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Vincent Van Gogh was a 'great painter desperately trying to remain sane' states Martin Gayford in this excellent book: 'He would be utterly out of his mind for a spell, then quite shortly afterwards paint great pictures and write letters of heart-breaking eloquence.' It is made very clear just how intelligent, humane and artistic Van Gogh was, and how much he achieved in his thirty-seven years.
Gayford writes about both painters and their relationship, but Van Gogh I feel is the more compelling figure. Perhaps it is my personal bias coming through, but it was, after all, his desire to share the Yellow House with Gauguin and work with him that instigated this historic period. It is Van Gogh's painting of his bedroom that sets the cover of the book aglow. His tragic illness results in the well-known incident with his earlobe, puts an end to his time with Gauguin, and eventually leads him to take his own life. But he was able to paint 200 pictures in a little over a year while in Arles, many of which were masterpieces. In the two months before he shot himself, he painted 76 pictures in Auvers.
But the author writes of both painters, and Gauguin's personality and working philosophy do come through strongly. Gayford describes the nine weeks in great detail, beginning with the 23rd of October 1888 when Gauguin arrived in Arles, and had to wait for the dawn in an all night café before going to meet Van Gogh. He tells us when they visited brothels, that Gauguin took up the cooking duties, and how they painted portraits together.
Reading of the nine weeks they spent in each other's company gives a robust feeling for the way the two of them painted, and the different approaches they took. Neither of them had received much formal training in art, and both had started relatively late. Van Gogh had begun as an art dealer, then a preacher, before turning to painting. Gauguin worked as a stockbroker for some years, and had a wife and five children before he left them all for art.
Van Gogh was more interested in his fellow human beings, Gauguin less so. The latter believed that 'art is an abstraction; extract it from nature, while dreaming in front of it', and worked more from memory and imagination than Van Gogh, who did best when painting from life. Vincent wanted 'to portray ordinary modern people in all their suffering and individuality, as souls.'
Van Gogh was Presbyterian, Gauguin Catholic. But Gauguin was 'caustically anticlerical' and Van Gogh had lost his faith, to replace it with art: literature became a successor to the Bible for him. He read voraciously in three languages (Dutch, English and French); the Yellow House was full of books and magazines and newspapers. He read all of Zola's Rougon-Macquarts novels.
Although Vincent longed to find a soulmate 'with whom he could reach complete agreement', he did not find that soulmate in Gauguin. They respected each other, and each other's work, but ultimately, Van Gogh's illness and their constant disagreements ('terribly electric' arguments) drove Gauguin away.
While they were together, Gayford shows how they each approached the same subject, such as Madame Ginoux or Madame Roulin, to produce distinctly different paintings. He also writes of their quite different reactions to places such as the Cathedral of St Trophime, one of the great medieval churches of Southern France: it gave Van Gogh the 'creeps' and he thought some of the artwork too cruel, but Gauguin was not fazed by it, being immune from religious superstition.
Gayford keeps the wider world in the picture as he writes, so for example, we learn that the Eiffel Tower was being built in time for the Paris World Fair in 1889.
The author does Van Gogh, Gauguin, art and all of us a wonderful service by writing so clearly about Vincent's illness, and stripping away sensation. He convincingly argues that the mood swings he experienced were characteristic of bipolar disorder. Gauguin, although he found it excruciating to live with him, is shown to have been aware that his fellow artist's behavior was due to an illness, and he still respected him for his fine skills. The incident of Van Gogh cutting off part of his ear is described, but also explained in the light of what might have been going on in his disordered brain. He becomes much less the 'mad artist' and more the extraordinarily gifted artist who suffered from a severe and debilitating mental illness.
© 2007 Sue Bond
Sue Bond has degrees in medicine and literature and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. Reviews for online and print publications. She lives in Queensland, Australia.