From te publication
Portraits of Vincent
What did Vincent van Gogh look like? Art historians and devotees of his life and work have asked themselves that question ever since his death. As his fame took on greater proportions, so did the need to be able to see his face. There are, however, no photographic portraits left of the grown-up Vincent van Gogh. They were probably never made. He didn’t like photography. The only photo portrait that we know of dates from 1873 when he was barely nineteen years old. The young man in this picture does not look much like the well-known self-portraits he painted later in his life. So we can assume that Vincent’s appearance changed a lot over the years.
Fortunately, there are a great number of painted self-portraits. When they are put next to each other, however, you see quite a large number of differences between them. Van Gogh was not a realistic painter. He often transformed details to enhance the expressive nature of the painting. It is also striking that there are great differences between his self-portraits and the portraits made by his fellow artists such as John Peter Russell, Emile Bernard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, or Paul Gauguin. So they saw him differently than he saw himself.
Yet his self-portraits were probably the inspiration for the casting of Kirk Douglas in the role of Vincent van Gogh in the first biopic Lust for Life (Vincente Minnelli, 1956). Since then, this American actor has long acted as a role model for our image of Van Gogh’s portrait. This only changed when other movies were made with different actors. We then saw among others Tim Roth, Jacques Dutronc, and William Dafoe in the role of Vincent. As a result, our image has been further clouded. We now know even less well what he looked like.
Nevertheless, the desire to see as faithful a portrait as possible remains. Once in a while, an unknown photograph is discovered which might depict him. This always causes quite a sensation with the press. Followed by disappointment when it turns out it isn’t him in the picture. During the Van Gogh year 2003, the Zundert based Rotor Foundation created a ‘hoax’ with Het blik van Wallsteijn presenting moving images of Van Gogh in Zundert. The media fell into the trap en masse. The desire to believe this was so strong that they passed by the fact that film was only invented five years after Vincent’s death.
Van Gogh’s image still inspires many. Artist and photographer Ruud van Empel (Breda, 1958) has now taken up the challenge to create new portraits of Van Gogh. Based on photographs of Van Gogh’s ‘look-a-likes’, from which he obtained fragments, he has created new portraits: Van Empel’s imagined vision of fictional Van Gogh portraits. You might call them Vincent’s ‘avatars’, incarnations of computer-aided designs. To powerfully portray his conceived characters, he has used landscapes and scenes from his paintings and his life as a backdrop. For those who don’t know any better, you might just think that unknown photos of Van Gogh have resurfaced. Van Empel deliberately takes advantage of this illusion. It makes his portraits of Vincent even more convincing. At the same time, he stresses the notion that nowadays everybody is allowed to create new images of the famous painter from Zundert. As long as we don’t discover his real portrait, we can portray him any way we like. The image of Van Gogh has become universal and is therefore evolving with future generations.
Van Empel is not only fascinated by Van Gogh’s appearance, but he also investigated his painting technique. Kinship he feels mainly in love with nature. Landscapes with flowering fruit trees and vast fields of flowers are motives in both their works. They are a reminder of the area of the province of Brabant where they both grew up. Zundert, where Van Gogh grew up, lies very close to the birthplace of Van Empel in Breda. They both remember the nature in this area. This remained a lasting source of inspiration to Vincent, also in his later paintings. He wrote about this to his mother when he was painting a whole series of landscapes in the south of France: “which, notwithstanding that they were made in a very different region, have remained completely and utterly as if they were painted in Zundert, say, or Kalmthout.
Where Van Gogh sought reality as a basis, he drew and painted preferably to nature, but Van Empel chooses the phantasy world. He prefers to ‘dream’ his landscapes. In the digital world on his computer, he construes an idealized nature through ‘cut’ and ‘paste’ of fragments from photographs. The atmosphere in his landscapes is fairy-like. It is even more beautiful than nature itself. It’s like he’s taking us to a ‘Wonderland’, like the one where the Victorian writer Lewis Carroll let his Alice wander around in, the well-known children’s book from Vincent’s youth.
Van Empel has taken several well-known landscapes and still-lives by Van Gogh as a starting point. Wild roses and beetle, Butterflies and poppies, Flowering meadow, The old Taxus tree, Flowering almond tree, Peachtree in blossom, Still-lifes of five and fourteen sunflowers in a vase. He uses no paint, but only digital photos on his computer screen, with which he ‘paints’, thereby aiming at evoking Van Gogh’s world. His digital processing of images gives the viewer a sense of alienation. These pictures are too perfect to be true. They are idealized as in a dream. Far from Van Gogh’s reality, but still very close when we read the following quote from a letter by Vincent to his brother Theo: “And reality sometimes comes very close to the Brabant that one has dreamt”.
Virtual Van Gogh
Ruud van Empel has added a new dimension to our experiences with Van Gogh when we look at his landscapes and fictional portraits. It is increasingly taking place in the virtual world. The digital presentations of Van Gogh’s works have increased enormously since the Japanese movie Dreams (Akira Kurosawa, 1990) was released, in which Van Gogh’s landscapes were painted on cardboard. Unfortunately, the ‘Van Gogh shows’ that are traveling around the world these days, are often very limited in their artistic qualities. It is therefore a relief to see that a renowned artist like Van Empel, has lifted the virtual experience of Vincent’s work to a higher level. A proper homage to Van Gogh.