DOCTOR WHO MEETS VINCENT VAN GOGH:
ART HISTORY MEETS POPULAR CULTURE
When the forces of popular culture meets the immovable object that is art history, the latter always loses and accuracy is often a causality. Those of us in the art history community, especially the classicists among us, have not forgotten the whitewashing of what was an actually a very colorful ancient Rome in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Leaving aside the over-dramatized and over-romanticized movies, such as Lust for Life, some quite good films have been made about artists. Surviving Picasso was marginal, Pollock was better, and Basquiat was quite good…give and take some dramatic license. I am more comfortable with creating a story arc—-the rise and fall of the tragic artist—-as phony as it is, than with unnecessary historical inaccuracies. Such was the case this weekend (in L. A.) on Doctor Who: “Vincent and the Doctor.”
Touring Paris, Doctor Who and Amy Pond visited the Musée d’Orsay, home of many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, once rejected and now revered by the French. The guest star of the week was the wonderful Bill Nighy, playing a stuffy art lecturer to the English-speaking art audience. I was hoping he would have been given a larger role, but that was not to be. Examining one of van Gogh’s paintings, the Doctor and Amy spotted a monster in the window of The Church at Auvers-sur-Oise (1890), one of his last paintings. A monster in the window of a church, a church that Vincent painted as a writhing distorted contorted expression of the mystery that is Gothic—great concept, yes? So where did the Doctor and Amy go to find the artist before he painted the church in Auvers? Arles.
The couple found van Gogh (Tony Curren) in Arles at the famous café, a place he painted twice, always at night: Pavement: The Café at Night and the more famous, The Night Café. The artist is engaged in an argument over the money he owed the café, a chronic problem for the artist who lived on an allowance from his brother, Théo van Gogh, a well-known art dealer. The physical resemblance between the actor and the artist was quite well done but the choice of accent was not the best. Granted it would have been difficult to replicate van Gogh’s accent—-he spoke English with a Dutch accent and French with a Dutch accent—-but does he have to have a slight Cockney accent, the signifier of the lower class? That said, the actor did a very nice job with van Gogh, who, at this period in his life, was in one his quite times. The crazy frantic bursts of emotion and the self-mutilation would come later in December. If the accent is a bit off, the chronology of the paintings was seriously out of whack.
These paintings of the café were done before the artist had his breakdown and sliced his ear, placing the entry of the Doctor and Amy in the month of September 1888, just before the artist Paul Gauguin arrived in October. When the Doctor and Amy go the “The Yellow House,” they find the house full of Vincent’s paintings. However, there are many paintings that were done later or earlier or in Saint-Remy and in Auvers. For example, the painting of Vincent’s bedroom (the interior of which was nicely produced for the show) was already hanging on the wall but it wasn’t done until October. The Irises, now at the Getty and The Starry Night were both done while Vincent was recovering at the asylum. La Berceuse, also in the house, wasn’t painted until January of 1889, after he had returned briefly to Arles. No one in Arles threw stones at Vincent until that winter, when he was minus one ear and was fresh from his stay in the asylum. And Doctor Who would have it that the artist did not paint sunflowers until he met Amy. Sunflowers are a summer flower and van Gogh had already begun his many paintings of the bright yellow blossoms.
These mistakes with the art are easily avoidable. There are thousands of books on van Gogh that can be referenced. One can only assume that the set directors, prop masters, and the fact checkers decided that the audience needed to see all of the famous paintings in one room for the neglected genius of van Gogh to be fully signified. The plot itself, about an invisible lost monster, which had been abandoned by its own kind on Earth and was flailing about, desperate and blind, was not too bad. The trick was that Vincent could see and hear the monster and no one else could and he became, by default, a fighter of monsters. The monster met its doom, poked to death by an easel. Very nice. It is always fun on Doctor Who to travel through time and watch him have adventures with famous people. The conceit of the artist as being a visionary whose vision surpassed that of those all around him, including the Doctor, was a clever one. One would like to think that the monster was a manifestation of Vincent’s depression and despair. Of course the monster was real and of course it was vanquished; it was only a McGuffin. The real story was the affection the time travelers had for the doomed artist who was in despair that no one appreciated his work.
The ending was quite lovely, because the Doctor and Amy took Vincent forward in time to the Musée d’Orsay and showed him a room full of his paintings. The “room,” or the gallery, was not real, of course, as there were works that belonged to other museums on the wall, such as the Irises, dislocated from the Getty here in Los Angeles. But never mind. The fun was to see the artist moved to tears at the sight of his art in a museum. I felt that the writers missed an opportunity for Vincent to see paintings he had not yet done—-like the Starry Night and Crows in the Wheatfields and feel hope for his future as an artist. Bill Nighy turned up again, still in the museum, but it would have been nice if he had been taken along for the ride back in time to Arles. When the Doctor asked him what he thought of van Gogh, Nighy proclaimed Vincent van Gogh a great artist in what was actually a very nice little speech. Van Gogh embraced the startled lecturer, who, of course, would never know that he had met his idol. A sort of “what if God was one of us?” moment. Answer—-we wouldn’t recognize her.
However, to conclude my concerns as an art historian: the conflation of Arles with Auvers was strange and unnecessary. Nighy had been very precise with the Doctor: the painting of the church was done in early June of 1890, not long before the artist died. But the TARDIS went to Arles in September of 1888. But here’s an idea. Surely the monster could have been relocated to a painting Vincent had done in Arles, maybe hiding out in The Night Café, a place the artist himself explained as horrifying:
I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin one’s self, run mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express as it were the powers of darkness in a low drink shop…and all this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace of pale sulphur….
Calling Richard Curtis, the writer of Doctor Who, you should come to me the next time you try using an artist in one of your plots. If I were a monster, I would hide out in The Night Café.
The jury is still out on the New Doctor. I like Amy Pond (Pond, Amy Pond) but her relationship with the Doctor is yet to be fully resolved. Rose and the Doctor were in love, Martha was in love with the Doctor but he couldn’t love her back, the Doctor and Donna were the Odd Couple, friends who made each other better people, but Amy and the Doctor…..? Still in mourning for Rory, she doesn’t seem to be as dazzled as his previous partners and treats him with disclaimers. Part of the problem is one of imbalance. Amy, I think, is fully realized character, completely inhabited by Karen Gillan, but I am still waiting for Matt Smith to find his inner Doctor.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger