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Vincent Vincent

Vincent back

Barbara Stok


Page 45 Review by Stephen


Oh, Vincent, it's just as well because, other than your brother, few people will see anything in your paintings until the end of your days.

It didn't stop Van Gogh, obviously. Nothing short of a complete mental breakdown halted his prolific, obsessive output. Even then he picked his easel back up and the subsequent seizures were but pauses as he sought to transform aspects and objects others took for granted into orgasmic, orgiastic confluences of colour to evoke their explosive passion rather than their plain, photographic likenesses. He was inspired!

As was I by this graphic novel which I entered into warily if not sceptically before Stok won me over page by early page. I almost considered writing this review as a timeline of my own reading reactions (hey, the reviews I have written exceed five figures after which novelty is hard to come by), but it's not about me but both the artists, the book, and the subtle but very real skill with which Stok has chosen to write it. I mention this merely in case you're wary too.

Vincent's move from Paris to Provence was dealt with swiftly and, I thought at first, perfunctorily as he negotiates his initial bed and board at L'Hôtel Correl:

"A room, please. For an indefinite period."
"Welcome to Arles."

Da-dum. Simplicity itself, just like its visual staging. I thought I was watching finger-puppet theatre!

I am, of course, an arse. The second Vincent Van Gogh hits the bucolic beauty and whipped out his materials, dashing it all down in a frenzied hurry lest light be lost, I became as transfixed as the random passer-by who stops to admire both the vista before him and the one captured on canvas or board. I was also as dismissive of the local painters' contempt as Vincent was. But why?

How could Barbara Stok begin to convey the thick, churning, delicious and delirious swirls of colour you could potentially read like Braille when her own chosen art style was wobbly outlines, dots for eyes, flat coloured tones and… Oh, no, no, no: there is plenty of perspective and depth in her own landscape panels over which she lingers as long as the two gentlemen in silence, drinking in the majesty and tranquillity of it all.

Stok saves her own expressionism for Vincent's volcanic meltdowns as the air becomes brittle in the wake of his wrath and the panels and their contents contort during his feverish hallucinations. The early intimations of these more violent episodes - as financial pressure and artistic frustrations crawl under the perfectionist's skin - are rendered as dots which follow him round town like flies. You can almost hear the buzzing in his skull.

This is assuaged but temporarily as Gauguin arrives. Oh, he has been so desperate for Gauguin to share his sanctuary and take up his role (as Vincent sees it) as grandmaster of this new starving artists' retreat! But Vincent lives in a world of his own and is oblivious to even the earliest warning signs that they are not on the same wavelength at all.

But where were we? Oh yes: money.

The narrative is peppered by letters exchanged between Vincent and his loving brother Theo. Quite why Theo had all the money is never made clear and it's only now that I type this sentence that I notice this. As I read the book, I simply didn't care. All Stok made me care about - and all that counts - was Theo's genuine respect for his brother and his bottomless generosity reciprocated on Vincent's side by an acknowledged indebtedness. For Van Gogh is, from the very beginning, painfully aware of how much his sojourn in Arles is likely to cost Theo, and how unlikely it is that he can ever repay him. He will, however, die trying.

As represented by Stok, Theo is a saint but by no means a martyr. He genuinely admires his brother's artistic ambitions, discerns his immediate genius and is content to let posterity declare his artistic success. In short, he acts as an old-school patron in its finest, most laudable sense.

I don't know to what extent this is a hagiography, but Vincent is not wise with money. All that matters to him is to catalogue the beauty he spies around him in sweeping campaigns: multiple studies of spring blossom, fruit trees, wheat fields, vineyards, the sea, the stars and sunflowers!

But thanks to Stok's delicious cartooning this loud and argumentative optimist / proselytizer comes a cropper twice to hilarious effect when confounded first by the killer combo of exorbitant hotel bills and a local lack of chromium yellow, then when singing the sweet amorous praises of a prostitute. He's so naïve!

"All is for the best in the best of worlds," declares our man with the plan when laid up in bed. Oh dear, that's Voltaire's 'Candide'! Hahahahaha!

Seriously, this is masterful. Give me another couple of weeks and I will pinpoint exactly how Barbara Stok has turned a tragic life including mental illness and violent self-harm plus an unwavering devotion to the pursuit of intimate art into a consummate comedy and edifying eulogy for one of the greatest painters this world will ever know.