by Roderick Conway Morris

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A vivid portrait of inspiration and acrimony


By Roderick Conway Morris
AMSTERDAM 11 May 2002

 

Emile Zola's "L'Oeuvre" of 1886 stirred up a tremendous furor in the French art scene, with every second artist in Paris seeing himself or some friend or enemy in one character or another, even causing Paul Cezanne to break off relations with the author, whom he had known since childhood.

But when Vincent Van Gogh seemed to follow the trajectory of Zola's antihero, Claude Lantier, descending into despair, madness and finally committing suicide, real life seemed to be imitating fiction. Camille Pissarro had already identified his former friend Paul Gauguin with Zola's Fagerolles, an unscrupulous artist who steals Lantier's ideas. And, even before Van Gogh finally shot himself in July 1890, Emile Bernard, a much younger friend of both Van Gogh and Gauguin, was seeing uncanny resemblances between the Dutch artist and Lantier.

The intense period of cohabitation between Van Gogh and Gauguin in the autumn of 1888, its prelude and its aftermath are examined sometimes day by day, even hour by hour, in "Van Gogh & Gauguin," a show of some 120 works at the Van Gogh Museum here. The upshot is as gripping as a novel.

The exhibition continues until June 2, but the catalogue, subtitled "The Studio of the South," by Douglas W. Druick and Peter Kort Zegers (with the invaluable additional contribution of several other experts) is a feast of a book in its own right that will bring this remarkable story to an even wider audience.

Gauguin met Van Gogh and his brother Theo, the art dealer who so faithfully supported both artists, in Paris in November 1887. This eventually led to Gauguin's agreement to join the Dutch painter in Arles in Provence, where the latter was trying to found an artists' colony, "The Studio of the South."

A major attraction for Gauguin was Theo's willingness to underwrite the enterprise and market the results. Van Gogh's motives were more visionary and idealistic. He had once been a preacher and Christian missionary, and carried his religious fervor into his painting and his plans to make the studio a quasi-monastic brotherhood, devoted to art and communal living.

The French artist's arrival on Oct. 23, 1888, was preceded, at Van Gogh's urging, by an exchange of portraits between the two artists and Bernard, whom Van Gogh also hoped to recruit. The self-portraits of the two older artists, seen here side by side, speak volumes about their subjects. Van Gogh depicts himself as a bonze or Buddhist monk, while Gauguin styles himself as Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables." Gauguin had been a merchant seaman, stockbroker and canvas salesman, was adept at retrospectively reworking his own biography and presented himself as both an artist and a man of action (along with his artist's gear, he packed his fencing equipment). But here, although he is the picture's author, he still comes across as a bit shifty.

While Gauguin was often parsimonious with the truth, Van Gogh was painfully obsessed with absolute honesty in all matters (to the point of offending others) -- not the most promising basis for an enduring friendship on either side.

Both artists had come to painting relatively late, were largely self-taught, were struggling financially and for recognition, but were determined to forge new forms of post-Impressionist art -- and there the similarities more or less ended. The nine weeks they spent painting together en plein air and in the tiny studio in the "Yellow House" that Van Gogh had rented soon turned into a progressively exhilarating, bumpy, acrimonious and finally frightening roller-coaster ride, with results that were both creative and destructive.

The two men discovered that their assumptions and methods of working were as different as their personalities. Van Gogh like to tackle his subjects head on, applying the paint rapidly and often thickly to capture the fleeting moment, usually completing a picture in a single session. Gauguin, on the other hand, preferred to do a preliminary sketch, then layer the paint more thinly and build up the image over a series of days. While Van Gogh favored direct confrontation with reality, Gauguin set a great deal of store on memory and the imagination.

And yet -- as the exhibition and book reveal through an unprecedentedly detailed tracking of how, when and what was painted, plus meticulous but often inspired analysis -- both men learned lessons from each other and made serious attempts to experiment with each others' approach and methods.

Even the materials they used brought them together in curious ways. Ever short of money, Gauguin bought a large bolt of jute instead of a more expensive canvas shortly after arriving, which both artists used for many pictures until it ran out early in December. Making a virtue of necessity, but also with a keen eye to the aesthetic possibilities of this rougher texture, they invented a unique way of priming it, but still had to adjust their brushwork to accommodate this unconventional surface. One of the spinoffs of the microscopic study of this jute has been to confirm the authenticity of the so-called "Yasuda Sunflowers" in Tokyo, which had been seriously questioned, as an indubitably genuine Van Gogh painted during Gauguin's stay.

The lively exchange of thoughts and techniques and the stimulating atmosphere of amicable (at first, at least) competition made this entire period one of the most productive in both artists' careers. Van Gogh had thought longer and more profoundly about art and its implications and had read more widely and deeply than his companion, and Gauguin was the long-term beneficiary of this intellectual input. But personal differences, at first obscured by shared enthusiasm and a willingness to compromise, began to grow, a situation exacerbated by deteriorating weather that forced the two to confine themselves to a single studio.

This culminated in heated arguments and ultimately Gauguin's decision to move out of the Yellow House and into a hotel -- after which, famously, Van Gogh sliced off part of his ear and presented it to a young prostitute, who promptly passed out. Gauguin departed for Paris two days later, and the two never met again.

Van Gogh's mental breakdown was almost certainly partly precipitated by the prospect of Gauguin's abandonment of him at a time when the latter's fortunes finally seemed about to take off, with even the great Edgar Degas taking an interest in him. This proved a false dawn, and Gauguin, who survived the Dutchman by 13 years, soon had to endure the spectacle of a dramatic rise in Van Gogh's reputation following his tragic death, while his own seemed perpetually stalled.

Ironically, in departing for the South Seas, Gauguin was acting out another of Van Gogh's unfulfilled dreams, the founding of a "Studio of the Tropics." Neither man survived long enough to enjoy celebrity in his own lifetime. And both, finally, could indeed have shared the same epitaph in the form of Flaubert's words, once noted by Van Gogh: "Talent is long patience, and originality an effort of will and intense observation."


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016