“The Briefest, Most Tumultuous, And Influential Friendship In The History Of Modern Art – And Unquestionably The Most Famous Self-Mutilation Ever”
By Zach Simon
March 17, 2014
Artists flock to one another. That is how “periods” or “movements” get started. We’ve seen it over and over.
It happened during the mid-to-late 1960’s when Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and The Fish, Santana, and Sly and the Family Stone were rocking and rolling to what came to be known as the San Francisco Sound. All five bands were invited to perform at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, over 4,000 miles away.
In the 1920’s, writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald ran in the same circles in Paris, influencing and inspiring each other to the point where they created a whole new genre of modern literature. These artists, as well as the followers of their writing style, were dubbed The Lost Generation. Today, books like “The Great Gatsby” and “The Sun Also Rises” are household names.
And of course, there were the French Impressionists of the 1870’s-80’s.
Édouard Manet was arguably the cornerstone responsible for bridging the gap from Realism to Impressionism in the 1860’s. His 1863 “The Luncheon on the Grass” is widely considered to be the birth of “modern art,” which is a period that spanned over a century – commonly measured from roughly the 1860’s to the 1970’s.
Art movements happen so rapidly (an artist can crank out hundreds of works a year) that they inherently evolve just as quickly too. Manet soon inspired followers such as Claude Monet, who would later go on to become the “Father of Impressionism” during the 1870’s-80’s. Monet organized the first ever Impressionist exhibit in Paris during April of 1874, along with contemporaries Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley. It was revolutionary.
Lo and behold, by the mid-1880’s, other artists were already taking the genre in a different direction, and Post-Impressionism was born. It is on the two Post-Impressionist artists of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin that we will focus, and how they briefly crossed paths, changing each others’ lives and the future of modern art in the process. Their relationship also happened to produce the most legendary example of self-mutilation in the history of modern art (or modern anything). But more on that later.
In the 1920’s, if you were a writer who wasn’t living in Paris and didn’t know Hemingway and his crowd personally, you could still read copies of their books and be influenced by them. In the 1960’s, radio and television allowed one musician’s style to influence others in different cities, states, and countries. So it’s not as if bands had to live near Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead to be influenced by the San Francisco Sound.
But in 1880’s France, proximity was the only option. You had to be part of the scene. Physically. There was no other way to actually see someone else’s paintings and be influenced by them. All of the Post-Impressionists personally knew each other.
Theo van Gogh was a successful Dutch art dealer who moved to Paris in 1884. He had always emotionally supported his unsuccessful older brother, Vincent, who until the early 1880’s was little more than a failed missionary and overall religious zealot. His mental instability had caused enough friction with his family that his father had begun to suggest committing him to an asylum. Before devoting himself to religion, Vincent experienced multiple instances of infatuation that morphed into stalking. At least one of these cases ended with a violent scene at the home of the family of a woman who had rejected him. Van Gogh demanded to see the woman for as long as the amount of time he could hold his arm over the flame of a candle. The woman’s father practically had to say to him, “Stay the hell away from my daughter. She doesn’t love you. You’re a weirdo. Don’t make me kill you. ”
Theo’s emotional support turned financial in 1880-81 when Vincent finally listened to years of his brother’s urging him to try his hand at painting. Vincent had drawn ever since he was a child, but had never painted anything until he was in his late twenties. Yes, you read that correctly – one of the most famous painters ever didn’t even begin painting until his late twenties. Once Vincent agreed to give painting a serious shot, Theo immediately began sending him money for rent and art supplies.
In March 1886, Theo invited Vincent to come live with him in Paris. Vincent accepted, and the brothers moved to the famed Montmarte district – the setting of the fabled Moulin Rouge and other popular hipster artist hangouts. Over the next couple years, the art dealer introduced his aspiring artist brother to the likes of Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Rousseau, Camille Pissarro, and George Seurat.
Cézanne and his still life portraits were among the earliest heavy influences on both Van Gogh and Gauguin. This was an influence that would stay with both artists for many years.
The above Van Gogh painting of assorted fruit is most likely just one of many such works he produced around that time, which his friend and contemporary Émile Bernard dubbed, “violent still lifes.” The below painting by Gauguin is a direct homage to Cézanne. The artist’s name is not only included in the title, but the above Cézanne painting is in the background.
So it is obvious that Van Gogh and Gauguin were heavily inspired by the artists they were surrounded by in Paris at the time. But they each soon created their own unique styles, which would rub off on the other during the nine turbulent weeks they lived together in the winter of 1888 in Arles in the south of France.
By the end of 1886, Theo couldn’t take living with his whackjob brother any longer. In a letter on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, Theo described it as “almost unbearable.” By 1887, Vincent had moved to Asnières, a northwest Parisian suburb. The distance improved his relationship with his brother. Vincent’s mental state actually seemed to be on the up and up when he moved to Arles in February 1888.
It was there that he was to open his famous Studio of the South, also commonly known as “The Yellow House.” Van Gogh envisioned starting a community where artists could live, work, and inspire each other – and consume ghastly amounts of absinthe, of course – in a sort of utopian, artistic collective.
The three paintings above are among Van Gogh’s most famous, and he painted them to decorate the house for the arrival of Paul Gauguin, whom Theo had talked into moving in with Vincent. Theo wrote Gauguin a letter, practically begging him to shack up with his brother because he was so worried about his mental state and solitude. Theo ended up essentially bribing Gauguin to make the move, paying him 250 francs a month in exchange for one of his paintings a month.
The two biggest attributes that they adopted from each other during their time living together was Van Gogh’s religiousness and Gauguin’s method of painting from memory. Painting a nighttime setting during the day, for example; working without the use of models, settings, or landscapes. Both adopted the other’s characteristic, and it shows in some of their most famous works that they produced toward the end of their respective careers. More on this later.
There are books out there such as Martin Gayford’s “The Yellow House” that can detail much better than I the intricacies of the everyday lives of Van Gogh and Gauguin while they lived together. Apparently Gauguin was a great cook and certain stories they shared wound up in each others’ paintings. Whoop de doo. I’m sure there are other little niceties like that to be found if heavily researched, but let’s skip right to the sexy part: this was when Vincent van Gogh infamously cut his own ear off.
You were waiting for that part, weren’t you? Who can blame you? I sure can’t. It’s insane! And I mean like arguably the most insane thing a famous-crazy-tortured artist has ever done…and the list of famous-crazy-tortured artists is a mile long! The dude cut off like half of his own left ear! Yikes. Does this look like fun to you?
Gauguin moved into The Yellow House in October 1888. In addition to the aforementioned paintings Van Gogh put on display, he also painted dozens of works containing sunflowers, and hung them in Gauguin’s room to brighten up the place for his arrival. Seems like a pretty warm welcome to me. But the honeymoon stage obviously didn’t last long, as the ear-cutting incident occurred on December 23rd.
Even after just two months, Gauguin was fed up with his new roommate’s erratic behavior and overall bullshit. Van Gogh became crazed when Gauguin told him that he was leaving and why. An argument ensued, Van Gogh accosted Gauguin with a razor blade, and Gauguin left the house. It is unknown if Gauguin was completely unscathed, but no serious damage was done.
After Gauguin left, Van Gogh’s psychotic episode worsened, culminating with the slicing of his own ear, which he then wrapped in newspaper. He walked to a nearby brothel, delivered the small package to a prostitute named Rachel (or the doorman with a message to give it to Rachel, depending on the version of the story), and told her to keep it safe. He then walked home and passed out. The police found him unconscious and took him to the hospital, where he awoke the next day. He had no memory of performing the self-mutilation. Paul Gauguin left Arles and never saw Vincent van Gogh again.
By January 1889, Van Gogh was back at The Yellow House, although he split time between there and the hospital due to frequent hallucinations and paranoid claims that he was being poisoned. Arles was home to only about 30,000 people. It had a small-town feel to it in the sense that it was easy to develop a reputation, which Van Gogh obviously did with flying colors. The townspeople – who had probably always viewed him as the deranged would-be leader of an artsy-fartsy cult – started calling him “fou roux” (the redheaded madman). By March, enough residents signed a petition so that the police boarded up The Yellow House, forcing Van Gogh to live elsewhere. He voluntarily chose to commit himself to a hospital/asylum in Saint-Rémy, about 20 miles away.
It was there that he completed arguably his most well-known masterpiece, “The Starry Night.” Van Gogh never painted anything strictly from memory before living with Gauguin. But in a letter from the hospital to his friend and fellow painter Émile Bernard, he wrote:
“The imagination is certainly a faculty which we must develop and it alone can bring us to creation of a more exalting and consoling nature … A star-spangled sky, for instance, that’s a thing I would like to try to do … But how can I manage unless I make up my mind to work … from imagination?”
He painted it during the daytime from his hospital room.
For the next and final year of his life, Van Gogh was either living in asylums or in cities specifically to be near the physician Dr. Paul Gachet, as well as his brother Theo. He continued to work, constantly producing classic works of art such as the portrait of Gachet, who cared for him during the final months of his life. The poor doctor looks like his patient is a real pleasure, doesn’t he? But who’s to say how much of the painting reflects Gachet’s face versus how much it reflects Van Gogh’s soul?
On July 27, 1890, Vincent van Gogh is believed to have shot himself in the chest with a revolver. It can’t be stated with 100% certainty because the gun was never found. In fact, no one can be certain where he even was when he was shot, because he walked home afterwards. Most believe the bullet hit a rib, missed all vital organs, and became lodged in the spine. A couple doctors tried to tend to him at his home, but they were unable or incapable of removing the bullet. Word was rushed to Theo, who came at once, only to find Vincent smoking his pipe and looking more or less fine for someone who just took a bullet to the chest – pretty badass, Vinny.
Within an hour or two of his brother’s arrival, Van Gogh began to rapidly deteriorate (surprise, surprise) due to an untreated infection – which is a really formal way of saying because he had a freaking bullet lodged in his spine and should have been dead a day ago. Vincent van Gogh died some 30 hours after he sustained the wound. Most scholars concur it was self-inflicted. He was 37 years old, and had produced over 2,000 works of art, including nearly 900 oil paintings during the last decade of his life.
While it was the cuckoo’s nest and suicide for Van Gogh in 1890, it was Tahiti and tropical women and paradise for Gauguin in 1891. He reinvented himself as an artist, devoting most of the next decade to altering his style to capture the everyday life of the native people of the South Pacific.
Despite the razor-blade incident that led to their falling out in 1888, Gauguin and Van Gogh did eventually begin to correspond again before the latter’s suicide. There was something between these two, whether it was a mutual respect or some other sort of magnetism that drew them to each other. Whatever it was, their brief, fiery time together was an exchange of influences that equally inspired them both.
Van Gogh had implemented Gauguin’s memory method to his work. In return, it was Van Gogh’s fierce religious fervor that began to come out in Gauguin’s later paintings, whether it was the crucifixion of Jesus Christ or the indigenous worship, religious themes, and beliefs of the Tahitian people. He had never been overly religious before he lived with Van Gogh, nor had his works of art conveyed many religious themes.
In French Polynesia 1903, Gauguin got into some legal and political trouble after siding with the natives against the French colonists. He was given fines and a prison sentence of one month for writing “libelous” things about the governor there. Suffering from syphilis – and weakened by alcohol abuse – he died of a morphine overdose before he could begin his prison sentence. He was 54 years old.
Exhibits and plaques on display at the Art Institute of Chicago
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