Monday, May 3, 2010

The van Gogh I don't know

Van Gogh was a great, visionary expressionist artist who was also mentally unstable. He had few friends, lived for his art, and mainly cared about producing as many good pictures as possible. He came to art late and basically taught himself how to paint. His favorite subjects were still lifes, landscapes, and portraits. At one point in his life, after he and Gauguin had spent a fair amount of time together in Arles, he became so unhinged that he disfigured himself. He shot himself in 1890 and died without ever having sold any of his paintings.

The above is pretty much what I think I know about van Gogh. I'm actually not sure if it's all even accurate. I'll check later. But I went to a lecture about van Gogh and Gauguin at Arles the other day at the MET and was a little surprised to learn how relationally needy van Gogh was and how much he craved the companionship of people like Gauguin, especially Gauguin.

The lecturer, an art historian from Sarah Lawrence College named Jerrilyn Dodds, spoke very movingly about van Gogh's fervent hope that Gauguin would join him at Arles so that they could paint together and develop a closer friendship. In a letter from May 1888, van Gogh writes to Gauguin:

"And that it would seem to me that if I could find another painter inclined to work in the South, and who, like myself, would be sufficiently absorbed in his work to be able to resign himself to living like a monk who goes to the brothel once a fortnight - who for the rest is tied up in his work, and not very willing to waste his time, it might be a good job. Being all alone, I am suffering a little under this isolation."

Clearly, it was about the chance to do even better work in Gauguin's presence, but it was also about van Gogh's considerable need for some kind of professional and personal relationship. And for van Gogh, the stakes were high. One author has said that he was both exhilarated and anxious about the prospect of Gauguin's arrival, but that his concern that the prickly Gauguin would end up not liking the arrangement continued to heighten until Gauguin finally did agree to share a house with van Gogh. Van Gogh became obsessed both with the desire to work side by side with Gauguin and the growing certainty that Gauguin would come to hate such a partnership. It could easily be surmised, that to invest so much emotion in what seemed like an interesting but hardly life changing decision was asking for trouble. Some nine weeks after Gauguin arrived in Arles and the relationship between the two artists had deteriorated badly, van Gogh first confronted Gauguin with a razor blade and then would use that same blade to cut off the lower part of his left ear lobe. They never saw each other again.

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