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Loving Vincent

One of the qualities I was keenest to foster in our boys as they progressed through adolescence to adulthood was the courage to be themselves, and the confidence to become the people they aspired to be, without deferring unnecessarily to the opinions of others - including the views of their parents!

Of course I don’t dispute for a minute that we should always be on the lookout for, and open to receive, whatever helpful wisdom may present itself to us as we make our way through life. But it has always seemed to me that if we give too much weight to the thoughts and comments expressed by those around us in order to determine what we should or shouldn’t do or say, we may never become the person we were meant to be. After all we each have our own journey to make, and our own path to forge, through what can often be a complicated and challenging world.

I am so proud of the fact that we have already seen both our sons become very much their own men, and inspiring ones at that; even though, in Ben’s case, his life was cruelly short.

Teenagers are notoriously self-conscious about their appearance, and the prospect of wearing spectacles would have aroused considerable apprehension for many young men and women. Not Ben though. At the age of 16, when the idea was first raised, he willingly accompanied me on a joint visit to the optometrist. And then, following his examination, he equally willingly received and adopted the recommendation to wear glasses. Although he dabbled with contact lenses from time to time, for the period of almost five years thereafter he thought nothing of wearing spectacles in just about any situation – with the exception of soccer of course, where glasses presented a potential source of danger when attempting to head the ball!

Coincidentally (?) it was around this same time that Ben decided to wear his hair in a topknot; a decision with which he persisted in staunch defiance of the generally unfavourable comments received at school (and occasionally at home) about the way it looked. As time passed, and the topknot remained, Ben’s mates decided this feature had achieved sufficient permanence and distinction to warrant the conferral of a nickname in its honour. And thus “Vincent” was born.

Why Vincent you ask? A fair question. As I understand it the view taken by those responsible for the nickname was that the topknot looked like an inverted paintbrush on the top of Ben’s head. Which apparently gave him the appearance of an artist who couldn’t bear to part with his most important implement. On reflection Ben’s nickname could just as easily have had him sounding like a member of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but those in charge were, it seems, greater admirers of Van Gogh and the Dutch masters than the great Italian Renaissance painters – and so Vincent he became.

Now although the topknot had finally and mercifully been snipped, much like an infected appendix, by the end of 2014, the name Vincent had, by this time, taken firm hold – notwithstanding that it too had received a minor trim over the course of the year, having been colloquially shortened to Vince during that period. So that when the time came to choose the “handle” to appear on Ben’s Year 12 Graduation Jersey there was no real option; Vince it would be.

For much of my adult life I have been an enthusiastic fan of Van Gogh’s work. Linda shared this appreciation, which led to us having prints of two of the artist’s better known paintings (Café Terrace at Night, and Irises) adorn the walls of our home during the early years of our marriage. Now neither of us have pretensions to being any sort of art critic, but there was always something about Van Gogh’s style that seemed completely and irresistibly unique to me. A compelling style all his own, just like the young man who briefly shared his name.

Though it was released in the second half of 2017 I had never seen or heard of the movie, Loving Vincent, until it was shown on television on 17 January 2020, almost exactly one year after Ben’s death. It is a truly extraordinary visual experience ‑ whether or not you are familiar with, or a particular fan of, Van Gogh’s paintings ‑ and one that apparently took over six years to produce. This is perhaps not surprising when one considers the film involves the animation of artistic work created by more than a hundred classically trained painters from more than 20 countries, all utilising the style of their idol and inspiration.

The plot of the film centres on the attempted delivery to Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, of a letter written by Vincent before his death. But the film has an element of mystery associated with it too, as it incorporates an investigation by the bearer of the letter, Armand Roulin, of the events and circumstances leading up to Van Gogh’s apparent suicide.

What touched me most about the film though was a scene towards its conclusion in which Armand and his father, Joseph, are contemplating the night sky, and reflecting on Van Gogh’s death. Joseph says, “Oh, would you look at it. A whole other world up there. Something we get to gaze upon but don’t fully understand. Reminds me of him. Feels wrong. All that life snuffed out because of a stupid accident”. To which Armand replies, “What I’m wondering is if people will appreciate what he did [and who he was]”.

If I could sum up this website in a few words it would be hard to go past these, paid in tribute to the original Vincent - who died at the age of 37 exactly 130 years ago.

Does it seem absurd to compare my own son’s loss to that of arguably the greatest painter the world has ever known? Of course, it must. And yet, when one considers the fact that Van Gogh did not produce his first work of art until he was 27 years of age, who can say what Ben’s future may have held?

Perhaps the last word on all of this should go to Van Gogh himself. In the closing scene of Loving Vincent (a condensed English translation of) a letter written by Van Gogh to his brother in July 1888 is read aloud, as if by the artist. It concludes:

The sight of the stars always makes me dream. "Why” I say to myself “should the spots of light in the firmament [ie the stars in the sky] be inaccessible to us?” Maybe we can take death to go to a star. And to die peacefully of old age would be to go there on foot.

This article, topped by an image of Starry Night, one of Vincent's best-known and most admired paintings, was ready to post some weeks ago. But something didn't feel right, and I couldn't quite bring myself to press ahead and do that.

It was around this time that I became aware of an ongoing exhibition in Sydney's Entertainment Quarter at Moore Park dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of Van Gogh's work and life. Van Gogh Alive is not just your ordinary art show - it combines paintings, sketches, photographs, music and the written word in an all-encompassing sensory event.

What I had not previously appreciated was how prolific a writer Van Gogh was during his lifetime. Extracts from these writings feature prominently in Van Gogh Alive, and are often as moving as the artwork itself, especially when read in combination with it. As the exhibition unfolded before me I became progressively more intrigued and excited to see what words had been matched by the organisers with Starry Night - the painting I had already chosen for myself as a symbol of the connection between Vincent and Ben.

It was a long wait - Starry Night was not painted until 1889, just a year before Van Gogh's tragic death - but, from my point of view, an entirely worthwhile one. As the photograph below reveals, of all the words and phrases from Vincent's writings that could have been chosen to accompany this particular painting, few could have seemed more fitting to me.

(For the uninitiated, the infinity symbol, and the word itself, have become synonymous with Ben's memory to those closest to him over the past couple of years).

So next time you look at the night sky, and contemplate infinity on high, maybe spare a thought for Vincent. And for Vince too. They were, and both remain, the very brightest of stars in my eyes.


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