A collaboration that coloured and crazed

March 1, 2002

A new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, in Amsterdam, looks at how nine weeks together in Arles shaped the work of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin. Derwent May reports.

Every picture may tell a story, but the same cannot be said for every exhibition. However, the new show in Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum is completely and triumphantly dedicated to a story. It tells, through the paintings, what happened to Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gaugin and modern art in the nine weeks that the two painters lived together in the Yellow House in Arles. It could be called a story of sunflowers.

It has its origins in Paris in November 1887, when the two strange geniuses first met: van Gogh, then aged 34, was an introspective and desperately lonely Dutchman who had been a Protestant preacher before turning to painting; Gaugin, six years older, half-Spanish, half-French and a more natural solitary than van Gogh, had also come late to art and was still feeling his way.

Van Gogh had been trying, through increasingly daring use of colour, to give his work a more spiritual brilliance, and was taken with the poetic colour of Gaugin's paintings of Martinique. He saw the former stockbroker as a fellow wanderer and poet, the companion he was looking for to set up a community of artists living among the rich colours of the south. In February 1888, van Gogh went to Arles, from where he bombarded Gaugin with appeals to join him. This is where the exhibition takes up the story.

Before leaving Paris, he had given Gaugin a superb painting of two fiery sunflowers lying on a blue background, and from Arles he sent the painter sketches of work from his first weeks there. Several of the paintings from this period are among his most memorable and vibrant, including the Yellow House and The Poet's Garden . Gaugin arrived on October 23 and the two painted side by side, both indoors and out.

In placing the works of the painters next to each other for the first time, the exhibition attempts to go behind the popular fascination with their dramatic life stories and the myths of their own self-presentation - van Gogh as saintly prophet-martyr and Gaugin as heroic adventurer. According to Douglas Druick, co-author of the official catalogue and a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago where the exhibition was first shown, it attempts to view the story "through the filter of mutual influence".

Despite the interest in their lives, there have been relatively few academic studies of the effect their relationship had on their different artistic styles. To address this, Druick and his colleagues in Chicago and at the Van Gogh Museum spent three years examining Gaugin and van Gogh paintings worldwide.

A central focus was the experimental pictures both painted on the coarse jute they purchased shortly after Gaugin's arrival in Arles. The use of this type of jute made it possible to establish the chronology of their joint production and to infer the dialogue between the two men from the works created. "While, at moments, van Gogh and Gaugin clearly resisted each other, at other times each took on the other's ideas in canvases that are markedly - sometimes uncomfortably - experimental."

He cites van Gogh's portrait of Gaugin and the version of the Sunflowers painted on jute as notable examples. Druick says that this experimentation "prepared the way for profound stylistic changes that Theo van Gogh (Vincent's art dealer brother) would recognise in the work of Vincent and Gaugin in the months after their break-up".

He adds that placing the paintings side by side shows that the influence they had on each other was not one of stylistic similarity, such as that seen in the works of Picasso and Georges Braque. "We have to look below the surface," he says. "While they were together, they experimented with each other's techniques, exchanged ideas about painting materials and sought to assert their own methods and priorities. But even more importantly, they helped each other to shape the artistic personae we know today. Deeply personal forms of art emerged from a shared enterprise."

Their different approaches to particular subjects are shown vividly, for example, by the placing of a van Gogh farmhouse beside a Gaugin one. Van Gogh's is radiant with colourful touches, but has tangible walls, tiles, grass, sky. Gauguin's dissolves into a dream of pure colour. Van Gogh's sowers may be half-heavenly figures but stride across dense, dark solid ploughland. Gauguin's grapepickers seem to be weeping among the formless flames of hell.

However, it was not long before the two painters were arguing incessantly. It was clear that Gaugin was not going to stay. It is not known why van Gogh slashed one of his ears off on December 23, the night Gaugin moved to a hotel, but it seems that he simply turned his misery against himself. He killed himself just over a year later, after Gaugin had gone to Tahiti.

But sunflowers provide an epitaph. One of van Gogh's greatest sunflower paintings (now in London's National Gallery) was waiting for Gaugin when he arrived in Arles and given to him as a present. After Gaugin had left Arles, he resumed correspondence with van Gogh and asked for the picture. But van Gogh painted him a new vase of sunflowers in homage to him - one in which the flowers are enriched a la Gaugin with exotic red, blue and green centres or hearts.

In Tahiti in 1901, Gaugin expressed his nostalgia for his days with van Gogh by painting his Sunflowers on an Armchair - with a young Tahitian passing the window, and an all-seeing eye like a sunflower heart watching from the rich, dark background. Two years later, Gaugin, too, was dead. But he and van Gogh had found themselves as artists before they died. That was all that either of them had wanted in the end.

"Van Gogh and Gaugin" is showing at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, until June 2.

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