spend December 23, especially if you are seeking to get away from Christmas entertainment overload, than by catching up on movies that tell at least a partially true story about Vincent.
Lust for Life
"Lust for Life" is still the big movie about Van Gogh. The film based on the novel by Irving Stone that was in turn inspired by tremendous research into the factual evidence about the painter then available. Kirk Douglas bears an uncanny resemblance to Van Gogh and turns in a passionate performance that seeks as best as possible to penetrate into the mystery that is not just genius, but mad genius. Anthony Quinn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his brief but memorable turn as Gauguin.
One of the greatest visual artists of the 20th century plays one of the greatest visual artists of the 19th century in one of the many short segments that makes up "Akira Kurosawa's Dreams." Martin Scorsese takes on the role of Van Gogh and though you won't learn much about the artist from a biographical perspective. In fact, one of the centerpieces of the segment that is titled "Crows" is a joke on the subject of the mystery of the night that Van Gogh lost part of his ear.
This French film might well be considered the anti-"Lust For Life." That film is a biopic in the grand Hollywood tradition in that it spans the entire lifetime of its subject, recreates all the most famous events, examines the psychology of Van Gogh and places the man in historical context during scenes that show him struggling to create his masterworks. "Van Gogh" might well be viewed as a movie that assumes you have already seen "Lust for Life" and therefore seeks rather to fill in the blanks between the scenes of the earlier movie's focus on the last months of Van Gogh's life. Nothing to learn here about the loss of Van Gogh's ear nor the psychology that led to his suicide nor even whether painting was for him agony or ecstasy. But still worth a look.