Art: Van Gogh is the artist we think we know best…

    I thought I adored art too, and, compared with most citizens of the modern world, I reckon I do. Yet making these films has proved to me that my love is like a dripping tap in the bathroom when compared with the Niagara Falls of Vincent Van Gogh’s unreasonable love of art. Vincent’s feelings were weirdly physical. His pictures were his babies, yes. But more than that — more interestingly than that — they were sacred things with cosmic power in them. They could change the world. They had shamanistic properties.

    Let me give you an example. There’s a church in Antwerp, where Vincent briefly and hilariously studied at the art academy, called St Andrew’s, inside of which is a huge stained-glass window showing the Virgin Mary as the protectress of sailors. She’s Maris Stella, the virgin of the stars, about whom plainsongs used to be written. With two caring angels on either side of her, she forms a life-saving stained-glass triptych. If you prayed to this window, you didn’t get shipwrecked.

    Some years after he saw this wondrous window, when he had moved so disastrously to Arles, Van Gogh decided to re-create it, using the postman’s wife as the Madonna in the middle and two of his sunflowers as the attendant angels. He sent his brother, Theo, a drawing of this arrangement. He told Theo he wanted the postman’s wife to hang in the cabins of sailors. She would keep them safe. And if you look at her hands, you can see that she’s holding a rope of the kind that used to be attached to a cradle, so a mother could rock her baby without getting up. This rope leads outside the picture, to where you are standing. You’re the baby in the cradle.

    Vincent churned out half-a-dozen versions of this image. He wanted to give them away to his friends. He wanted everyone to have one. That way, his art would always protect them.

    I suppose these are crazy ideas. But aren’t they magni- ficently, encouragingly, excitingly crazy? And do you know how Vincent produced his half-a-dozen almost identical versions of the mother with a cradle, or, for that matter, all those similarly angelic sunflowers? He used tracing paper. Van Gogh was a demon tracer. I laughed when I made this discovery. Van Gogh scholars have twisted themselves into chronological knots trying to work out how Vincent managed to paint sunflowers in October, or January, as he did, when they bloom only in high summer. He traced them from his earlier pictures.

    Something else I found out about the sunflowers is that their botanical name is Chrysanthemum Peruvianum, the chrysanthemum of Peru. Because that’s where they were supposed to have originated. Van Gogh began mass-producing his sunflower paintings in order to hang them in the bedroom he was preparing for Gauguin, who was joining him in Arles. Gauguin had grown up in Peru.

    So the sunflowers were deliberately intended as a tribute to Gauguin. They were Gauguin’s special flowers rather than Vincent’s.

    Vincent’s favourite plant was actually ivy. When he was in the mental asylum in St Rémy, he began painting curious scenes of forest clearings covered in ivy. They’re curious because nothing outstanding seems to be shown in them. Just lots of ivy. It took me months of trawling through his mountainous correspondence before I found an explanation for these scruffy forest floors. Vincent refers to them in a letter to Theo as “secret love nests”. In his day, scruffy clearings were the sorts of places rural couples would slink off to for covert lovemaking. Clearly, he’d done it himself in his youth and now, alone in a cell, he was feeling nostalgic. Just before he died, in Auvers, a couple of local lads claimed they came across him masturbating in the forest in just such a clearing. Their claim has been ridiculed. But I’m inclined to believe it.

    My point is that we assume we know a lot already about Vincent Van Gogh, because he’s the world’s most popular artist, but, actually, we know so little. What we do know — he painted lots of sunflowers — we know in the wrong way. When I set off on the 2-year marathon involved in making these films, I worried that his story was already familiar. But it isn’t. Okay, those few tumultuous months in Arles, when he supposedly cut off his ear and supposedly went mad, have been the subject of plenty of attention. But the other 36 years of his life are almost virgin terrain.

    The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, home to the bulk of his output, is having his letters transcribed afresh. So that was one invaluable source of new information. Previous editions of the letters had censored the stuff about him that the Van Gogh family didn’t want us to know. His father, for instance, tried to have him put away when Vincent set up house in the Hague with a prostitute. The Van Goghs were ashamed of this and expunged it from the letters.

    The films go carefully wherever Vincent went, and although some of the sights we encounter would have upset him hugely, because progress has ruined most of the world that he knew, even he would surely have welcomed the opportunity to see his places again. I was particularly struck by the Borinage, the slag-dotted mining district of southern Belgium where Vincent starved and shivered his way through two ghastly years as an unpaid missionary. The Borinage is reputed to have been hell on earth.

    And I’m sure it was. But Vincent wrote excellent descriptions of its dark, awkward beauty. And he was right. Get the light right in the Borinage and it is strangely lovely.

    Seeing beauty where others saw nothing was one of his core talents. He saw beauty in chairs. Onions. Old boots. Ivy. Forest clearings. And, I was interested to find, in a certain kind of battered and broken woman. One of the things you can do in films about art, and nowhere else, is to show what you are talking about while you are talking about it. It’s a simple advantage. But a huge one. It makes television the perfect form, I believe, for the artistic biography. There’s a sequence in my film where we parade all the women Van Gogh ever wanted, one after the other, blurring into each other. In the voice-over, I’m prattling on about how similar they all were, and the visual proof of this, unfolding in front of you, is almost scary.

    Time after time, he went for the same woman: a thin-faced and faded brunette whom life had rolled over and scarred. In Arles, it was the proprietress of the all-night bar he drank in who fitted this exact visual bill. Madame Ginoux, she was called. If you look carefully into the background of his famous interior of the all-night cafe in Arles, the one with the billiards table in it, you can see Madame Ginoux sitting at the back, huddled up in intimate conversation with a guy with a red beard and a straw hat. It’s him. The magic of television makes it possible to see this.

    Madame Ginoux had something to do with the notorious ear-cutting, which I’m convinced was Vincent’s version of a custom practised in the bull-fighting arena just up the road from where he was living in Arles. If a matador has fought particularly well, the custom there is to cut off the defeated bull’s ear and throw it to a lady in the crowd. When Vincent hacked off his ear, he wrapped it in a newspaper and took it to a prostitute at his favourite brothel. She’s probably the whore on the left in the obscure painting he did of the brothel that hangs in the mysterious Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, which we were allowed to film for the first time. Somewhere, somehow, Vincent had been defeated in love, probably by Gauguin, who, incidentally, also painted Madame Ginoux. We now know that Vincent was suffering from impotence at the time, because he writes about it in one of the newly translated letters.

    When the television camera looks with attention at Vincent’s most romantic paintings in Arles and St Rémy, it often discovers pairs of tiny lovers hiding about the corners. The woman is invariably a dark Arlesienne, and the man invariably has a beard and a straw hat. Was Vincent making something happen in his art that he hoped would happen in his life? You bet.

    A particular ambition of mine was to make Vincent’s life serious again. The ear-cutting was an act of extreme violence that we have somehow managed to make jokey. Pretty much all of Van Gogh’s life and work has somehow been softened and sweetened for mass consumption. My Van Gogh is a harsh, hurt sexual obsessive with a thing about prostitutes. He’s a lover of ivy, not of sunflowers. I’ve taken the cuddliness out of him, and I’m proud of that