Brushes with genius

The Guardian

Brushes with genius

Richard Cork on the strange friendship of Van Gogh and Gauguin as revealed in Martin Gayford’s The Yellow House

The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles

by Martin Gayford

368pp, Fig Tree, £18.99

Across the world, people who know nothing about art have all heard of Vincent van Gogh’s torment. By slashing off his left ear, wrapping it in newspaper and presenting it to a prostitute at the local brothel, he became an icon of suffering. So how can Martin Gayford’s new book add anything new to our knowledge of the anguished Vincent?

The answer lies in Gayford’s adroit decision to focus on the nine momentous weeks leading up to Van Gogh’s crisis. He recreates the everyday details of life at the Yellow House in Arles. Here, in an ancient French town near the Mediterranean coast, the 35-year-old Dutchman hoped to establish a new artists’ colony – a studio of the south where avant-garde painters would be liberated by the sun’s revelatory impact. As a first step, Van Gogh spent five months in 1888 persuading Gauguin to join him. Five years older than Van Gogh, and a formidable leader of rebellious young artists, Gauguin was impoverished. So he finally accepted the invitation to stay at the Yellow House, and Gayford describes how the exhausted Gauguin arrived at five in the morning after a two-day train journey from Brittany.

Van Gogh wanted the Yellow House to become a monastic community where the art of the future would be forged, but the house was cramped, with no bathroom. The two artists were obliged to share a modest studio and Gauguin discovered that he had to pass through Van Gogh’s long, narrow bedroom to reach his own, whose walls were alive with Van Gogh’s astonishing new paintings, of local gardens and sunflowers blazing on a brilliant yellow background.

At first, Gauguin reacted positively to his new surroundings. He became the cook, and the two lonely men enjoyed regular visits to the Arles brothels. Before long, though, Gauguin grew uneasily aware that Van Gogh was, in Gayford’s words, “teetering on the edge of derangement.” The exact cause of the artist’s inner turmoil has been much debated, with diagnoses ranging from glaucoma, severe sunstroke and absinthe-induced hallucinations to syphilis and schizophrenia. Gayford favours manic depression, or bipolar disorder, where some sufferers enter a “mixed” state “combining the rushing mind of mania with the fears and frantic anxiety of depression”.

Van Gogh’s affliction was soon exacerbated by the news, from his art-dealer brother Theo, that Gauguin had just earned 500 francs from the sale of a big painting. It made Van Gogh even more bitter about his inability to sell any of his work. Dependent on subsidies from the loyal Theo, he admitted feeling “morally crushed and physically drained by it”. As an art critic, Gayford is particularly illuminating about the aesthetic divide separating the two allies. Although they worked side by side, Van Gogh thrived on painting from the life, with spontaneous vigour. Working from memory quickly made him unhinged, whereas the slow and meditative Gauguin insisted that “Art is an abstraction; extract it from nature, while dreaming in front of it.” Their arguments became vehement, and Gauguin soon realised that “between two such beings as he and I, the one a perfect volcano, the other boiling inwardly, some sort of struggle was preparing.”

Gayford manages to get right inside these complex minds, analysing their thoughts, fears, ambitions, complaints and fantasies with admirable clarity. He also pinpoints possible sources for Van Gogh’s emotional self-mutilation – most alarmingly, a report in Le Figaro about Jack the Ripper, who had just hacked Catherine Eddowes to death and and cut off one of her ears.

During December, Van Gogh developed an unnerving nocturnal habit of getting up and wandering over to Gauguin’s bed. Luckily, Gauguin woke up each time and asked: “What’s the matter with you, Vincent?” The intruder returned silently to his own bed. But the crisis came to a head in a local café. After consuming a “light absinthe”, Van Gogh hurled the glass at Gauguin’s face. “I avoided the blow,” he recalled, “and taking him bodily in my arms went out of the café.”

Two days before Christmas, though, the violence grew unstoppable. After rushing menacingly up to Gauguin in Arles after dark, Van Gogh returned home. While Gauguin escaped to a hotel for the night, Van Gogh seized his razor and, spraying blood everywhere, sliced off his ear. At the brothel, he gave the packaged offering to a prostitute called Rachel, asking her to “guard this object very carefully”. Then he vanished, yet made no attempt to resist the police when they raided the house and took him off to hospital.

In his delirium, he asked for Gauguin, “over and over.” But Gauguin, claiming that a visit would upset Van Gogh, left for Paris on Christmas Day. They never saw each other again, but it would be a mistake to regard their sojourn merely as an unmitigated catastrophe. Gayford makes clear that they were also stimulated by this ill-fated experiment, and Van Gogh summed it up well when he declared: “Old Gauguin and I understand each other basically, and if we are a bit mad, what of it?”