Interview with Axel Rüger, Director of The Van Gogh Museum

Erika Holmquist-Wall, Chief Curator and Mary & Barry Bingham Sr., Curator of European & American Painting & Sculpture at the Speed Art Museum: What did you think when you were first approached by directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela about the movie Loving Vincent and their plans to hand-paint the film in oil in the style of van Gogh’s painting?

Axel Rüger, Director of the Van Gogh Museum: Well, of course, you cannot help but to think it’s a crazy idea when you’re first presented with an idea like that. Especially when they tell you of the scale and what the ambition was.  But at the same time, I found the idea very sympathetic. And the truth is I think that’s there’s hardly an artist you can imagine who is more suitable for this approach. Because van Gogh is such a painterly painter, if you know what I mean. It would be much harder to make something like this with Picasso. Van Gogh lends himself because he painted real life, as it were. He didn’t paint weird shit out of the imagination, but he painted things that he saw in front of his eyes. And a lot of the material for the purpose of this movie is very user-friendly. And then of course—because people love his brushwork and they love his painterly manner so much—when that comes to life in a movie like this it kind of doubles the effect as it were. So in that sense we were quite intrigued by the whole thing, and seeing the potential of it we felt that it’s also a good thing to get on board and help them along. And particularly also with the script to be sure that it paints the picture of his life. Of course, there are things that are maybe not quite so accurate and we corrected that. And then also one of my colleagues flew out to Poland twice to see them at work and to see how it was being made.

Erika Holmquist-Wall: So, over the course of seven years, were you in touch quite a bit over the duration of the production? Or would you just check-in every couple of months?

Axel Rüger: I think we were not—certainly not while they were really making it—we were not in touch constantly. Because there is only so much you can advise on a script, and obviously we don’t advise on animation techniques or anything like that, and otherwise with their artistic freedom. But later on, when the movie was about to come out, we helped with promoting it. We did a lot of that because [the Van Gogh Museum’s] presence in the media and online is quite large. With altogether maybe 8,000,000 followers on social media or so, it’s a fairly substantial audience. And then of course when people meet, share and send things on then it multiplies that number quite a bit. So, we used our channels a lot for promoting the film. I was at the world premiere in France and we did some stuff on social media with that; an interview with them, the makers of the film. And now, also, the final stretch here in Hollywood we have supported the film with an ad campaign that we at the museum initiated for the final push as it were. And we had the German premiere in our museum.

Erika Holmquist-Wall: That’s fantastic! And I’ve heard too that they’ve just started screenings in China and Thailand and the success there has been amazing. I think the box office is now over $40,000,000. How has that affected the museum? Have you seen an uptick in visitors and interest, apart from your presence on social media?

Axel Rüger: Well, if I’m really honest, it’s really difficult because we already have such an enormous audience. Last year we had almost 2.3 million visitors. And what really contributes to that, it’s all a mix of maybe news, it’s the popularity of Amsterdam, it’s a whole combination of factors. And there’s of course also always other news. I mean, last year we were in the world news all over the place when our two stolen paintings had been recovered and returned to the museum. And then a couple of weeks ago a new drawing had been discovered — or at least it was announced then a few weeks ago. All these things are always global news. And so, then it’s very difficult to disentangle that and say, “well we can attribute so many more visitors to Loving Vincent.” I mean, that’s impossible to say for us.

Erika Holmquist-Wall: Looking ahead over the next several months, how will the museum continue to be involved with the movie?

Axel Rüger: Well, we’ll see what they want or need. Because it’s running in theaters in the Netherlands, it’s been exceptionally successful in the Netherlands. And so, I have no idea really whether we will be very deeply involved because soon it will be released on DVD, so surely, we will sell it in the shop and all of that. Eventually, I think the news train moves on.

Erika Holmquist-Wall: We thought it was only going to run one weekend, and it’s now been months. We had no idea it would be so popular!

Axel Rüger: Welcome to my world.

Erika Holmquist-Wall: It’s been incredible. So, speaking of success, you’re attending the Oscars this year in support of the film. What’s that been like leading up to the big evening?

Axel Rüger: Yeah, well for me of course less than for the actual [film]makers. Because in a way, I’m sort of—I don’t want to say a hanger-on—but clearly, I’m not one of the nominees or makers of the film. So, we are really the supporting act, as it were. But, of course we are reasonably well-connected over here and in Los Angeles and I know museum colleagues here, and then the two merge. And I do what I can. And in fact, the truth is because the news about the film, that’s all out there, and everyone has reported on it or talked about it in the Dutch media, so that’s not really newsworthy. But apparently yesterday one of the Dutch papers put on the website the news that I was attending the Oscars so now I get all these requests for after the Oscars. They want to know how it works out and what I experience. And all of that.

Erika Holmquist-Wall: Well, soak it up, that sounds like an incredible experience. We all know that van Gogh has been the subject of many films. Which ones do you think are the best?

Axel Rüger: Oh god, that’s difficult to say. There’s so many, and many are a sign of their times. Lust for Life is kind of funny now, but it was a very serious production—in terms of the production design—it’s old-fashioned to us now but it was pretty good for its own time. Of course, this film really helped the myth and the romantic image around van Gogh. So, in that sense, good or bad, the film has been incredibly influential for van Gogh’s reputation. You could say that we’ve been battling that ever since, but it’s very influential. And then there are so many others that’s it’s difficult to say what’s the best. When you have a film by Akira Kurosawa where Martin Scorsese plays Vincent, I mean that’s a totally different group of artists and a whole different feel. It’s been interesting that it is a subject for films again and again. People are always trying to get their heads around the artist or find a new way [of telling his story]. Because now there’s one in the making with Julian Schnabel, with Willem Dafoe evidently playing Vincent, so we’ll see what that’s going to be like.

Erika Holmquist-Wall: Really? Does the museum work with these [current] productions?

Axel Rüger: I don’t think so; they have not approached us yet. I mean, of course they can do whatever they want with van Gogh, we are not controlling that. We can’t. And if they don’t approach us, we certainly never force ourselves onto anyone. If they want to do their thing, be my guest. If they approach us, then we will see what we could do. Usually they want us as fact-checkers essentially, to look at the script, and to check it. Because our people have been living and breathing van Gogh for their entire careers, so they know practically every thought that man has ever thought [about the artist].