Picture this, around the middle of September 1888 (the year my grandfather was born in northern France), Vincent Van Gogh was reading about a man named Prado, recently caught for murdering prostitutes. In fact, almost everyone was reading about Prado, it created a sensation not unlike the Manson murders or the O.J. trial. It also happened that during this same period in England, prostitutes were also dropping like flies; remember Jack the Ripper? And there’s every possibility that Van Gogh had been reading about The Ripper’s murder of Catherine Eddowes who had “…one ear cut off” Then on October 3 (my birthday) Le Figaro printed a threat sent by Monsieur Jacques Le Ripper stating that, “The next job I do, I shall clip the lady’s ears off…” All this news about removing ears coming not too long before Vincent himself went into the ear clipping business.
O.K., I wrote the above to get your attention so that I could tell you about a recent book written by Martin Gayford titled, “The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles” that, by good fortune, I happened upon at the CSUN Art Gallery Bookstore when visiting the artist Jodi Bonassi a few weeks ago.
We’ve all no doubt heard the story about Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s cohabitation in Arles, but reading Gayford’s book takes us to a remarkably new level of intimacy. Both painters come off as living, vibrating humans; which is really quite a writing feat when considering how iconic these two figures became, burned since childhood into our cerebral hemisphere. You experience all: their mutual insecurities, their hypersensitivity to their art, their weaknesses, their strengths and much, much more. You discover how each man tried to instruct the other in their technique, a disaster for Van Gogh trying out Gauguin’s “de tete” (from memory) painting. Hard to believe today, but during this time Van Gogh considered himself a far less accomplished painter than Gauguin, and Gauguin, not surprisingly, agreed with him.
Throughout the book, the author makes certain to contrast, in real time, the paintings that they both produced at Arles, especially when they did paintings from the same model or they both visited the fields, the bars, or the brothels together. Gayford’s analysis is direct and plausible which, unlike all too many writers about artists, avoids breaking up the flow of the book with arcane analysis; the reader is continually engaged in the book’s narrative.
In spite of the fact that Gauguin didn’t particularly like Arles and was continually yearning to return to the tropics, and that Van Gogh was becoming increasingly obsessed and anxious about losing him to the tropics, they managed to produce prodigious quantities of paintings together and got along far better and longer than one might have expected. Both men, Gayford points out, had totally different motivations for coming together. Van Gogh wanted to establish a group of avant-garde painters from Paris and the northern based artists in the south of France, preferably in his Yellow House. Gauguin, on the other hand, stuck around because he didn’t want to alienate Van Gogh’s brother art dealer Theo, the man selling off his paintings so well, one even to Degas.
The reader knows that a time bomb is ticking, Gauguin certainly knew it at the time, and when the deluge comes, Gayford does a marvelous job of decoding the multitude of medical diagnosis attributed to Van Gogh. He describes how modern day thinking points to a manic-depressive condition made all the worse by alcohol, exhaustion, anxiety and a lack of eating.
For those who want to experience this event as a fly on the wall, I highly recommend “The Yellow House” Speaking of walls, the book even comes with a floor plan of the house, upstairs and downstairs. You can even color in Gauguin’s bedroom, Van Gogh’s bedroom, both spare rooms, the hall, the stairs, the studio and the kitchen. Unfortunately, you’ll have to provide your own crayons.