Writers: David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky
Director: David Bickerstaff
One of the most recognisable images in art, Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, takes the spotlight in a career crowded with achievement. Exhibition on Screen makes this emblematic painting the focus for its latest documentary. Taking us on a global adventure, Sunflowers looks at the relationship between artist and subject.
The challenge in building a documentary around Van Gogh is how to say something new. Sunflowers doesn’t attempt to retell Van Gogh’s life story; instead we steer around his biography, concentrating on artistic development. Sunflowers looks at the history of the flower in Van Gogh’s creative output – both in terms of the artists and movements that inspired him, and how sunflowers helped Van Gogh articulate his unique style.
Taking the lead from the Van Gogh Museum’s exhibition Van Gogh and the Sunflowers, we are reminded that the blockbuster painting, sold for $25 million in 1987, is one of a series. While this particular painting is housed in Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art, the others are in museums scattered across the world. A fifth painting – a striking still life against a dark blue background – was destroyed when its owner’s apartment was hit during a World War Two bombing raid in Osaka, Japan.
The motif of the sunflower, one we so readily associate with Van Gogh, was brought about by chance. Struggling to make ends meet, Van Gogh – admiring the floral painting tradition of artists such as Degas, Jeannin and Fantin-Latour – realised that flowers were a far cheaper subject than life models. His interest in figurative painting gave way to an exploration of still life. Van Gogh leaned into this subject, hoping his work would become more saleable. This economising began an artistic journey, transforming his ability to observe and capture what was in front of him.
By repeating the same subject, Van Gogh was able to experiment with colour and form. Even copying his own sunflower paintings to create another, the documentary uses a range of experts to discuss how these paintings evolved, as Van Gogh began to use the floral motif as an expression of his own mental state. Painting dying blooms, he wrote about how the bright colours gave him “hope for the future”.
Sunflowers is packed with insight from art historians, inviting us to look at Van Gogh’s work from a new perspective. While seemingly variations on a theme, the subtle differences in the paintings show us how Van Gogh’s technique moved away from artistic tradition. Energetically-applied paint in bright colour, these flowers take on character and personality. The sunflowers move from explorations of light and shade, into an introspective style all Van Gogh’s own.
A noticeably ambitious documentary, travelling from country to country, Sunflowers, emphasises how Van Gogh’s work has translated across cultural divide. Sunflowers looks at Van Gogh’s range of influence – from the formal painting traditions of Europe, to his keen interest in Japanese art – and how that has made him a truly international artist. His paintings are a language not only loved, but understood.
Released on 8 June 2021