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Portrait of the artists at odds

Vast differences in temperament and technique doomed artistic collaboration between Van Gogh and Gauguin, and an Amsterdam exhibit is a canvas depicting the extremes that kept them apart.

By ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2002


Vast differences in temperament and technique doomed artistic collaboration between Van Gogh and Gauguin, and an Amsterdam exhibit is a canvas depicting the extremes that kept them apart.

AMSTERDAM -- This much drew Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin together: They were passionate about their art. After that, as a couple of months in 1888 proved, the two men were near-opposites who did not attract.

Some of this resulted from their different approaches to painting, but some of the blame for the failed relationship had to do with a certain haughtiness on Gauguin's part. Van Gogh had suggested they could form the basis of a "School of the South," drawing other painters, either accomplished or promising beginners.

As a fascinating and comprehensive exhibition here shows, their nine weeks together had the building fury of a summer thunderstorm. It was a fateful collaboration, with neither man able to dismiss it as one of life's lessons and move on.

Amsterdam's acclaimed Van Gogh Museum, in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago, has mounted a side-by-side display of the works of the men. Here are paintings before, during and after that period when Gauguin agreed to join Van Gogh in the French village of Arles, in Provence.

Some of the works on display have not been seen together since they were painted, more than 113 years ago.

Gauguin's reputation was greater than Van Gogh's. He was reluctant actually to move to the village and the little Yellow House the other man rented as living quarters and studio. But he also had little money, and when Van Gogh's brother, Theo, an art dealer, sent Gauguin 50 francs to encourage him to move from Brittany, Gauguin decided to take the chance.

Gauguin had seen much of the world already. He had been reared in Peru, had lived in the Caribbean, had been a sailor, had left his wife and five children to devote himself to his painting.

Van Gogh, at 34 five years Gauguin's junior, came from a far less worldly background, had studied theology -- reportedly he was dismissed as being too intense -- and had undertaken missionary work until concentrating on his painting. He thought artists should present hope against modern life.

Self-portraits on display among the 120 or so works in this exhibition disclose something of each man. Van Gogh had suggested they exchange these works before Gauguin arrived in Arles.

Van Gogh, influenced by Japanese paintings, portrayed himself with a near-shaved head and a lean face, seeing himself as a Buddhist monk. Typically for Van Gogh, the background is a plain color.

Gauguin sent a picture of himself as a determined-looking character. He described himself in advance of sending the work as having "the face of an outlaw (but) with inner nobility and gentleness." He saw himself as Jean Valjean, hero of Les Miserables.

Both men generally had followed the style known as impressionism, in which bright colors dominate and the paint is often laid on in sketchy strokes, or in alternating thick and thin layers. Forms are simplified, not precise renditions of real life.

But by 1888 both had moved away from impressionism to work more boldly and with stronger colors.

Van Gogh particularly liked the effect of complementary colors, of presenting the way light shone on things.

Gauguin by this time was looking to present not exactly what he saw but his interpretation of it. Gauguin could easily paint from his memory of a scene, whereas Van Gogh felt most comfortable in dashing off his work as he viewed his subject, portraying his immediate reaction to it.

Van Gogh thought every painting had to impart a story. Gauguin thought it was the artist's role to suggest, not to explain.

This exhibition's accomplishment is in showing, several times, both men's paintings of the same subjects, landscapes as well as villagers. The technique allows even the casual museumgoer to recognize the differences not just in the way the two artists applied paint but even in how they discerned their subjects.

Among the paintings Van Gogh is especially identified with is his series of sunflowers, three of which are displayed here. Because this flower follows the sun's path, Van Gogh appreciated the extra element of life it showed. Plus, the brilliant yellow of the petals allowed him to contrast it with background colors.

In a touching gesture to welcome Gauguin, the younger man hung two of his sunflower pictures in what would be the other man's bedroom.

Another painting on display is The Poet's Garden. Van Gogh painted the park across the street and also hung this in the Yellow House, before Gauguin's arrival. The exhibition guidebook explains that Van Gogh's title for this work was his way of comparing what he hoped their friendship would be to "that of the Renaissance poets Petrarch and Boccaccio, two kindred spirits working together in a garden of Eden."

It wasn't to be.

Gauguin arrived in late October 1888, and among the early side-by-side comparisons of their works are some of a nearby Roman cemetery, Alyscamps, which Van Gogh took him to almost immediately.

Van Gogh showed the old tombs against their current background of railway buildings and smokestacks. Gauguin created his romanticized version of reality, manipulating some things, using his imagination.

Bad weather later forced the men to work indoors at the Yellow House. With no space to get away from one another, their differences about art, even about portraying religious overtones within their work, became pronounced.

Gauguin more frequently voiced his eagerness to move on, especially to go to the tropics. Van Gogh failed -- or refused -- to realize that the other man was not inviting him to come along but rather was seeking to put space between them.

Sometimes the men avoided speaking but sought to communicate to each other through their work. Thus, Gauguin seems to be reaching out to Van Gogh by painting that park across from their shared house as the background in one work.

But the men continued to drift apart. Van Gogh, historians say, had grown increasingly irritated at Gauguin's insistence that he try to paint more from memory, not just from nature, and that he should interpret what he saw, as Gauguin did.

Side-by-side portraits of the husband and wife villagers, Monsieur and Madame Ginoux, again emphasize the artists' differences in technique -- despite the weeks of pseudo-collaboration, their visions of the world are not the same.

For instance, Van Gogh painted Madame Ginoux in about an hour's time, exactly as he saw her sitting in front of him. Using that same sitting, Gauguin ultimately created a scene by painting her in a typical setting, a cafe, with other villagers and a pool table.

Early in December, Gauguin painted Portrait of Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers. Van Gogh noted the unusual facial expression and high forehead and remarked, "It's certainly I . . . but I gone mad."

A few weeks later, on Dec. 23, the two men had such a fierce argument that Van Gogh used a razor to slice off part of his own left ear. Apparently horrified, Gauguin left Arles two days later. While the two exchanged letters, Van Gogh still trying to unite them, they never were together again.

While being treated later for nervous breakdowns, Van Gogh continued to paint, even creating one of his most famous works, Starry Night.

The excellent exhibition guidebook that is included in the admission price notes that to the rest of the artists' world, Gauguin tried to present "himself as the victim of Van Gogh's aggression," but that Gauguin also seemed to realize that he had contributed to the other man's mental illness.

In July 1890, Van Gogh shot and killed himself.

Gauguin continued to experiment with his style, gained stature and finally sailed to Tahiti in 1891. He hoped to find some sort of primitive paradise and was disappointed to find that civilization had preceded him. Yet his painting style progressed.

He returned to Europe in 1893, only to go back to Tahiti two years later.

In October 1898, Gauguin sent to France for sunflower seeds, to plant outside his island home. The last of his works displayed here, painted in 1901, is Sunflowers on an Armchair. While it includes one of his stylized native woman passing by a window where the chair sits, it is a clear homage to the fractious time he spent with his troubled admirer, Vincent Van Gogh.

If you go

The Van Gogh-Gauguin exhibition is on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam through June 2. It includes works that were not shown in the Chicago version of the exhibition because they were considered too delicate to be shipped to the United States. There are no plans to move the exhibition elsewhere after its showing here.

Admission is 13 euros (about $11.71) for adults and 8 euros (about $7.21) for children 13-17; those 12 and younger are admitted free.

The ticket includes a guidebook that refers to each item displayed, plus a helpful audiotape with headset.

The museum, located on three tram lines, is open daily 9 a.m.-9 p.m., except for Mondays and Thursdays, when it closes at 6 p.m.

Visitors can crowd six deep in front of some paintings. To alleviate crowding, timed-admission tickets are sold, but even at 9:30 a.m., the exhibit can be thronged. Guards told me the best time to come is midweek, after 5 p.m.

Tickets for specific admission times can be purchased in the United States from Ketih Prowse USA, a New York agency. Call toll-free 1-800-669-8687, or go to the Web site newyork@keithprowse.com. The agency charges $16.25 for tickets for adults.

GENERAL INFORMATION: There is no direct air service between the Tampa Bay area and Amsterdam, but Delta flies there daily from Atlanta and there is nonstop service from Orlando via Martinair. Amsterdam Airport Schipol regularly wins honors for its ease of navigation for passengers.

The airport has a train station offering cheap, direct service to Amsterdam's Central Station, leaving several times an hour. The round-trip train ticket is about $4.67; a taxi (many drivers here wear suits and drive Mercedes cabs) costs about $27, one way.

English is widely spoken in this cosmopolitan city. Several international hotel chains are represented here, including a Marriott less than a 10-minute walk from the Van Gogh Museum. Just two blocks from the first museum is the equally renowned Rijksmuseum, with its fabled Rembrandts and VerMeers.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: For information on the exhibition, got to www.vangoghgauguin.com.

For general information on any aspect of visiting the Netherlands, call the Netherlands Tourism Board office in New York, toll-free 1-888-GO HOLLAND; the Web site is www.Holland.com.

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