A poem by Tupac Shakur. A short story by Woody Allen. A dream of Akira Kurosawa. A film starring Kirk Douglas. A song by Don McLean. A 2010 episode of Doctor Who. A one man play written by Leonard Nimoy. The character of Vince in the Nintendo DS game, Art Academy. A Stuckist homage by Billy Childish. An animated clone in the MTV show, Clone High. Eight fragments for baritone and string quartet. Correspondences for soprano and orchestra. Symphonies. Operas. Documentaries. A parody in Family Guy. And now a graphic novel about the life of Vincent Van Gogh – a man who also inspired the folk singer Bob Neuwirth to pose the question, “Where did Vincent Van Gogh?” (which if you pronounce the name, as you should, GOKH to rhyme with the Scottish Loch, makes Bob Neuwirth looks rather stupid) – by Barbara Stok (whose name rhymes more closely with her subject – unless Stok is pronounced Sto, in which case maybe we should put her in touch with Bob Neuwirth). What more, you may well ask, can Barbara Stok add to a life we all probably feel we know quite a lot about (a life that has continued to resonate as the art that struggled to sell in his lifetime continues to increase in value)? The answer is – we’re probably not asking the right question.
Vincent focuses on the last few years of Van Gogh’s life, when he was residing in Arles, supported by his brother Theo who was busy working as an art dealer – and gradually, ever so gradually, striving to help his brother, and the painters his brother admired, to make money and become successful. We see the passion with which Vincent goes about his business (two neighbouring painters initially deriding Vincent’s distinctive style and also the hours he keeps, Vincent choosing to work a full day while the others slope about, not taking their profession entirely seriously in Vincent’s eyes). This passion is a double-edged sword, however, and later in the book, when Gauguin comes to stay, we glimpse and wonder if perhaps Vincent’s single-minded artistic intent also made him something of a bore at times. But we don’t get bored of Vincent, of course, because via a Pigpen-like miasma about his head, we come to see his mental problems manifest. When the world proves too much, Vincent’s eyes become Sacco orbs of nothingness or Brancusi spirals. The narrative fractures, fragments, the world distorts, tilts, jolts and jumps. Poor Vincent, we think. Poor Theo.
The narrative, the way Stok has put the story together, is immensely charming (if one can say that a story of what is essentially the punishing effect of genius can be charming) – but the real attraction of the story, perhaps as it should be, is the art. Stok has fashioned a Van Gogh biography that looks like Herge’s Tin Tin. On first glimpse, it seems less realistic and more comic that you secretly feel the subject warrants. But it’s mere pages before you realise that she has got things exactly right. There is a lightness of touch at work here. She also defly weaves the words of the two brothers throughout the text (knowing when the art should recede and the words take precedence – another technique deftly employed, nicely judged, quietly resonant). Whether you know a lot or a little about the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh, you could do a lot worse than find out more in the company of Barbara Stok.
Any Cop?: A genuinely beautiful and moving graphic novel and a highly recommended read.