A clash of temperament and artistic style, a dream of artistic brotherhood soured by jealousy and the desire to assert dominance. That is the subtext of a major exhibition opening in Amsterdam this month tracing the relationship between Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, two of the 19th century's greatest painters. The nine weeks the two men spent together in southern France in 1888 culminated in one of the most dramatic events in the history of modern art: Van Gogh slicing off a piece of his ear after a quarrel with Gauguin.
Their relationship has been the subject of numerous books and films, but the current exhibition is the first time the story has been presented in its most obvious form: via their paintings. There are 106 exhibits in the Amsterdam show, including many of the two artists' most famous masterpieces. The Van Gogh Museum has contributed 25 paintings; the rest come from museums and private collections in the U.S., Japan, Russia and elsewhere in Europe.
Though the exhibition debuted at the Art Institute of Chicago at the end of last year (where it was overshadowed by the events of Sept. 11), the Amsterdam version is unique partly because it includes three versions of Van Gogh's famous Sunflowers, which are placed side by side for the first time. The earliest, oil on canvas, comes from London's National Gallery and was painted in August 1888 as part of Van Gogh's preparations for Gauguin's arrival at the Yellow House in Arles, where the Dutch painter hoped to create an artists' commune. The second Sunflowers, on loan from the Seiji Togo Memorial Yasuda Kasai Museum of Art in Tokyo, was painted a few months later on a piece of a bolt of burlap bought for Arles by Gauguin. It is curiously muted and its authenticity has been questioned, but extensive research in preparation for this exhibition indicates that the picture is indeed by Van Gogh.
After his dramatic departure from Arles in December 1888 following the quarrel that took part of Van Gogh's ear, Gauguin asked if he could have the original Sunflowers. Van Gogh refused, instead painting a replica, the third on display, in which the flowers are less natural and realistic. Apparently, he was trying to adapt his style to appeal to Gauguin. But they remained very different artists, as the exhibition illuminates. They were in the same town, with the same model or scene before them, the same materials at their disposal. Despite traces of similarity, the results are unmistakably Van Gogh or Gauguin.
The attempts by the artists to learn from each other one of Van Gogh's reasons for his commune is evident throughout the exhibition. But what comes across more strongly is the inevitability of their eventual rejection of each other's artistic vision. Van Gogh works emotionally, using paint not only for color but to build up texture. Gauguin is more clinical, blending colors and interpreting what he sees, using scenes as grist for studio-based works.
Van Gogh was consumed with the desire to learn from an artist who was already successful. In Arles, he tried to be less literal in his depictions, more sparing with his paint, blurring the outlines of his still lifes. But eventually the urge to express his soul could not be tamed. "When you see the paintings together side by side, Van Gogh's are the stronger," says Andreas Blühm, the Van Gogh Museum's head of exhibitions. "In the end there is a rejection of the other's style. The realization that they wanted different things from art and saw their role as artists differently was what emerged from the time they spent together. Van Gogh's attitude toward his own work became more confident."
Van Gogh and Gauguin first met at a gallery in Paris in 1887 and soon after exchanged paintings two studies of sunflowers by Van Gogh for a scene in Martinique by Gauguin. (Today the ratio is reversed: in financial terms, two Gauguins equal one Van Gogh.) After that first meeting, Van Gogh began to idolize Gauguin, imagining he had found a kindred spirit who could act as his mentor and friend. Even after their Arles collaboration collapsed, leaving Van Gogh maimed emotionally as well as physically, the Dutch artist dreamed of a reunion. But while the two remained in contact, they never met again.
Despite his denials, Gauguin too was haunted by Van Gogh. In the years after Arles, he painted a number of sunflowers (Still Life with Sunflowers on an Armchair; Caribbean Woman), which came to symbolize his latent appreciation of Van Gogh's talent. Blühm believes those weeks in Arles gave each artist the strength to follow the convictions of his own art in ways that would have been impossible without the intimacy they shared and eventually rejected. It was a destructive relationship in many ways, but one that left an indelible mark on two of the best-known artists of the modern age.