Tragedy and Triumph at Arles:
Van Gogh and Gauguin
Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South at the Art Institute of Chicago centers on the intimate friendship between the two troubled Titians of modern art.
Readers of Irving Stone's novel Lust for Life or viewers of the Vincente Minnelli movie version (with the young Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn) are unlikely to ever forget the intensely dramatic and nearly fatal relationship which ended on a Christmas Eve when a frenzied Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a straight razor and then mutilated part of his own ear. Few men have struggled so manfully with their demons or suffered so much for their art.
Few artists have ever seen life so intensely or realized their vision in such splendid fullness. Despite our familiarity with the work of these pioneers, until now it was impossible to actually see and enjoy in one show the harvest of this encounter. This definitive exhibit offers a week-by-week, and at times even a day-by-day chronicle of their artistic dialogue during the nine autumn weeks of 1888 when Paul Gauguin moved into the Yellow House [right] in Arles.
Vincent van Gogh in 1880 was a 27-year-old failure: a despised and rejected clergyman in a grim backwater mining town in Belgium. Against all the odds he decided to become a serious painter. By 1886, Vincent thought he was good enough to move to Paris to live with his brother Theo, an art dealer specializing in Impressionist painters. With Theo's help, Vincent found a little group of fellow spirits including Toulouse-Lautrec and Emile Bernard, and organized a show of their work in a downscale café. The Painters of the Petit Boulevard (so-called to distinguish them from the painters of the grand boulevard - i.e. the Impressionists) attracted Paul Gauguin - a much more successful painter who had already exhibited with the Impressionists.
Gauguin was struck by one painting in the exhibit. Van Gogh's Two Sunflowers [left], a monumental pair of buds ready to burst forth, look more like firecrackers than mere flowers; none of the Impressionist had ever thought to paint humble natural things in such an awesome and incendiary manner. This was the beginning of Vincent's many études from nature, of oleanders, irises and roses, peach and cypress trees and rolling wheat fields; of things he loved both for their natural beauty and their symbolic significance.
Gauguin coveted this painting, offering in exchange his best work to date: By the Shore of the Lake, painted in Martinique. These men were drawn together for two reasons: first, by their urgency to find new ways to express their visions; then by their uncertain status as aging newcomers struggling in the highly competitive impressionist art market. Two lost souls on the highway of life; such people sometimes find a new path to Parnassus.
Paris was unbearable. Gauguin despaired at what he saw around him - egotism, luxury and domination by the rich, and the way his fellow artists all too slavishly catered to it. In Brittany, he hoped to find a society closer to the primitive and uncorrupted conditions of human happiness recommended by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, by whom Gauguin was influenced. Vincent, on the other hand, badly needed to purge the fogs and ghosts of the Protestant North from his blood; he headed for the ancient Roman city of Arles to dry out.
At the farthest ends of the nation, isolated and misunderstood by almost everyone around them, Paul and Vincent sustain and inspirit each other to produce breakthrough works. At first they exchanged self-portraits, larger than life, of almost frightening power and depth, showing how they saw themselves and how they wished to be seen. Vincent, trying to look like a Buddhist monk [right] with his shaved head and severe expression, only reaffirmed the lack of Nirvana in his life. Gauguin with his "savage" Inca profile and fiery complexion, entitled his portrait Les Misérables [below left], after Hugo's novel; he is the "alleged terrorist", the good man misunderstood by respectable society.
In preparation for that fall, Vincent painted more Sunflowers [below right]. In the exhibition, these legendary treasures (destined to become the most expensive art works in the world) can now be seen in their rightful place as the welcoming decorations for Gauguin's bedroom in Arles.
When Gauguin arrived, Vincent insisted they work his way: from nature out of doors. Gauguin resisted, hoping to convince Vincent to paint from the imagination; they tried both, leaving the indoor painting for rainy days. The culminating painting here is an indoor one: Gauguin's Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, which Vincent described as "me, of course, but Mad."
Then towards Christmas, Vincent's mind snapped: he argued with Gauguin, threw a drink of at him in a bar, the next day stalked him with a straight razor, then hacked part of his own ear lobe off and collapsed.
A few days later, as the New Year began, he was writing to Gauguin and Theo telling them they had made a fuss over something of no great importance. Yet his terrified neighbors insisted that Van Gogh be transferred to a mental hospital in another town. He was to spend long months in the asylum in San Remy, producing some of his greatest works. Gauguin was happy to continue the friendship at a safe distance.
In 1890, Vincent committed suicide and Theo died six months later, heartbroken and wrecked. Gauguin, although more outwardly attractive and successful, ended up spending the next fifteen years searching for an imaginary lost paradise in Tahiti - syphilitic, broke and ultimately alone. Yet he continued to write with special affection of the two brothers who were his friends and of his appreciation of Vincent's genius.
If you cannot see the exhibit in person you can spend a wonderful time working your way through the exhibit catalogue with its reconstructed maps and photos of all the places they painted. Both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Van Gogh Museum have excellent websites. Most comprehensive of all is the Vincent van Gogh Information Gallery, which has all of Vincent's paintings, sketches and letters online.
This article is copyright 2001 by Joseph Phelan. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.
Joseph Phelan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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