Intimate letters, record-breaking sales and the world of competitive gardening paint a fascinating picture of the story behind Van Gogh sunflowers serie
Not surprisingly, Vincent van Gogh has proved a rich seam for the Exhibition on Screen gallery series, with one of the most commercially potent of modern painters providing material for previous films including Van Gogh in Japan and Van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing. Here, the attention is even more micro, though hardly niche: the series of sunflower studies Van Gogh painted in 1888 and 1889, one of which went on to command a record auction price in the mid 1980s and practically on its own send the art market into the financial stratosphere.
Super-familiar though the Van Gogh sunflowers serie may be, this film does a pretty good job of drilling down through the intricacies of the series, from Van Gogh’s earlier “Paris” set, and then the seven pictures he painted in Arles, which provide varying versions of the famous flower-vase arrangement. The film takes us carefully through each of the pictures, showing them in situ and giving the curators the chance to chat, rather like the epic Leonardo tour the same producers released in 2019. This film, though, has the chance to dwell a little longer, sketching in biographical information and offering readings from Van Gogh’s own letters to fill out the artist’s thinking. There’s also an interesting insight into the “competitive gardening” of the era, and the Van Gogh sunflowers serie place in it: Oxford University’s Stephen Harris offers a more enthusiastic explainer than you normally get in films like this.
Director-producer team David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky are past masters at putting this kind of film together, and Sunflowers has the usual mix of smoothly impressive visuals and authoritatively informed comment. The analysis focuses mostly on Van Gogh’s artistic and creative decisions; given that this was such a tumultuous period for his mental health (including the notorious ear-cutting incident after rowing with his house guest Paul Gauguin), I would have liked to hear more on how it may or may not have fed into the work. Be that as it may, this is a good option for those who are not quite ready to brave the museum, and prefer to try a little cinema-based social distancing instead.
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