note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi
An artist’s creative process is difficult to evoke upon a stage, and to evoke well. Some arts are more accessible to theatrical shorthand: an Isadora Duncan would say, “Here, let me show you….” An Alfred Stieglitz would mime taking a picture, followed by a slide of his subject being flashed upon a screen; in the recent ROMANTIQUE, Hershey Felder's Chopin came alive whenever he returned to the piano. Writers and painters are not so lucky --- theirs is a static art, involving much sitting or standing at desk or easel (for drama’s sake, it helps if they be scandalous or mad); actors playing them often resort to stock gestures (in ROMANTIQUE, George Sand seemed content to doodle while Delacroix poked a brush at his canvas to see if it was alive). Images and sounds aside, how does one convey to an audience the agonies and triumphs of forging something in the soul’s furnace; that the resulting work is a composite of talent, sweat, inspiration and timing --- more importantly, that what an artist does is not a hobby but his livelihood; the very air that he breathes? (Many an artist has chosen to starve rather than take up a 9 to 5 --- understandable only to another artist.) If the artist is well-known, should his life be seen as an embodiment of what he creates or should his mortal flesh, doomed to dust, be separated from what will remain --- his art?
In VAN GOGH, Joseph Kaknes --- a painter himself --- met this challenge simply and rather well. He presented Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) in his studio on the day before he shot himself, talking to the audience as art students (though he suspects they have also come to gawk at the legendary madman). Though billed as a one-man show, VAN GOGH had two characters, really: a medium-sized canvas stretched on a wooden frame waited, ready for battle (“Painting is more than work;” says this Van Gogh, “it’s combat with a canvas.”). Ninety minutes later, Van Gogh proved victorious: the canvas was turned into a painting, right before the audience’s eyes --- and it was a fascinating battle. (On the night I attended, the subject was sunflowers.) Armed with brushes and paints, advancing and retreating as he painted (“View your work from a distance; that’s how it will be seen: from a distance, in a museum or a home”), Mr. Kaknes mixed autobiographical narrative with an artist’s insights: “Stop the processing of your eyes; learn to see the colors first, not the forms.” “Tanguy (a beloved paint dealer) was one of the fathers of modern art, without being a painter himself --- his paints will still be vibrant a hundred years from now, while students’ paints will have faded.” “When painting outdoors, learn to paint fast to keep up with the light.” Amazingly, none of Mr. Kaknes’ performance exists in script form; he carries it all within --- to his credit, his monologue never rambled or turned repetitive.
Mr. Kaknes has been criticized for not being an actor. True, he did not dye his salt-and-pepper the color of flame nor had an ear made up to be missing its lower third, and he wore his own paint-smeared street clothes. Nor did Mr, Kaknes choose to give a conventional performance; battling his canvas was his performance, causing him, paradoxically, to become “Van Gogh” --- an illusion was created, after all. “No actor can do what I’ve just done,” Mr. Kaknes stated afterwards, and he was right: a trained actor might have given this Van Gogh dozens of character strokes but would have lacked the eye, the stance, the messiness --- let alone the craftsmanship --- that Mr. Kaknes seemed to bring so effortlessly to VAN GOGH. Even the flatness of Mr. Kaknes’ playing made sense, stemming not only from his concentration but also from Van Gogh being a man misunderstood by family, friends and enemies and finally withdrawing into himself, leaving only a harsh wariness towards the outside world (as the song goes, “…this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you…”).
VAN GOGH took place amidst the cozy clutter of the West End Theatre where Mr. Kaknes’ own lovely artwork lined the back wall and the aromatic sweetness of served wine mingled with the starry, starry night --- and it all worked. I asked Mr. Kaknes had he thought about letting another actor take a crack at his Van Gogh. “Not yet,” he replied. “I’m having too much fun with him.” Indeed, Mr. Kaknes made painting look easy as well as fun --- but, then, only someone who is not a painter would make such a comment.