Sunflowers – Exhibition on Screen

Directed by David Bickerstaff

2021/Australia/85mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A mad man. A failure. One of Europe’s most prominent artists. A visionary. Few artists cause such diverse opinions as Vincent Van Gogh. For numerous school children, he is the man crippled with mental anxieties and physical mutilation, only becoming famous after his death. To the art community, Van Gogh is a master of the post-impressionist movement, whose paintings have transformed his tortured existence into unparalleled beauty. But which speaks to you?

Perhaps it is the infamously sumptuous Starry Night which is your favourite, the swirling concoction of cobalt blues and unique Indian yellow painted from the view from his asylum window. Or the lesser frequented The Courtesan, an exemplary example of his fascination with Japanese art. But no, for many, the simplicity and layered colours of the Sunflowers is the image that catapults to the forefront of Van Gogh’s legacy.

But despite preconception, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is something of a series. The striking image of the golden crowns and peaking stems from a humble vase is synonymous with the painter, but few realise the fascination and influence the imported flower had on Vincent’s life. This series of paintings is the feature of the Exhibition of Screen’s feature-length documentary – not only of the often spoke wonder of the paintings, but the techniques, history and influences – not only on Van Gogh himself but of the blossoming presence these perennials stirred in Europe.

Traversing the world in crystal definition, David Bickerstaff’s Sunflowers structures itself as a tour of the five galleries hosting the publically viewable Sunflower paintings: from Amsterdam to Tokyo, Philadelphia to London, and finally Munich. Each with their own story to share of fires, theft and private ownership. Rife with interviews from eager fans and scholars, the film diversifies its palette by speaking to experts of botany and sociology to unravel the significance of Van Gogh’s choice in the subject. More interesting still are the secrets, the cheats in which the painter used to shape the canvas to his liking, to manufacture the colours, and the price time has taken on the work. And in weakness, the documentary calls upon dramatised readings to offer a sense of the man behind the straw hat, only to end up trudging the pacing.

Having performed the role previously and looking uncannily like the downtrodden painter, Jamie de Courcey takes to the role with ease. The dramatic portions, biographical in nature, blend letters and notes of Vincent’s life and experiences with a hyper-realised angle of filmmaking and colour. They come across as a touch filler, used to bulk out the film rather than add a sense of persona to Van Gogh – de Courcey never achieves any real sense of dimension with the limited scope of biography sequences. He certainly looks the part and previously has proven a capable actor, but Sunflowers treats his role as a visual separation rather than a narrative vehicle.

Highlighting these dramatic interludes as a touch more unnecessary is the care taken in the structure of the filmmaking and framing of the paintings themselves. There’s an innate understanding Bickerstaff takes in capturing the suitable angle to view all of the works catalogued, still infusing a sense of movement without detracting from the impact of the shot. Clarity is key as the cinematography doesn’t look to do anything other than enable the interviews, paintings, and framing to display their focal points in their best way. While it is never an achievable goal to capture the brilliance of colour or the texture of art on film, Sunflowers comes as close to feeling the oil on canvas as it can.

As equally informative as respectful and enjoyable, Sunflowers takes us into the ripples of the canvas in search of where the seed was planted for Van Gogh’s work. Accessible to connoisseurs and amateurs alike, Exhibition on Screen takes a respectful, and at times touching trip through one of Western artistry’s most pre-eminent figures.

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 exhibitiononscreen.com

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