Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin were two of the greatest painters of the late 19th century. Now the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has organised an exhibition about the brief but intense collaboration between the two artists. Entitled ‘The Studio of the South’, the exhibition promises to be one of the international blockbusters of the season.
The story of the relationship between the two artists became widely known through Irving Stone’s bestseller ‘Lust for Life’ and the Hollywood film starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn. Yet not until now has there been a major exhibition devoted to fruitful creative interchange between these two very different painters.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) met in Paris in the autumn of 1887. Both men had spent early adulthood pursuing diverse careers before deciding to become painters and both had left their native regions in search of new suns. They met at a time when artists were looking for ways to develop beyond impressionism, and so they turned to literature, to non-western forms of art, and to new models and locations for inspiration. Shortly after their first meeting in Paris, Gauguin returned to Brittany and created one of his early masterpieces ‘Vision after the Sermon’. Vincent meanwhile moved to Arles, a provincial town in the south of France where he hoped to set up a community of like-minded painters who would reinvent and reinvigorate art.
During this time the two men wrote letters to each other and exchanged self-portraits inspired by characters from contemporary novels: Gauguin portrayed himself as Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’, while Vincent depicted himself as a Japanese monk from a Pierre Loti novel. An important link between them during this time was Vincent’s brother, the Paris art dealer Theo van Gogh. It was through his pledge of financial help that Paul Gauguin was finally persuaded to join Vincent to form a ‘Studio of the South’ in Vincent’s Yellow House in Arles. Gauguin arrived in Arles in late October 1888 and thus began nine of the most volatile but productive weeks in the history of art. Vincent had feverishly decorated his house for Gauguin with paintings of sunflowers, a subject that would become a constant theme in their relationship.
Each man tried to learn from the other and admired the other’s work. Their life in Arles was marked at first by mutual support and dialogue, but there was also competition and friction. Gauguin wrote later in his autobiography that he was annoyed by the chaos in Vincent’s housekeeping, finances, and talk. More importantly, the men differed sharply in their views on art: Gauguin favoured working from memory and allowing abstract mental processes to shape his images, while Vincent held an unshakeable reverence for the physical reality of the observable world of models and Nature. This is reflected in the very different techniques each artist used: Gauguin’s flat colour planes, for example, as opposed to Vincent’s plowed and woven surfaces. We never confuse the two artists.In the end, their brief encounter in Arles made each realise even more what sort of artist he was and wanted to be. Almost as if to underline this, Vincent portrayed the differences between them by painting their chairs.
Towards the end of 1888, a series of violent incidents around Christmas eve brought a dramatic end to their collaboration. Following an argument with Gauguin, Vincent cut off a part of his ear, in the frenzy of what may have been an epileptic fit, and went into a coma. Gauguin returned to Paris, Vincent was hospitalised, and the Yellow House was abandoned to the elements. In spite of the dramatic circumstances of their separation, the two artists continued to correspond with each other and to exchange art works, but Vincent’s life ended in suicide less than two years later, in July 1890.
Gauguin spent the last years of his life painting in the South Pacific. The organisers of the current exhibition believe that Gauguin’s decision to work there reflects in part a desire to transpose to the Tropics Vincent’s original idea of a Studio of the South. Indeed, the nine brief weeks the two men spent together in southern France continued to be echoed in their later work. In 1901, thirteen years after Vincent had painted their chairs, Gauguin painted his own chair with a large bouquet of sunflowers in it.