Bernard Martin's show at ADA Gallery includes six sequential narrative paintings that depict Vincent Van Gogh's July 1890 shooting and demise in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. (Photo by Jay Paul)
When he was a young man, artist Bernard Martin, 82, read a cowboy book titled “The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones.” Marlon Brando in 1961 made a film from the novel called “One-Eyed Jacks” — a fact that Martin, a movie lover, enjoys contemplating. This is the thought behind “The Authentic Death of Vincent Van Gogh,” exhibited through April 30 at the ADA Gallery (228 W. Broad St.).
“Ever since, I’ve wondered what is an authentic death — or an inauthentic death?” he says. This led to six sequential narrative paintings, each 5 feet wide, that depict in huge comic-book style frames Van Gogh’s July 1890 shooting and demise in Auvers-sur-Oise. The show also includes recreations of Van Gogh’s self portraits interposed with pictures of the artist as a youth, and portraits of Kirk Douglas portraying Van Gogh.
Vacationing bratty brothers harassed the artist by sneaking fake snakes into his paint box, placing pepper on the ends of brushes that he nibbled on and laughing about his reactions. “They continually pestered him,” Martin says. Rene Secretan, then 16, had attended Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Paris a year before, which Martin acknowledges by reproducing a poster of the show in a painting about Van Gogh’s tormentors. Secretan started wearing a cowboy hat. In Auvers, he borrowed an old pistol that he used to scare birds and rabbits. This, too, connects to Martin’s interest in the cinematic and mythic history of the American West.
Martin deadpans, “As we all know, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the stomach with a nonexistent gun. Van Gogh never had a gun in his life, never shot a gun, never mentioned a gun, and no gun was ever found.” Only three small caliber handguns existed in Auvers — two were recovered after Van Gogh’s death.
“Several generations of artists grew up and survived on the strength of Van Gogh’s story,” he allows a glimmer for mischief. “When I started art school, we all expected to suffer.”
Martin, a 2003 Pollak honoree, was raised in Southwest Virginia’s Ferrum community, but he went on to Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University) to study commercial design. There, in the classroom of Jewett Campbell, he realized his artistic self. He followed the inspiration to Hunter College in New York City and back to VCU, where he taught for 32 years. For his friend, author Tom Robbins, Martin designed the Matisse-like paper cut-out cover for “Skinny Legs and All.”
He works every day in his studio, producing large paintings that cover subjects ranging from the naughty “Tijuana bibles” comics to a single gun whirl of John Wayne in the film “Stagecoach.” He successfully fought lymphoma two and a half years ago, though he insists this Van Gogh series isn’t related. “I’ve reached personal conclusions about things, and painting.” One of which is that to remain relevant, the medium must once again go another direction. For him, it’s meant big stories — like Van Gogh’s death.
In 1934, Irving Stone wrote “Lust For Life,” in which he described in graphic detail Van Gogh’s suicide, but neglected to mention where the gun came from and why he shot himself in the stomach. “Ninety percent of suicides shoot themselves in the head,” Martin says.
Director Vincente Minelli adapted “Lust for Life” with Kirk Douglas. The film cemented the story. “Nobody ever questioned it,” Martin says. “I‘ve lectured about Van Gogh, shown the slides, and out of all those years and all those students, nobody — including me — ever said, ‘Does this not seem a little strange?’ ”
After his injury, Van Gogh staggered back to the inn, where he succumbed after 29 tormented hours. He spoke with two attending physicians, police and a few others. The stories about that period were, in some cases, told years later by people who would have had reason to distort the truth. In 2011, authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith published a biography, “Van Gogh: The Life,” that questioned the accepted story of the artist’s death, from how Vincent could have shot himself in the stomach to the behavior of the bullying boys and subsequent conflicting testimonies.
“That’s getting into what I’m more interested in, the narrative possibilities,” Martin says. Whether Van Gogh was accidentally shot by a cowboy-playing brat — while teasing the artist, or aiming at another target — isn’t Martin’s concern. What matters to him is how the story is told and what parts we choose to accept.