Sublimation As A Projection Of A Shamelessly Stubborn Humanness

My dear Maurice, your film is astonishing, totally astonishing; far beyond the cinematic horizon covered up until now by our wretched gaze.
Jean-Luc Godard

[For many] Maurice Pialat is the guy who made this weird movie about Van Gogh, the one where he doesn’t cut off his ear
Kent Jones, “Lightning in a Bottle: Maurice Pialat Profile”, Film Comment”

The critical mauling VG received from the press for his contribution to the 1890 Brussels exhibition of Les XX may have exacerbated the crisis that led to his death. One critic wrote: “he crushes tubes of color between ill-balanced, clumsily drawn lines.”
Laura Gascoigne, “Vincent At Work”, Apollo, March 2015, p. 202 – 203

In 1890, Theo van Gogh was searching for a home for his brother after Vincent was released from an Asylum at Saint-Remy. Upon recommendation of Camille Pissaro (a former patient of Dr. Gachet), who told Theo of Gachet’s interest in working with artists, Theo sent Vincent to Gachet’s home in Avers.

Merleau-Ponty characterized Freud as, above all, a philosopher of the flesh. The notion of the “flesh” refers to substantial pressures, the semiotic and somatic stresses of “creaturely life”. The “creaturely” refers to an exposure… not simply to the fragility or precariousness of the mortal, finite lives, but rather to ultimate lack of foundation for the historical forms of life that distinguish human community… We could say that the precariousness, the fragility – the “nudity” – of biological life becomes potentiated, amplified by way of exposure to the radical contingency of the forms of life that constitutes the space of meaning… Creatureliness is thus a dimension not so much of biological as of ontological vulnerability, a vulnerability that permeates human being as that being whose essence is to exist in forms of life that, in turn, are contingent, fragile, susceptible to breakdown.
Eric L. Santner, “The Royal Remains (The People’s Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty)”, Un. of Chicago Pr., 2011, p. 4 – 6

Pialat and Van Gogh

Pialat is trying to determine Jacques Dutronc’s readiness to be Vincent

Pialat is discussing a scene with Jacques Dutronc and Alexandra London (Marguerite Gachet)

Pialat is imagining Van Gogh’s feelings vis-à-vis nature

Pialat is preparing a scene at Dr. Gachet’s place

Vincent and his work

Van Gogh and the painterly flesh of the sky

Van Gogh and the blue color

Van Gogh is scrubbing the clouds off the sky or, conversely, putting them there
Van Gogh is scrubbing the clouds off the sky or conversely putting them there as windows to the unknown

Van Gogh’s gaze is asking for, demanding or questioning the answers from earth and sky

Van Gogh’s gaze is quarreling with and, may be, even accusing the alive matter of life

Vincent and Theo

Vincent and his brother Theo who made Vincent’s being a body of his art, and also was a skillful player in art-market games

Vincent and his human environment

Here Pialat compares two human gazes – one is of a specialist directed at the patient, and other is of a human being directed at another human being. It is not necessarily the difference between a gaze at a human body (of Dr. Gachet), and that at human face (of (VG at Dr. Gachet). But it is the difference between the gaze of a person in a “superior” position, and that – from soul to soul (of one human being at another).

Vincent (who usually claims that he doesn’t drink because of his “illness”) is invited for a glass of wine

Vincent between Dr. Gachet (Gerard Sety) and Gachet’s daughter Marguerite (Alexandra London) – everybody here is jolly positive and friendly, but a terrible silent drama is already in motion behind the curtain of appearance.

Van Gogh and his everyday companions (who became famous in whole world after his death as subjects of his paintings)

The “village idiot” demands from Van Gogh to make his portrait – he, as if, wants to find who he is.

Van Gogh looks at his model, but the model looks for his image outside the world of the living men. What he has lost is his metaphysical essence.

Vincent and Cathy/“Carmen”

Vincent’s girlfriend (Elsa Zylberstein) is a prostitute but she doesn’t take money from him

Vincent and Marguerite Gachet

Vincent and Marguerite when everything between them is in the future including the impossibility to stabilize socially their togetherness

We see here Vincent and Marguerite Gachet – together and, as if, already separated by destiny. In spite of being in love with him Marguerite feels that her future is apart from his, while he sees no other future for himself than down, under the earth.

Marguerite is amazed by the power of the vitality in this bizarre man so different from anybody she has ever known

Marguerite sometimes is ready to give her life for Vincent, but his destiny wants him alone, without her.

Marguerite wants to protect him, to help him, but his life has been decided by another forces far away from the powers of her love.

The last moments together are as strong as powerless, as devoted as futile

Marguerite is in panic that Vincent already belongs somewhere else (at this moment he made a lethal decision she knows nothing about)

De-existentialization of culture through wit, fun and aestheticism

The luncheon at Gachet’s place is filled by amusing and talented artistic improvisations

During the party the host – Dr. Gachet starts to worry more and more about his daughter Marguerite’s involvement with van Gogh who is practically a pauper

Theo and Vincent are preparing a triumphal and shocking number

Dr. Gachet is shocked, smashed and indignant about the vulgar joke but is trying not to show it

Van Gogh’s last tormented attempt or final frustration

Sometimes Vincent cannot tolerate his despair for being an unsuccessful painter, a burden on his brother, a shameful impostor in the realm of art.

Here we see Vincent who had lost himself and started to accuse Theo (Bernard Le Coq) for not really trying to sell his canvasses. In between them, in the middle we see Theo’s wife Johanna who recently gave birth

But Theo knows how art market works. He knows the psychology of the consumers. His position is a realistic one – for his success, Vincent needs some big-big event to happen. But what can that be? – Is it Vincent’s death? Of course, nothing like this is explicitly said. Real events take place lower than the threshold of words and verbalization.

Theo and his wife

Theo got a wife and a newborn child – they are now his priority. Of course, he intends to continue to support his brother, but…

Theo’s family life makes him worried about the future, and even Vincent knows that Theo and Jo have scandals because of his existence

Is it only dirty water that the spouses throw away? Whom are they throwing out together with used water?

The last celebration (at the brothel)

Vincent left for Paris for the last celebration of life. Marguerite came after him, although he didn’t want her to

Vincent didn’t want Marguerite to see him at the brothel – his destiny of the one who never had the chance to marry because of his poverty.

The biggest scene in the film is a representation of a popular (during this time) “dance macabre”, in a stylized form – the celebration of military service and the brave readiness to die for a noble cause. In Pialat’s interpretation – what motherland is for the soldier, the art is for van Gogh. Here we see Vincent and Marguerite (on the right), for her this dance symbolizes initiation into the tragic human adulthood – into the adult world as it exists. We see also Theo (on the left in a second raw).

Vincent and Marguerite last time together as a part of humanity celebrating a courageous death artistically aggrandized by the dance

The final act of celebration of life and death – Vincent, Marguerite and Theo – in the center

Vincent’s despair pushing him to rational assessment of his options

Already for some time Vincent has been preparing himself for death

Again and again Van Gogh contemplates the inevitable. It is a tragic courage to accept the real world as it is – says the cynical and indifferent wisdom helping life to remain cruel and inhumane.


Pialat’s “Van Gogh” is the only film about Vincent which has the power to break through the pompous curtains of cliché covering our perception of this exceptional artist. The film provides us with a chance of a real encounter with van Gogh’s life. We don’t see VG in a make-up of an inspired genius irradiating metaphysical light; we don’t see him crazy or eccentric by the calling of the soul. We see VG who looks like everybody else, who is doomed to meet despair, who wants to live but whose life, like everybody else’s, is locked in the trap of survival or social success. We see VG as the one who belongs to his life (as everybody else – to their), VG pushed to the corner by the circumstances, as every viewer knows what it means.

We see VG laughing, joking, lost amidst existential crossroads, confused and puzzled, indignant and desperate. We see him drinking while he says he doesn’t (he invented that he has epilepsy because of his shame for not being a successful painter, for being a loser). In the film, his relationship with his art is hidden inside his soul – he is silent about it – he doesn’t like to emphasize how he is different from others, to make the point that he is the chosen in comparison with others. For Pialat’s VG any social dancing around his art would be an unforgivable vanity. VG of Pialat and of Jacques Dutronc doesn’t look like an artist. It is for this reason we, the viewers, can think that he is a real artist.

We will remember how he walks – as a person who walks big distances with his painting equipment in search of perspectives. He developed a special manner of walking – his body, as if, is balancing by each step the heaviness of his craft. And he walks as a person who has no place to rush to – who is always there, in front of his landscapes, with other people. VG was a homeless – he was at home everywhere – he was with his eyes, his soul, his response to the world, his art.

For van Gogh his success was important as it is for anybody else. But the point of success for VG is not like for us, Americans who understand this word as a persistent pursuit of success with lucky result. For us today social success is different phenomenon than it was for VG. Yes, he needed it and the absence of it was destroying him, but he wasn’t looking for it. He created independently of the possibility or impossibility of success. VG did nothing to get it. He didn’t try to be successful – he didn’t try to make his paintings in a way that could make them successful – that could excite the art consumers to buy them from the art dealers, and excite specialists in art and art salon journalists to praise and promote them.

Today’s American concept of success is based on grasping what consumers want and on the ability of the creators to imitate what consumers could accept. VG, on the other hand, wanted success of his work that had nothing to do with what the public could like to possess, to look at, to appropriate physically or mentally, to identify with. VG’s paintings were not at all his attempts to satisfy the public or culture’s tastes. They were emanations of hia soul, of his moods, of his capricious imaginary added to what he saw – they were outside and beyond somebody else’s tastes and interests. He wanted to be successful without doing anything to achieve this success. He wanted to be successful as he is in his unique creative individuality – without any attempts to adapt to the public‘s desires, without any wish to conform to cultural or psychological expectations. He was interested in the moments of his unity with the world which he was registering in his canvasses.

In this sense VG has a strong democratic sensibility – he was a creative individualist, he believed in his particular response to the impressions he got from nature and from his models. VG is a carrier of democratic individualism – he wanted to be taken in his stubborn uniqueness. Here lies the very difference between a person like VG and Dr. Gachet (Gerard Sety), who was an aesthete and himself an amateur painter with conventional taste. VG wasn’t motivated by aesthetic qualities of the painting, he did something else – his artistic sensitivity wasn’t about ”beauty“ at all. It was rather about genuineness, about otherness, independence of the world.

For Dr. Gachet being a physician and being an aesthete is two sides of the same philosophical position towards the reality – an alienated investigative approach to the matter of the world on the one hand, and the attempt to elevate and even fetishize the beautiful and pleasant side of life. The principle of VG’s perception of reality is different – to try to find a new, spiritualized body for life in a new spiritualized matter created by his painting method. Gachet’s stance in front of reality – to control through medical knowledge its stubborn/obstinate matter and beautify what deserves beautification. It is a posture towards life from, as if, outside of life. VG’s ontological position towards the reality – is from inside it. He intuitively shared his Being with nature and other people-his models.

For Gachet VG himself represents the material substance of life which is “naturally” crude and without the redeeming value of beauty, a kind of dark “vulgar stubbornness”. But what he takes as a lack of harmony, beauty and grace in Vincent’s personality is exactly the spiritual part of VG’s identity – the absence of philistine appeal to another people for the sake of reaching a psychological comfort in smooth relations with them. VG is depicted by Pialat and Dutronc as the very personification of otherness. He can be perceived as a strange, opaque, bizarre, even sinister figure. The otherness of his personality echoes by the specificity of his art. He himself is under a tremendous burden of his talent and his destiny. If he couldn’t be like this he couldn’t have a chance to develop his unique vision.

Art for Gachet (like for majority of people) is a part of a pleasant pastime. And art whose code of beauty is not immediately available seems to him superfluous. He satisfies his need in other people in celebrations of different sorts when various people come together to enjoy life. Gachet can invite VG for the dinner or to invite Theo with the family “for summer”, but refuses to offer his help to VG in spite of Vincent’s desperate situation, although he has a unique opportunity to do so. The result is – VG’s suicide and self-tormenting suffering of Gachet’s daughter.

The culmination of psycho-social motif of festive celebration of life as a model of human solidarity (instead of attention of people to one another) with inevitably tragic feeling of doom of this kind of togetherness is depicted in the biggest scene of the film – the scene in Parisian brothel with atmosphere impregnated by apocalyptic tonality of the general gaiety. Two scenes anticipate this brothel type of human togetherness – it is lunch at Gachet and the concert and dance at the riverside.

Another van Gogh’s symbolic encounter with meaning which can help us to define the specificity of his position in life is the situation with the guy who keeps asking VG to make his portrait. The “village idiot” personifies the metaphysical sensibility – the feeling that the essence of the human being lies not in life but in another world, which he, according to his delirium, hopes to recognize in his portrait. Underdeveloped (not humanized/dehumanized) life creates the need for psychological compensation in the form of yearning for the foggy imaginary alternative.

Vincent, by immanent stubbornness of his personality refuses to stop living and to adapt to survival/success, to stop to be human being and to become a seeker of material and psychological reward. This ultimate conflict of human civilization is reflected here – between spiritually creative life and material survival. De-existentialized high-culture dedicated to “other world” is distracting people from life and by this perpetuates the inhumane condition of human existence. This leaves life itself not attended/under-attended by human intelligence. And life as it is, indifferent and cruel is the reason why van Gogh was left with the option of taking his own life. Gachet could easily save van Gogh’s life. But in this world it is impossible for him to allow Vincent and Marguerite to live together in happiness and by this help him to continue with his work. Instead, Gachet is retreated to traditional moralistic position of “protecting” his daughter against “this beggar and bum”. If he would help his daughter and Vincent it in the eyes of the society could mean to emasculate himself, to be seen as a weak person who cannot protect his daughter’s honor. Gachet didn’t like Vincent’s art, he didn’t sympathize with him personally – he found him rude and vulgar. Who in this situation could help the person with an artistic ambition and without any social success who in addition – refuses to try to please potential buyers of art through a reasonably attractive style?

Vincent understood that if he has any chance at all to become a successful painter – it will be only his suicide in the nimbus of sexy gossip and scandal that can attract the attention of a wide public and create mass sales of his paintings. Art must be dressed and made-up like a whore, even if it is a chased art, even if it is and especially so an art created by the genius.

Posted on July 5, 2015 –   “Van Gogh” (1991) by Maurice Pialat by Acting-Out Politics

Posted on July 6 2010 – Vincent Van Gogh’s Suicide Self-Portraits – Painting into the Death by Acting-Out Politics