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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (4/6/2021)

(A review of Exhbition on Screen: Sunflowers)

Director David Bickerstaff and producer Phil Grabsky must over the blue moon that their latest release, Sunflowers, coincides with the easing of the lockdown restrictions pertaining to cinemas, as the films in their excellent Exhibition on Screen series need to be seen on the big screen. Centriing on a show at the Van Gogh Museum n Amsterdam, this represents a slight departure from previous EOS documentaries, as the focus falls on a specific aspect of a great artist's oeuvre.

In the opening remarks, Louis Van Tilborgh, the senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum, claims that the sunflower paintings are Vincent Van Gogh's finest achievement. Martin Bailey, the author of The Sunflowers Are Mine, then recaps the key events of the Dutchman's varied and troubled life over John Peter Russell's `Vincent Van Gogh' (1886) and `Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear' (1889).

As we see the Van Gogh Museum preparing for its Sunflowers exhibition, Senior Curator Nienke Bakker explains that the artist produced 11 sunflower pictures in all. Five were still lifes painted in Paris, while the other seven were produced during Van Gogh's stay in Arles in Provence. A caption reveals that the earliest example, `Sunflowers' (1888), resides in a private collection and hasn't been seen since 1948. Dating from the same year, the second `Sunflowers' perished in a fire during the American bombing of the Japanese city of Ashiya in 1945. Other variations can currently be seen at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, The National Gallery in London, the Sompo Museum of Art in Tokyo and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, .

Bakker also notes that Van Gogh had only been painting for five years when his fascination with sunflowers began. He was deeply influenced by the Barbizon School of pastoral painters, including Jean-François Millet, whose `Woman Combing Wool' (1856) anticipated the style of such Van Gogh works as `The Potato Eaters (1885). On relocating to Paris, he began a series of flower still lifes in the manner of `Vase With Gladioli and Chinese Asters' (1886) and Bailey avers that they were inspired by both his love of Nature and his eagerness to experiment with colour after meeting members of the Impressionist brotherhood.

In a letter, Van Gogh identifies the impact made by canvases like Edgar Degas's `Male Nude' (1856) and Claude Monet's `The Artist's Garden in Argenteuil (A Corner of the Garden With Dahlias)' (1873) before describing the rationale behind `Vase With Chinese Asters and Gladioli' and `Small Bottle With Peonies and Blue Delphiniums' (both 1886).

Clare A.P. Willsdon, Professor of the History of Western Art at the University of Glasgow, reminds us that Montmartre in 1886 was a village on the outskirts of Paris and that the inspiration for items like `Montmartre: Windmills and Allotments' (1887) lay at his doorstep. She also cites the influence of Georges Jeannin (`Vase With Flowers'), Ernest Quost (`Garden With Hollyhocks', c.1881-90) and Henri Fantin-Latour (`Flowers', 1871) and notes that Vincent's dealer brother Theo would have been familiar with such Monet pieces as `Bouquet of Sunflowers' (1881).

In a letter to his sister, Wilhelmina, Van Gogh claims to be devoting himself to becoming a little old man. But the wrinkles and false teeth mean nothing, as he is also learning how to use colour by painting still lifes of flowers and landscapes such as `Garden With Courting Couples: Square Saint-Pierre' (1887). Over glorious close-ups of bee-tended blooms, Stephen Harris, Druce Curator of the Oxford University Herbaria, discusses the boom in competitive gardening that had popularised sunflowers (`helianthus'), which had first come to Europe in 1492.

While they were used for food and dyeing in the New World, they were purely decorative in the Old and the fact that they were primarily a garden staple meant that they would not be seen in abundance in fields in Van Gogh's day. He considers the two-part structure of the sunflower head and, in dashing the myth that the flowers follow the sun, Harris notes that the tallness of the stems led to sunflowers being associated with eminence and power.

Willson develops the point in relation to Anthony Van Dyck's `Self-Portrait With a Sunflower' (c.1632-33) by stating that sunflowers were also a symbol of devotion and that his work reinforced Van Dyck's loyalty to Charles I, whom he had immortalised in the famous equestrian portrait of c.1637-38. She suggests the image might also reflect Van Dyck's dedication to his vocation, as the sunflower was still comparatively rare and Willson points to the way in which exotic blooms with reverentially depicted in paintings like Abraham Mignon's `Flowers in a Glass Vase' (c.1670).

In many cases, such images were designed to reflect the fleeting nature of the flower's beauty, although the highly devout Maria Van Oosterwijck - who can be seen in Wallerant Vaillant's `Maria Van Oosterwijck: Flower Painter' (1671) - introduced a spiritual element to the still life in pictures like `Still Life With Flowers in a Decorative Vase' (c.1670-75), which contrasts the sunflower with a bright red chrysanthemum, which had only recently been introduced to the United Provinces by merchants trading in the Far East.

Van Gogh would also have been familiar with the colour combinations in pictures like Johannes Vermeer's `Diana and Her Nymphs' (c.1653-54) and Willsdon reveals that he called his sunflower series a symphony in blue and yellow. The latter hue is also prominent in `Quinces, Lemons, Pears and Grapes' (1887), which he painted in Paris and Van Tilborgh comments on Van Gogh's conscious use of yellow to give himself hope during his periods of depression.

Over Albert Bartholomé's `In the Greenhouse' (c.1881) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir's `Flowers in a Vase' (c.1866), Willsdon explores the extent to which the cultivation of flowers helped shape the way artists began to think about colour and form during the 19th century. Van Gogh hoped to cash in on this vogue during his stay in Paris, where he produced `Sunflowers Gone to Seed', `Two Cut Sunflowers', `Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed' and `Sunflowers' (all 1887).

Bakker claims he put figures into sketches like `Couple Out For a Stroll' and little-seen paintings like `Allotment With Sunflower' (both 1887) to show how tall the plants could grow. But he was starting to feel constricted in this rustic enclave and headed south in search of light, warmth and colour.

He enthused about his surroundings in letters to his sister, as we see `The Yellow House (The Street)' (1888). Once again, there were no fields of sunflowers, but Bakker draws our attention to a sketch entitled `Garden of a Bathhouse' (1888),, as we learn from a letter to Theo that Vincent had hoped to share a studio with Paul Gauguin and decorate the walls of his bedroom with sunflowers. As Bailey interjects, however, they were a third-choice topic, as a mistral prevented Van Gogh from painting a landscape, while the sitter he had engaged for a portrait failed to show up.

In fact, he did four sunflower pictures in one week, with the first showing three flowers in a green-and-white vase against a light blue background. This was the first painting sold after the artist's death and is the one that has been unseen since 1948. Bailey reveals that its whereabouts have been unknown since it changed hands in the 1980s and he is confident it will sell for an astronomical price if it's ever auctioned.

The second showed six flowers against a royal blue backdrop. It was bought in the 1920s by Japanese collector Koyata Yamamoto and was destroyed during a raid on the same day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Now residing in Munich, the third was painted in six days in August 1888 and depicted 12 flowers in a yellow earthenware pot. It's discussed by Joachim Kaak, the Curator of Painting and Sculpture, 1850-1900 at the Neue Pinokothek, who highlights the influence of Japanese scroll art on the flatness of the image. However, the thickness of the paint renders the picture an object in itself and makes the audacious contrasts in the shades of yellow all the more striking.

He informed Theo of his ambition to simplify the composition in the arrangement of 14 flowers against a yellow background that is now housed at The National Gallery, Bailey reveals that this painting remained with sister-in-law Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, who was very reluctant to sell it. However, as Chris Riopelle, the gallery's curator of post-1800 paintings, explains a bequest from fabrics tycoon Samuel Courtauld gave the National the clout to purchase `Portrait of Postman Joseph Roulin' (1889) and then swap it for `Sunflowers' in 1924. This and the Munich painting were chosen for Gauguin's room.

As we see `Basket of Oranges' and Gauguin's `Vincent Van Gogh Painting Sunflower's (both 1888), Riopelle describes how artistic differences drove the friends apart. Over `Portrait of Gauguin' (1888), we hear Van Gogh eulogising his guest. But the chasm between them is shrewdly delineated by Riopelle using Van Gogh's `L'Arlésienne' (a painting that was dashed off in an hour) and Gauguin's meticulous sketch, `L'Arlésienne, Mme Ginoux', which he used to complete `Café At Arles' (1888).

Inspired by this approach, Van Gogh painted `Van Gogh's Chair' and `Gauguin's Chair'. However, in December, they had a huge falling out and Van Gogh was committed to an institution after cutting off his ear while in the depths of depression. Gauguin's own state of mind is reflected in `Self-Portrait With Portrait of Émile Bernard (Les Misérables)' (1888), but he was much more resilient than his friend.

On his release from Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Van Gogh hit upon the idea of creating a triptych with `La Berceuse (Woman Rocking a Cradle)' (1889) being flanked by the yellow and pale blue sunflower pictures. Bailey notes how this is particularly apt in the case of the National Gallery painting, as Van Gogh had suggested a circle of life by showing flowers in bud and bloom, as well as those going to seed.

At this juncture, Van Tilborgh suggests that the pots wouldn't have been big enough to support 12 or 14 sunflowers before we move on to the Tokyo version, which Van Gogh painted to satisfy Gauguin's request for a souvenir of his stay in Arles. Shoko Kobayashi, Chief Curator of the Sompo Museum of Art, reveals that it was painted in November-December 1888 on a roll of jute that Gauguin had bought and divided between them, while Bailey explains that it had sold at auction for £27 million in 1987. As it was unsigned, some questioned its authenticity, but Riopelle points out that Vincent didn't sign every canvas and that we have no idea why.

The Van Gogh Museum copy has been studied by Ella Hendriks, a professor of conservation and restoration who has investigated the materials and techniques used in making the picture. Artist Charlotte Caspers echoes her views on how the colours will have depreciated with time and describes how special pigments had to be produced in order for her to reproduce a section of the 1888 canvas to convey the brightness of the original colour scheme.

Her insights into the process are fascinating, as are those of René Boitelle, the senior painting conservator at the Van Gogh Museum. He reveals that the artist added a wooden strip to the top of the canvas to give himself the room to finish the tallest flower and Boitelle laments the fact that a clumsy 1920s restoration emphasised the join. Boitelle and Hendriks also deplore the application of varnish, as Van Gogh had never coated his paintings and now the paint and the varnish have melded in places on the canvas.

As revealed by Jennifer Thompson, the Curator of Paintings and Sculpture, the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired its `Sunflowers' (1889) from artist-cum-collector Carroll Tyson in 1963. This version has a yellow and lilac pot, as well as one sunflower with a bent stem and another with a vivid red eye. As it was painted in January 1889, it's tempting to suggest that it was done from memory and takes into account Gauguin's contentions about how art doesn't have to be created from the life.

Riopelle and Hendriks commend Van Gogh for the subtle differences in each of his sunflower paintings and how central the motif became to his oeuvre. Indeed, Bailey suggests that they are now the most recognisable pictures in the world of art. One suspects Leonardo Da Vinci and The Louvre might have something to say about that, but there's no doubt that the works bring a sense of euphoria similar to the one that Van Gogh experienced when Gauguin wrote to tell him that he preferred his sunflowers to the ones painted by Monet in a Japanese vase (`Bouquet of Sunflowers', 1881).

This is a fittingly uplifting place to leave a story that doesn't end happily. Indeed, it might have been worth exploring why Van Gogh didn't paint sunflowers in the traumatic final months of his life. But this is a minor quibble with a typically astute study that proves once again the Grabsky and Bickerstaff know their stuff as both film-makers and art historians.

At times, it feels like this is a Guinness Book of World Records attempt to fit into one film as many possible variants on the pronunciation of a single surname. Moreover, some of the shots of Jamie De Courcey looking soulful in close-up invite the mischievous speculation that Prince Harry could always work as a Van Gogh lookie-likie if the mega-buck contracts ever dry up Stateside.

On the serious side, Bickerstaff and his co-cinematographers do a fine job of capturing the tactile nature of the impasto, while the readings given by Jochum Ten Haaf allow the viewer to assess Van Gogh's mindset when he painted these epochal works. Yet, perhaps the most interesting section centres on the work of the Amsterdam restoration team and the efforts of Charlotte Caspers to reproduce Van Gogh's original colour scheme. This takes the film towards the murkier territory explored by Oeke Hoogendijk in My Rembrandt (2019). Indeed, Caspers's labours are probably worth a documentary in themselves. But they add a level of intrigue to a close study of impeccable scholarship.

Sunflowers is released in cinemas across the UK from 8 June, including Curzon, Everyman, Odeon, Picturehouse, Showcase, Vue and independent cinemas. Find your nearest cinema at

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