Vincent Van Gogh’s comics style

Barbara Stok’s delightful comics biography encapsulates the spirit of the artist’s struggle, influences and commitment to art

The Dutch painting maestro Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853–1890)’s life told through the medium of comics naturally produces a work that anticipates its own heritage. Van Gogh was heavily inspired by many techniques employed in Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which he hung in his Antwerp studio to brighten the room and internalise the techniques employed by their creator. He described them as containing “those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches” in a letter to his brother Theo from Antwerp. He made copies of these prints to understand them better.

Van Gogh’s copy of Japanese artist Kesai Eisen

Later, he would start collecting Japanese woodcut art prints, hoping to trade in them. He was not alone in this craze. Japanese art became an obsession with 19th century Paris. This mania was called Japonisme, but van Gogh called it Japonaiserie. In a letter to his brother Theo, he exclaims:

“One of De Goncourt’s sayings was ‘Japonaiserie for ever’.”

The techniques and optical tricks of Japonisme influenced many painters, and the use of colour, washes, stroke vocabulary, cropped horizons, abrupt perspectives, and even subjects and style is recognisable in the avant garde movements of Paris. Impressionism, and the movements that followed it — the post-impressionists (as van Gogh’s work is classified), pointillism, and fauvism all show this influence. Later, the optical tricks and innovations of these Parisian artists, in turn, would become a standard feature of mass print and reproduction, the best example being pointillism and Ben Day dots (famously caricatured by Roy Liechtenstein). When mass print was introduced in Japan, the public was introduced to comics through Japan Punch. Not long after, influenced by American cartoons, a medical student named Osamu Tezuka would start drawing his odd-ball characters and their over-the-top science fiction adventures: a cultural moment that birthed the industry of manga. This completed the circle of influence. Thus, a comics biography of van Gogh’s life is a history of art told through art itself.

Stok’s friendly, simple caricatures and the primary pastel colour scheme, inspired from van Gogh’s favourite colours and palette, uses the medium of comics and a deft to lighten a life that had some very dark moments. In one letter of his numerous and voluminous correspondence with his brother Theo (who funded van Gogh’s practice), the artist wrote:

“There is no blue without yellow and orange, and if you put in blue, then you must put in yellow, and orange too, mustn’t you? Oh well, you will tell me what I write to you are only banalities.”

This is the palette used by Stok and its effect is simple, effective, and super fun.

From Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993), pg. 192
Stok interprets Van Gogh’s famous bedroom painting as a panel in her comic.

To encounter a van Gogh painting is like confronting a sudden apparition, a portal to another dimension and reality. Multi-coloured genies unfold and dance on canvas. They tilt this way and that way. Others curl upwards like bonfire flames. The canvas feels magically animated. The strokes add up collectively to a mass prison break from a thousand and one lamps to inhabit and confuse the senses. They make up patterns in which we see people, cafes, bedrooms, churches, and fields of wheat. Something in the mind changes. Reality shifts and we wonder if ever anything will look the same way again. Our perception — the way we see things — is fundamentally altered. In van Gogh’s work we find an early vestige of the power of comics iconography.

This weird style of van Gogh’s painting has attracted a steady rise of followers since his death in 1890. From vistas like Starry Nights and the open wheat fields of the french countryside, numerous portraits and self-portraits (including that of his postman and one of himself, infamously, with bandages swaddled around his head from an attempt to remove an ear), van Gogh painted obsessively studying everything from trees, gardens, peasants, chairs, and the layout of his bedroom. Yet, my favourite of his work is the jaw-dropping Almond Flowers, 1890.

Almond Blossoms

Almond Flowers was painted to mark the birth of van Gogh’s nephew, his brother Theo van Gogh’s son. The paintings feature elements of the Japanese Ukiyo-e prints that Van Gogh had been collecting: a cropped image, bold outlines of the branches, and and bright blocks of colour.

“I never get tired of the blue sky,” van Gogh wrote to his mother from Saint-Remy in the south of France.

The shade of intense whitish-blue, created to herald the birth of his brother Theo’s baby boy, leaves a lump in one’s throat. This is a painting celebrating renewal, rebirth and family by a man institutionalised in a mental facility.

Announcing the birth of his son, Theo wrote to Vincent: ‘As we told you, we’ll name him after you, and I’m making the wish that he may be as determined and as courageous as you.’ His sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger wrote to tell him: “What he does do is look at Uncle Vincent’s pictures with a good deal of interest — the tree in blossom especially, which is hanging over his bed, seems to enthrall him”.

Perhaps due to inherent factors or the pressures he put on himself to make work, van Gogh’s mind started to misfire. Despite considerable suffering, he never stopped painting. As this painting shows, even when voluntarily institutionalised in an asylum, defeated by his ambition to bring about a revolution in painting, van Gogh continued to work. Perhaps, painting was van Gogh’s way of keeping it together. He wanted to die but to live he needed to paint. If the drive to paint made him cut off one ear, it also kept the other one intact.

Born into a family of priests, van Gogh was inclined to join this honoured profession, ministering to the poor. Unfortunately, his parish found his preaching to be a touch over-zealous. Van Gogh’s enthusiasm would prove to be like a force of nature. Like a thunderstorm or a typhoon, his emotions were awe-inspiring displays that could easily wreak havoc and destruction. Foresaking religion, he turned to the work of another wing of the family: the art dealers. This lead to a stint in London. Some family members suspected that the bleak English weather triggered the beginning of his mental problems.

Van Gogh would then decide to become a painter and join art school, only to drop out. Dating to this period is The Skull. What was intended as a standard exercise for the novice art student seemed to bore van Gogh. He inserted a rollie cigarette into his skull’s mouth (endearing himself to generations of stoners). At this point, the apprentice still adhered to the orthodox palette of dim and muted earth colours that was in vogue at the academy (my theory is that the paintings of this period appear dark and muted because there wasn’t much indoor lighting available). Van Gogh’s main innovation was to paint outdoors, in a place like the south of France where light was abundant and created vibrant colours, like in Japan. They still find grass-hoppers embedded in his paintings.

The dimly-lit Potato Eaters

In the classical school style, however, van Gogh’s master thesis was the polemical The Potato Eaters (1885). The painting sought to dramatise the near-starvation diet of the rural peasantry. This was a time in history when the Chinese and Indians had far superior lifestyles to the average European. Peasants in many parts of Europe lived almost entirely on potatoes and, if the were lucky, a little milk. The background of The Skull is a severe black and the bone is rendered in shades of brown, raw ochre and off-white. It would be the bright white ember of the cigarette that would explode into Sunflowers.

The Skull.

A move to Paris, in 1886, led to encountering the impressionists — Pissarro, Monet and Gaugin — who were struggling to establish their style of painting as high art, and facing stiff resistance from the critics. Art and the artist were owned by the elite for their personal edification, to paint their likeness and objects they owned such as food, jewellery and cutlery. The traditional idea of sacred art as spiritual communion was laughed at.

Disappointed with these sort of attitudes, van Gogh moved to the country, seeking energy that would be earthy, natural and simple, yet beautiful and spiritual. Again, Japan was the inspiration. He wanted to set up a monastery dedicated to art, modelled like a Shinto shrine, where monks lived austere lives dedicated to cultivating an artistic practice, such as calligraphy or painting, as a community. He settled for a period in Arles and attempted to start this studio there. Gaugin came to join him, but did not stay long. This is one of the strongest sections of Stok’s biography.

Sadly, after the falling out, van Gogh lost confidence in his abilities and slipped into a deep depression. The artist shot himself through the chest shortly after completing a particular series of study of wheat fields. He did not die immediately. Instead, he suffered terribly as infection set in and he succumbed to the wound a few days later.

I just feel whenever I look at one his paintings that it is van Gogh, his work as well as his life, more than anyone, that anticipates our contemporary culture’s fascination for abstract graphic imagery beyond words and language. On drawing he wrote:

“What is drawing? How does one get there? It’s working one’s way through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How can one get through that wall? — since hammering on it doesn’t help at all. In my view, one must undermine the wall and grind through it slowly and patiently.”

Impressionism itself was born out of a conversation and intermingling of cultures, idioms and vocabularies, when Japonisme was the rage in Parisian circles. Van Gogh loved Japanese art, its influence on his own technique is obvious. If he were born in today’s era, who knows, he could be an obsessive collector of manga, maybe even be a mangakka himself?

Vincent van Gogh evoked the profound and the profane in a single leap: high ideals; ridiculous behaviour; outrageous dedication to craft; protesting at capitalism while demanding hand-outs from his family; and giggling while suffering death. Vincent van Gogh drove himself to the blackest of despair, the darkest shades of blue funk, but he also possessed the ability to inspire hope — his light blue backgrounds unfurl the sky itself. You feel like your spirit can actually go through a van Gogh painting, transmuting into a bird, and rise, soaring high above and beyond in that sky like the faraway ravens of his wheat field paintings.

We nearly lost this legacy. For the longest time, no one knew what van Gogh had made. It was his family, after his brother Theo passed away, his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger and the nephew who took his name and was enthralled by his paintings as a baby, Vincent Willem, who tirelessly curated and fought to keep van Gogh’s place in history. Unsurprisingly, Almond Flowers remained closest to the hearts of the Van Gogh family. Vincent Willem founded the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the home to which every pilgrim of comics must undertake the haj.

They say van Gogh died an unrecognised genius. Very few had seen his work outside a small circle. Only one of his paintings was sold. Yet, his brother Theo was amazed by the crowds of common people who turned up for his funeral — the very people van Gogh once tried to serve as a priest and then, highlight their circumstances and viewpoint in works such as The Potato Eaters. The artist may not have been toasted by the Parisian art circles in his lifetime but it cannot be said, either, that the people’s painter suffered an unheralded, forgotten death. Theo wrote to their mother after the funeral:

“If he could have seen how people behaved toward me when he had left us and the sympathy of so many for himself, he would at this moment not have wanted to die.”

Perhaps the simple country folk of rural France had understood, long before anyone else did, that the energetic red-haired Dutchman who they encountered painting furiously in their fields was a savant who saw the future— a connection to the divine.

Stok does a wonderful job of recovering van Gogh from the stereotype of a tortured, self-mutilating artist and relocates him in his beloved black outlines, panels, caricatures, and bright blocks of blue and orange colour.

I write about culture, books, and graphic design. Life goals include a graphic novel, and a hand stand.

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