Van Gogh: Beyond the Sunflowers

Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers are a ubiquitous part of pop culture, but the series of eleven paintings produced between 1887 and 1889 still has some secrets up its sleeve. Documentary filmmaker David Bickerstaff traveled from Arles to Philadelphia and from Amsterdam to Tokyo to investigate these works of art, and the resulting movie, Sunflowers, is now showing in American theaters and online.
The Sunflowers at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. © AFP

The iconic Sunflowers are all around us, whether in films, infinitely rehashed on social media, or used as inspiration for jackets by Yves Saint Laurent. They can be spotted on wristwatches in pink gold by Jaeger-LeCoultre, canvas sneakers by Vans, and countless T-shirts, scarves, handbags, and other fashion accessories. What’s more, they are the centerpiece of interactive exhibitions – a concept first developed in France – which are now blooming in New York, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and St. Petersburg, Florida.

However, very few people know that Van Gogh painted eleven versions of the same theme, starting with four wilted sunflowers set on a table while he was living with his brother Theo at 54 Rue Lepic in Montmartre. The subject matter shifted slightly when the artist moved to Arles in Provence in February 1888. “In the hope of living in a studio of our own with Gauguin, I’d like to do a decoration for the studio,” he wrote to his brother on August 22, 1888. “Nothing but large sunflowers.” He went on to create seven more paintings. One of them currently belongs to an anonymous American collector, while another was acquired by a Japanese collector and was destroyed in a U.S. air raid in 1945.

Van Gogh’s Yellow House in Arles, where he lived in 1888-1889 and painted seven versions of the Sunflowers. © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Vincent van Gogh Foundation

The five others, which are the focus of the Sunflowers documentary, are exhibited at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the National Gallery in London, the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, the Sompo Museum of Art in Tokyo, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Van Gogh was really proud of the Sunflowers,” says David Bickerstaff, who interviewed an expert panel of art historians, curators, and even a botanist as part of the documentary. A number of reconstructed scenes with an actor and some of Van Gogh’s letters read aloud round off the production. “He found his language in Arles. His friends like Gauguin and Degas loved the series; they knew he was onto something.”

: What led you to make this documentary?

David Bickerstaff: I had done two films based around the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The first was a biography, Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing, while the second, Van Gogh & Japan, focused on the influence Japanese art had on his work. He never went there, but owned a huge collection of Japanese woodblock prints. While we were in Amsterdam, the curators were talking about a new exhibition [Van Gogh and the Sunflowers, from June to September 2019] that they were organizing, based around the research they were doing on their Sunflowers painting. They wanted to bring the five Sunflowers paintings from public museums around the world into one space, but they couldn’t physically do it. So they asked me to travel to all the institutions and film each version of the painting. That was when I realized there was a story to be told!

What did you learn about the Sunflowers in the course of making this film?

I wasn’t aware of the Sunflowers painting with the bright blue background. I learned that it was the first painting that Van Gogh did in Arles; he was experimenting with colors and was very concerned about contrasts. Unfortunately, it’s currently in a private collection somewhere in America and hasn’t been seen since an exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1948! Even Martin Bailey, the leading expert on Van Gogh, doesn’t know who owns this painting today. In Amsterdam, I have looked at the Van Gogh Museum’s Sunflowers a lot, but I had never seen it with its frame off. When I finally did, a whole new narrative opened up. I didn’t realize Van Gogh had added a piece of wood at the top of the canvas to create more space above the flowers – you can see the line when you look at the back of the painting. From the side, you can also see how 3D the painting actually is, how each brushstroke created volume. The last thing that surprised me is how much the colors have changed over time. The Van Gogh Museum commissioned Belgian artist Charlotte Caspers to recreate part of their Sunflowers using the same paint as Van Gogh and applying it in exactly the same way. The difference is astounding, and the colors so vibrant and incredibly intense. When you look at the original work, the bright yellows have faded into dark browns. The paintings must have looked so in-your-face and modern when they came off the easel!

You saw five versions of the Sunflowers. Do you have a favorite?

I actually have two, for two different reasons! The first is the one in Tokyo, because I was lucky enough to be there when the Sompo Museum of Art took the painting out of its glass vault – a very rare event! – and removed the frame to clean it. The piece is also unsigned and has a slightly different style, but no one knows why. Maybe Van Gogh wasn’t satisfied with it? Or perhaps he hadn’t finished it? My other favorite version is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art [below, right]. It’s one of two Sunflowers Van Gogh painted after he cut off his ear. It was January 1889 and sunflowers were not available, so he painted the bouquet from memory. There’s a maturity to it, but also some idiosyncrasies, like this big red eye in the middle of one of the flowers. It almost reminded me of Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey! The crooked, dying flower on the right of the canvas also really stands out on the flat, blue background. Many people have interpreted it as the image of death in the cycle of life.

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, January 1889. © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Vincent van Gogh Foundation
Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, January 1889. © Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Sunflowers are immediately recognizable and have transferred into modern culture. How do you explain such a long afterlife?

I made another documentary on Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is another of these endlessly reproduced images. No one knows who the girl was, so there’s this little gap in the painting where fiction can come in. You can make up a story. The Sunflowers paintings are different. They’re always associated with the tragic story of Van Gogh and his suffering. But they’re also joyful, exuberant and highly graphic, and you only need to see the smallest section to identify them. I think that’s why they have been reproduced and reconstructed so often. Like Girl with a Pearl Earring and the Mona Lisa, they seem to spark a universal reaction.