Van Gogh, Chopin and Kurosawa: when Romantic art swallowed us

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Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest directors of the last century, in 1990 was 80. There were already thirty movies in his career and a list of international awards that can make anyone jealous. He was in the final part of his life and his career, he was aware of it and he knew that the best way to capitalize this condition was to make one of those movies inspired by wisdom, beauty and challenge to progress, as only great filmmakers can do. Something that, in the same year, Fellini was also doing, with The Voice of the Moon. In Kurosawa’s case, it was Dreams: a film composed of eight episodes inspired by the recurring dreams that followed him in those years. The fifth dream, Crows, talks about an art student in a Vincent Van Gogh gallery, who ends up literally swallowed by his paintings.

Van-Gogh-Crows-Wheatfield
Vincent Van Gogh – Wheatfield with Crows

The visual fascination of the episode is obviously given by the succession of Van Gogh’s paintings, where the protagonist walks, interacts, gets lost. He asks for directions to the people who compose them, walks through mysterious roads and paths, searching for the author of those canvasses. Van Gogh (played by an unrecognizable Martin Scorsese) is elusive, rapid, unsettled. He needs to keep chasing the sun, the light, he can’t stop. The sound of a locomotive accompanies his way, up to his famous wheatfield. The special effects are managed by an exceptional expert, George Lucas, with his Industrial Light & Magic company. The visual effect could leave open-mouthed just for the beauty of the images, but for Kurosawa that wasn’t enough. He also added a musical accompaniment to break our heart.

Frédéric Chopin’s Prelude N. 15. Perhaps the most famous work made by the Polish pianist, called “The Raindrop” for that persistent and constant note that keeps chiming from the beginning to the end of the composition: a reassuring presence in the beginning, that however turns into threat, risk, in the central part of the piece, bringing out Chopin’s inner demons. He wrote that prelude in 1838, during his stay at the monastery in Palma de Mallorca. There was a bad storm and George Sand (stage name of Amantine Dupin, his companion) returned from a walk with his son. She herself described the way Chopin explained the birth of that work:

He saw himself drowned in a lake. Heavy drops of icy water fell in a regular rhythm on his breast, and when I made him listen to the sound of the drops of water indeed falling in rhythm on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry that I should interpret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might – and he was right to – against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought, and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds.

Two disturbed geniuses, Chopin and Van Gogh, put together by the delicate touch, by the refined mastery of Kurosawa, in its most visionary, most dreamlike phase. The final result is what you see in the excerpt above. A movie about the supreme power of art, the one that grabs the spectator and wraps him with its aesthetics, forcing him to interact with what he observes. The need to grasp the true meaning of the artwork clashes against the impossibility, the elusiveness of the artwork itself, which in fact has no intention to give explanations, to facilitate the interpretation. The supremacy of form above content.

The ultimate goal of art is not to be understood: it’s to open a world to the observer, a world where he can get lost. And there was no one better than Kurosawa to represent that wonderful world.

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