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From The Ashes Of Imagination

‘At Eternity’s Gate’ is an artist’s intimate impression of the post-Impressionist, making the viewer see, hear and feel as the troubled genius, Vincent van Gogh, did. Edited excerpts from the story.

Stills from the film At Eternity’s Gate (2018) by Julian Schnabel.

Few artistic lives lend themselves to cinema as easily as Vincent van Gogh’s. From Lust for Life (1956) to Loving Vincent (2017), the many shades of the man’s life and work have been rendered on screen in an array of styles, from faithful reproductions to stylised interpretations. The year 2018 threw yet another impression of the world’s most famous post-Impressionist on screen, adding to the vast library of work that celebrates the beloved Dutchman.

In its theme, treatment and timbre, At Eternity’s Gate channels and exhumes the ghosts that haunt this singular luminary of the art world. It spins its feverish narrative out of an assembly of ghosts. The ghosts of artists past, many of whom inspired van Gogh, but whose sacred reputations were responsible for Vincent’s departures to be rejected by a bewildered public. It immerses the audience in the life of Vincent’s mind, and the tormenting ghosts who inhabit it. And it gives us an intimate view of the artist’s own ghostly presence, alternately fascinating and repulsive to those who came in contact with him in the final turbulent years of his life.

Stills from the film At Eternity’s Gate (2018) by Julian Schnabel.

Director Julian Schnabel – a painter himself – adopts an approach that is intense and intimate, immersing us into the artist’s world, making us see, hear and feel as he does. Whether it’s van Gogh’s famous boots, the great swirling wheat fields of Arles or the famously whiskered postmaster, we first see the sights as they occur in Vincent’s life before they’re captured on a van Gogh canvas. The result is a startling immediacy to every event, as if the viewer has been where the artist has been, experienced – however fleetingly – what he has experienced. While biographies try to provide a window into the subject’s world, this film provides a portal into his brain, giving us a rare access to his singular vision.

From brilliant yellow landscapes to captivating human faces, van Gogh’s heightened sense of perception gives the film its visual language. But visuals are only one point of contact with the demons that haunt the genius. We often hear a recently concluded conversation between van Gogh and a friend or acquaintance being replayed in his head with a slightly altered, menacing quality. So when artist Paul Gauguin decides to leave van Gogh’s side, we hear the conversation repeated in the distraught Vincent’s head. An effective form of foreshadowing of the macabre ear-cutting incident that has become such an important part of Vincent’s mythology.

Stills from the film At Eternity’s Gate (2018) by Julian Schnabel.

Throughout the film, the tragedy of the man – tormented by the ghosts in his head – is echoed by the tragedy of the artist – tormented by the ghost of the artistic canon. Whether it is Gauguin questioning van Gogh’s technique or a pastor rejecting his work as ugly, the film counterpoints Vincent’s vision with the differing views of the others. A world of pathos lies in this difference. You hear the artist defending his style, his purpose, his choice of subject at various times, to various people. The film’s title borrows from a painting of van Gogh’s, At Eternity’s Gate, produced in May 1890, a few months before the artist’s death. It features a grieving old man, clenched fists covering his eyes, perhaps a fellow patient at Vincent’s last asylum. A distressed figure, soon to pass into the oblivion of eternity. At one point in the film we hear van Gogh’s voice tell us: ‘When facing a flat landscape, I see nothing but eternity. Am I the only one to see it? Existence can’t be without reason.’

Rehana is a Mumbai-based writer-editor.

To read the full article, click here.

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