Brush strokes 50 feet high

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Detail of self portrait by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889, Oil On Canvas

For 40 minutes this morning I was transported from the icy streets and gray skies of downtown St. Paul to the sun-drenched fields of wheat and sunflowers in southern France. And I was immersed in the colors and brush strokes of one of the most popular painters of all time.

I was attending a preview of “Van Gogh: Brush With Genius” at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Omnitheater. The film is one of five featured in this year’s Omnifest, which begins January 29.

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Detail of “Undergrowth with Two Figures” by Vincent van Gogh, oil on canvas

The film, created by French filmmakers Peter Knapp and François

Bertrand, takes viewers not just to southern France where Van Gogh painted some of his best work, but to Musée D’Orsay in Paris and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where many of his works hang today. We move from the actual fields in which he painted, to the paintings themselves. Often the shot of the painting is so close up that it stretches across the entire dome of the Omnitheater, giving viewers the sense that they are standing in a painted cornfield, or walking through a painted room. It’s as though you’re seeing the world through Van Gogh’s eyes – an intimate perspective that simply isn’t possible when you are in front of the original work.

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Above, a shot of the Church at Auvers-sur-Oise… below, a detail from the painting it inspired

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The film serves as a reminder of Van Gogh’s amazing productivity; in just under ten years he painted more than 900 canvases. In the last months of his life he was finishing sometimes three works a day. The creative frenzy ceased abruptly when he shot himself in the chest. He was just 37.

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A close up look at Van Gogh’s letters

Perhaps the only flaw to be found in the film is the conceit on which it is made – as an “entertainment experience.” Indeed, this is no documentary. The film features three characters – Ellen, a fictional museum researcher (portrayed by actress Hélène Seuzaret), Peter, a film director (“played” by Peter Knapp, the co-director of the film), and the narrator, supposedly Vincent van Gogh himself (the voice is that of 52 year-old Jacques Gamblin, making Van Gogh sound far older than he ever was). When Van Gogh admires Peter Knapp in the course of his narration, I personally was left skeptical. Really? Would Van Gogh have liked this director? Isn’t that a bit vain?

While the debate around what exactly happened to Van Gogh’s ear still continues, in this film “he” says he cut it off himself, and makes no allusion to the fact that some believe his friend and fellow painter Gaugin did it in a drunken fight (this may in part be due to the fact that this film came out last year, around the same time as the most recent academic arguments).

Regardless of its artistic license or the distraction of both fictional and factual characters, the film succeeds at doing something truly remarkable. That is to take the work of a painter, and turn it into a world unto itself for us to explore.

“Van Gogh: Brush with Genius” runs January 29 – March 11 as part of Omnifest 2010.

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