Van Gogh - Gauguin

The Yellow House

Two of the greatest painters in history shared their life in Arles for 63 days. Then their relationship dramatically fell apart. Why? What divided them? The answers are in an exceptional exhibition now in Amsterdam


“The artist’s task is to think, not to dream.” With these words, in January 1889 Vincent Van Gogh broke off the friendship in which he had invested all his human and artistic energy: the one with Paul Gauguin. On December 23rd, the French painter had left him, after two months of humble and feverish working together, in Arles. He had cast him off at the height of an argument, which even ended up in the local newspaper: “Dutch painter cuts off an ear and gives it to a prostitute.” Van Gogh, so transparent about every detail of his life, is reticent on this episode: “A moment of complete mental confusion,” he would explain to his brother. Thus, all we have is the interesting and a bit “respectable” version of Gauguin, who talks about Van Gogh, irascible to the point of pouring a glass of absinthe on him and chasing him through the Place Lamartine where they lived, brandishing a razor, the same razor he used, on that same night of December 22nd, to cut off his earlobe.

Things probably went more or less as Gauguin reports, even though his words were dictated by the desire to declare himself out of it, to show he had nothing to do with it. But why did Van Gogh tear apart with his own hands this relationship in which he had invested so much? And why did he break it off after having wanted and prepared for it so ardently? The answer to these questions is the theme of one of the most exceptional exhibitions of recent years, “Van Gogh & Gauguin. The Studio of the South” (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, until June 2nd). The answers clearly delineate a profound, radical opposition that is crucial to an understanding of all the developments of twentieth century art. To think or to dream, this is the choice, wrote Van Gogh with a clarity that refutes in large part the somewhat bourgeois schematism of Gauguin. Either you follow reality or you chase ghosts. This was a firm point from which Van Gogh would not budge, and on it his friendship with Gauguin blew up.

Easels over their shoulders
Let’s step back to the mythical yellow house that was the stage for this relationship. It was on the edge of Arles; we can see it in the extraordinary, emotional painting Van Gogh made in the summer of 1888 to show his friend, still in Brittany, the solution he had found for their plan to share a house in the near future. But was the house really yellow? This is not a far-fetched question, because the yellow Van Gogh puts into this picture has a value that transcends the object in itself. Yellow is like gold, a sign of the expectations Van Gogh was projecting onto those walls. The house is yellow like a spark that catches fire, imperceptible but overwhelming, on the horizon of life. The house is yellow like a tabernacle containing the heart, the meaning of everything that he had been seeking up to that moment.

Two floors–a studio and kitchen below, and the tiny bedrooms upstairs (Van Gogh’s was right at the head of the stairs; the one prepared for his friend adjoined it). To decorate it, Vincent had painted two pictures of sunflowers to hang where Gauguin would sleep. Few people saw the house, also because, as suspicion about Van Gogh grew, the police sealed it off in January 1889. The only one who was allowed to enter was a painter, and one of some fame, Paul Signac, the founder of pointillism. He arrived in Arles on March 29th, and entered the yellow house accompanied by Van Gogh himself. Afterwards he wrote, “Imagine the splendor of those whitewashed walls on which his colors stood out. I shall never forget that room covered with landscapes delirious with light.” (This is to Signac’s honor: at that time Van Gogh was merely a poor painter who had managed to sell just one picture, plagued by the most complete indifference.)

Once the house was ready, Gauguin arrived at dawn on October 23rd, after a two-day journey. He got off the train at 5 in the morning and went into the station café, where he was immediately recognized by the attendant. In fact, Van Gogh, unable to contain his excitement and joy, had shown everyone the self-portrait given him (actually, they had exchanged pictures) by the friend who was about to come live with him. On the 24th they were already at work, and on the 25th and on all the days that followed. When the weather permitted, they would go out with their easels over their shoulders. They would set them up in the same spot, each one choosing a slightly different angle. There are places, such as the Alyscamps, along the canal and surrounded by Roman tombs, where it is still possible to reconstruct to the centimeter the point where each had put up his easel. Van Gogh was radiant with happiness. For the first time he was experiencing a closeness that warmed up his loneliness. He, who lived with his eyes perennially wide-open and abhorred the fatuous outlines of dreams, had fulfilled the dream of his life: to immerse himself in a community of artists that would be like a community of monks, all devoted to the same cause.

Very little in common
It is easy to imagine them, Van Gogh and Gauguin. Certainly they did not talk about anything else; they discussed every brushstroke and every shadow. Van Gogh always tense and faithful. And Gauguin followed him a bit and watched him as you would watch someone possessed. Van Gogh would turn with the admiration of a child to the sometimes overbearing confidence of his new friend who was only five years older than he (40 to his 35 years of age). But Gauguin hid something not completely sincere in his gaze. He was there also for his own interests: Vincent’s brother Theo was his agent, a good agent who sold his pictures for good prices and who had as his heart’s top priority his tender, restless brother who was a genius. In his letters, Gauguin reveals his irritation: “Vincent and I in general have very little in common, especially in painting. He is romantic and I tend rather to be naive. From the point of view of color, he likes the hazard of thick pasty brushstrokes. I detest these messes.” Then he complains about how much Vincent talks, he complains about how he cooks, he doesn’t like having to pass through his bedroom to get to his own. Van Gogh was the opposite, even though he never backed down from his convictions. He wrote his brother enthusiastically about the friendship and even about Paul’s cooking.

The portraits
But the real conflict arose around their conception of painting. Gauguin would like also to follow his imagination. “You shouldn’t paint only what you see, but also what you imagine,” he said. But Van Gogh was unmovable: without a subject in front of him, without reality before his eyes, he could not even pick up his brush. Gauguin went along with him, but on December 19th he took the liberty of making a real affront. They were painting each other’s portraits. Paul portrayed Vincent while he was painting a picture of sunflowers, with a somewhat visionary air. Gauguin had given free rein to his imagination–it was impossible for Van Gogh to be painting sunflowers in December. When Van Gogh saw the picture, he made a remark that has become historic: “It looks like a me gone mad.” Gauguin had irreparably dug up Vincent’s desperation and fragility. Four days later the situation came to a head. On Sunday the 23rd, Van Gogh was in a bed in the Arles hospital, curled up and mute. At his bedside was the occasional neighbor, like the postman Roulin, a great man with a big heart. Gauguin, partly out of fear and partly out of cowardice, had immediately written to Theo to tell him that the Arles experience was over and that he was already on the train that would take him back north.

The dream of the Studio of the South, of the community of “painters of the little boulevards” (the definition Van Gogh had created in contrast to the grand boulevards of the impressionists) was definitively shattered. The two would remain in contact, but with a degree of formality. Van Gogh underwent months of suffering and anguish, leading up to his desperate gesture on July 20, 1890. Gauguin would follow his own dream of an earthly paradise, moving to Polynesia. But not even that paradise was enough to erase his rancor at the greatness of that strange friend of his, who had traversed his life like a flash of lightning and lit up gleams that his painting would never achieve. When, after Van Gogh’s death, his paintings began to be in demand, Gauguin found nothing better to do than to write these words to Emile Bernard: “What sense is there in showing the works of a madman?” Envious, monsieur Gauguin?