Portrait of a Man #WEPFF #flashfiction

Posted February 19, 2020 in Blog Fests & Hops, Creative Writing / 56 Comments

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About my Entry

This flash fiction piece is different from any other I’ve done. Nothing immediately sprang to mind for the prompt “Café Terrace”, so I decided to read up on Van Gogh’s painting Café Terrace at Night to see if that might spark something.

In a letter to his sister, Van Gogh described it as “a painting of night without black.” That idea intrigued me, as did the comparison some have drawn between the painting and The Last Supper.

I then discovered that the painting and the café it is based on were both featured in the 1956 film Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas, who had passed away only a couple of days before I started researching. Falling down a Wikipedia rabbit hole, I was amazed to learn that Douglas had appeared in more than 90 films!

Van Gogh’s artistic career was similarly prolific; he produced more than 2,000 pieces of art in his short lifetime, including about 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches.

I suddenly had a random idea: I would challenge myself to write a flash fiction containing as many references to Van Gogh paintings and Kirk Douglas films as possible.

The final piece contains the titles of 27 Kirk Douglas films (in purple) and 31 Van Gogh paintings (in red).

Thank you to Daniele Longhi for his advice about French wine.

Word count: 551

Trigger warnings: Terminal illness, implications of suicide.

Critique preference: FCA

Portrait of a Man

The brief glance in the bathroom mirror was a mistake; a portrait of a man at eternity’s gate. I return to the waiting room, devoid of colour except for some wilting flowers in a blue vase and a faded Van Gogh print. It reminds me of the café on the outskirts of Paris where I let her go. Strangers when we met and when we parted. I told myself it was an act of love. I didn’t expect the sorrow, the fury. How the orange landscape at sunset flickered in her glassy eyes. Is Paris burning? 

Phantoms loom out of the past, swirling in blue and gold. Mine is the story of three loves, for once is not enough. We have to put ourselves in harm’s way again and again, don’t we? Lonely are the brave who dare to love. I loved like a tortured artist, with the same strange compulsion that told Van Gogh “Draw!”  

Life isn’t all poppies and butterflies. Van Gogh understood that better than most. He painted the bad and the beautiful. The stormy night, a wind-beaten tree, a vase with dead leaves. And yet also…a field of yellow flowers, an orchard in bloom, and all those bloody sunflowers. Despair cast a giant shadow, but he still saw the light at the edge of the world.

“Mr Roberts? Sorry to keep you waiting.”


The final countdown. I know exactly how it ends. It runs in the family. The care at St.Andrew’s is state of the art I’m sure, but that means two weeks in another town. A crab on its back in a town without pity

I walk alone, wincing through the pain until I reach a café terrace, not a bit like Van Gogh’s. I settle on a decadent Chapoutier La Mordorée to take away the bitter taste of my meds. The rich and seductive raspberry, cherry and tobacco flavours conjure up the view of the roofs of Paris and a certain starry night over the Rhone

The paper only offers more bad news. Kirk Douglas, one of the Hollywood greats, is gone. The first picture of his I saw was that Van Gogh biography, Lust for Life. Says here he was 37 when he played that part, the last age the painter ever saw. Two cut sunflowers. There’s a magic in those little coincidences, isn’t there? Almost like the universe is trying to tell you something.


A taxi returns me to the village at sunset. I thrust a wallet full of notes at the bemused driver, then begin my unsteady trek across the marshy landscape, along the great divide. I stumble through a ploughed field until I spot a girl in white, the half-figure of an angel waiting on the edge of a wood. I follow the girl in the wood through the undergrowth to my sanctuary, the poet’s garden. There I rest on her memorial bench in remembrance of love and pen a letter to three wives.

I’m honoured with the perfect view of the last sunset, leading the way west. I relive those glorious seven days in May behind closed eyes, lying under trees in a field on a sunny day and walking, our two hands clasped on the banks of the Seine. It really is a lovely way to die.

Girl in White in the Woods, by Vincent Van Gogh. From Wiki Commons.

Check out the other entries

Over to you…

This piece was experimental so I’d be interested to know your thoughts on whether it works or not and how you think it could be improved. Please let me know in the comments.

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56 responses to “Portrait of a Man #WEPFF #flashfiction

  1. What a fascinating way to use the prompt! I love how you’ve woven in all of the art created by these two men and created a story that stands on its own. Well done!

  2. I am so impressed! What a great tribute to both men! I am so loving the different takes on the prompt. I don’t know why, but every time, I find myself in awe of the talent!

  3. That is one of the cleverst things I’ve ever read.
    Thank you.
    It’s both amazing and a great tribute to both men!
    Now I think I’ll go off and watch some Kirk Douglas films… It’s evening here. Another great one has left us.

  4. A clever take on the prompt, indeed. Those rabbit holes take you into some interesting thought tunnels, and this time that research paid off. Here’s to Van Gogh and to Kirk. Intriguing and artistic people.

  5. Simply loved it! By far the best that I’ve read. What a wonderful unique take and super awed by your effort. Also such a perfect way to write something around Van Gogh. Well done!

  6. This was a fascinating take on the prompt. I loved it! The use of the titles gave your story a poetic and touching quality that I truly enjoyed. Nicely done!

  7. That piece involved a lot of fascinating rabbit holes and an artist’s deft touch with the words – well done, Anstice. That curious age reference made me shiver – weird synchronicity.
    Maybe there are odd phrases which you could have removed, but I suspect your selective writing already did that. With so many works to choose from by both maestros, you showed amazing restraint. Spartacus and The Potato Eaters wouldn’t have fit such a poignant tale.
    But, now I need to follow all those rabbit holes.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Roland. The age reference is very strange. I read that Kirk Douglas stayed in character even when the character weren’t rolling and his wife found the experience very harrowing.
      The first piece was much wordier and I eliminated some of the unnecessary words and phrases but I agree I can see there are still bits I could tighten.
      Ha ha, true. There are definitely some titles that wouldn’t be appropriate here!

  8. This piece was a delight to read. You wove so much together in such an excellent manner. The research you did paid off and is visible but does not intrude into the story. It’s tragic but accepting of fate since he has a plan, that he executes beautifully.

  9. Masterful! Everything flowed beautifully; the imagery, the titles, the story plot. Awesome challenge to yourself, completely nailed it. This was intriguing, evocative, nostalgic and present at the same time.


    dolorah at Book Lover

  10. I would have been charmed by the crisp, detailed, almost poetic writing — even if I had not known these were the titles of Van Gogh’s paintings and Kirk Douglas’ movies. What a neat idea and how beautifully developed! And a very good way to find your way into the prompt!

  11. Hi Anstice – what a really clever way to take your flash fiction … now I want to see all the art, as well as many of Kirk’s music … and then there are the books – but it’s an amazingly creative way to bring the two lives together … such a fun and enticing read – thank you … cheers Hilary

  12. Hey Anstice, I came around for my second reading to see my first comment didn’t take. WP is driving me crazy this time around, Look what an amazing story your rabbit hole resulted in. So so clever. Love it. A great tribute to van Gogh and also to Kirk Douglas. Very creatively done.

  13. What an original take on the prompt. Very clever and well carried out. The titles of both film and paintings flow effortlessly together. One reserve, at the expense of your character’s story ?
    I learnt a lot, especially Kirk Douglas’s films. Last week I watched one I had never seen on the exploration of the Missouri, upriver, based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Fascinating. You should check it out. Will send you the link if you are interested, I didn’t spot it in your list.
    Have a restful weekend, looking forward to reading more of your writing on another WEP Challenge.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Susan. I’m glad you liked it. I think you have a point that some of the character’s backstory was not fully explored due to the constructions of using the titles.
      I would like the link to that film please, it sounds interesting.
      Hope you have a great weekend too!

  14. Hi Anstice – congratulations on winning this month’s entry … well deserved and an excellent reference point for many of us re Kirk Douglas and van Gogh … I must get back to see them all – films and art … well done – cheers Hilary

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