Thu 4 June 2020

Willem Dafoe’s performance as Van Gogh is “beyond brilliant” says Chris Sullivan, who ponders whether creativity is always close to madness.

“Are all artists crazy?’ Asks Van Gogh’s fellow mental asylum inmate in director/ painter Julian Schnabel’s rather excellent feature, At Eternity’s Gate, that looks at the somewhat tortured painter’s time in the South of France. “Only the great ones,” replies Van Gogh, magnificently rendered by Willem Dafoe who delivers a performance that should have won him not only an Oscar but, every other acting award on earth.  

Indeed. this is a question that has plagued commentators for centuries. Certainly, looking at the lexicon of the ‘truly great ‘ artists this would seem so. Think of Bosch, Caravaggio, Francisco Goya, Edward Munch, Egon Schiele, Mark Rothko and Pollock – all of whom might have been described as certifiable but produced some of the finest art known to mankind.

So what is this that allows some to produce such excellent work and suffer?

In 2012 a study examined 1.2 million patients and their relatives and found that those in artistic professions including dancers, photographers, artists, scientists and authors and are more likely to suffer bipolar disorder than the rest of the population. Worryingly, authors are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety, substance abuse and schizophrenia and are 50 percent more likely to commit suicide while painters follow a close second.

So what is this that allows some to produce such excellent work and suffer?  In At Eternity’s Gate, Van Gogh whispers that he was put on earth “to create paintings for those who are yet to be born.” And there’s the rub.

No one might doubt that those capable of great art are sensitive in the extreme: so is it this lack of acceptance, sometimes derision, towards their work that sets them off on this downward spiral? Or is it there, in the first place, deep seated in the nether regions of their psyche? Is it this that allows them to create such? Or perhaps their minds are wired differently than other mere mortals.

I’d plump for the latter as to create something unique one has to be  thoroughly unique oneself and see the world in a different way from the rest. And isn’t great art defined by the artist’s singular vision and take on life? Who but Pollock might have come up with his huge swirling canvases created by dripping and splashing paint, who but Rothko might have expressed such huge emotion with his fuzzy blocks of paint and who but Van Gogh might have created these thoroughly emotive canvases that bleed passion?

At Eternity’s Gate is a beautiful film that, delicate and considered subtly looks at this notion without ramming it down one’s throat while Dafoe’s execution of this tortured, naïve yet simple soul is beyond  brilliance

A quite remarkable film, it is utterly un-missable .

At Eternity’s Gate is on general release on March 29th

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