News & Cues: Starry Nights Galore

by Koka Tarini Siddhartha

Although Vincent van Gogh rose to fame only posthumously, he is perhaps the most celebrated post-impressionist artist of all time. In this post, we draw your attention to Van Gogh’s works of art and their reuse in different twenty-first century mediums.

The who, what and where of Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh (pronounced ‘Vincent van Khokh, commonly mispronounced as “Vincent van Go”) was a Dutch painter whose calling as an artist came as late as when he was twenty-seven years old, by which time he had moved to Paris. In a short span of less than ten years — from the time he began painting until the time he committed suicide — he managed to create 900 paintings and 1100 drawings/sketches — amongst which were the infamous Starry Night, The Potato Eaters, Bedroom in Arles and The Yellow Room — although he successfully sold only one painting during his lifetime, The Red Vineyard at Arles, for 400 francs.

Several artists from the subsequent modernist era have been inspired by Van Gogh’s paintings owing, to his use of vibrant and abstract colours to portray the beauty of real-life subject matter. Although the key focus of this post is not the life and death of this artist, we strongly recommend you read more about him — his romanticized life and tragic death will compel you to find out more about his work and the psyche from which his paintings manifested in their spectacular forms.

His life as a whole — the mentally unstable and depressed state through which he continued to paint; his relationship with his brother and best friend Theo van Gogh; the fight he had with fellow artist and friend Paul Gauguin that ended with Van Gogh cutting off a part of his left ear and gifting it to the maid at a neighbourhood brothel; and the climactic end to his life, where he shot himself in a wheat field — and how he continues to live on through his art even after 1890, is a story that deserves to be heard.

The resurrected Van Gogh

It is ironic that Van Gogh’s fame peaked only after his death, with his painting, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, selling exactly a century later for a monstrous $148.6 million. His paintings began to receive recognition eleven years after his death due to the diligent efforts of his sister-in-law, Johanna Gezina van Gogh-Bonger.

Ever since his paintings entered the public domain, it has been all the rage  to create adaptations of the work in varying mediums. These secondary works, by numerous individuals, have a mixture of commercial and non-commercial uses.

Some of the ways in which his legacy live on are as a three-dimensional Van Gogh universe in China, featuring high-quality blown-up illustrations of his work along with historic footage, to create the look and feel of living like the artist; a replica of The Yellow House painting by the Art Institute of Chicago in association with Airbnb (yes, you can actually stay here for a pittance of $10 a night!); and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam where his paintings, the letters he wrote Theo, and even the prescription sheet containing details of his lopped-off ear can be seen.

There have also been even quirkier uses of his paintings and style — several websites exist where clothing featuring Starry Night can be bought; Californian make-up artist Lexie Lazear uploaded her Starry Night over the Rhone painted face on Instagram; and American photographer Drew Geraci used Prisma to create a time-lapse video of his journey across China using the Van Gogh filter that required roughly 2500 frames and eighty hours to complete!

Perhaps the most novel of these recreations is the upcoming documentary film Loving Vincent, scheduled to be released in 2017. The film was initially shot against a green screen, and later painted over by a team of ninety-five professional artists from across the globe, who recreated the entire film by hand, painting each and every of the 62,450 frames, which were later animated. Every twelve frames constitutes one second of this 88-minute film (yes, these figures blew our minds as well!).

…but how are these uses legal?

Van Gogh’s paintings and sketches were created over a century ago. Under international agreements governing copyrighted work, a copyright is valid for the lifetime of the author plus another fifty or sixty years — this varies from country to country. In India, it is the life of the author plus sixty years.

Since Van Gogh’s demise took place in the late nineteenth century, it is safe to say that his work is now in the public domain, available to any person for use in any form or medium. This fact, coupled, of course, with the general appreciation and awe of his work, accounts for the flood of Van Gogh-inspired products and derivative uses of his work available in the market.

Are these new works protected under existing copyright laws?

Let’s take three examples (as opposed to the innumerable recreations of the painter’s work we come across every day) — the Van Gogh-inspired clothing and footwear, the make-up artist with Starry Night over the Rhone on her face and the documentary film, Loving Vincent.

A quick online search should direct you to several websites laden with Van Gogh-inspired shoes, dresses and T-shirts with his paintings printed on them. When it comes to the garment industry, style or design is generally not granted a copyright, as the garment has a functional purpose attached to it which is not copyrightable per se — the functional aspect being to protect a person from being naked to the elements, or from walking without footwear (more about this here). However, when there is a fabric print of a certain aesthetic or visual appeal, a copyright may be granted provided the work is fixed in a medium and original. These Van Gogh-printed garments can hardly be called original as they are blatant incorporations of pre-existing works into different mediums, and so in all likelihood, would not be granted a copyright.

As for the work of make-up artists, let’s consider the long-established rule that tattoos are not copyrightable. A copyright can be granted to a work on the fundamental grounds that the work is original and fixed in a tangible medium. While tattoo artists have strongly maintained that the originality of their designs renders them protectable, several courts and copyright scholars have held that the skin is not a permanent or fixable medium, indicating it cannot be protected under copyright law irrespective of the uniqueness of the creation. We doubt Lexie Lazear even wants to protect her work in the first place, considering that she has generously given a detailed explanation of her recreation to her Instagram followers.

The documentary film Loving Vincent is a phenomenal project — can you imagine every frame of an entire film being painted by hand? This project has seen a tremendous investment of time, money and a whole lot of effort by actors as well as artists. The film traces the life of Vincent van Gogh through 120 of his paintings, with the help of about 800 letters he exchanged with his brother, Theo. Irrespective of the fact that the film is a biography of Van Gogh, the novel manner in which his life has been portrayed and the extensive skill and labour put into this film makes it a clear subject of copyright. This is a relatable example of how the idea-expression dichotomy works — the expression of the idea makes it protectable.

• • •

This post was essentially aimed at giving readers some clarity on how a work that is in the public domain can be reused in a myriad of mediums, and how copyright protection works with the ‘new’ creations. Reading up on Vincent van Gogh will blow your mind and we suggest you watch this short video on a Turkish art form called Ebru, where an artist recreates Van Gogh’s Starry Night. It will definitely leave you hypnotized!

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