A fatal encounter story
(I believe that, love, could also be that.)

At Aichi Contemporary art museum, located in the heart of Nagoya, city of residence of the honored Owari Tokugawa dynasty that gave birth to the first Shogun, Tokugawa Ieasu, the exhibition “Van Gogh and Gauguin, reality and imagination” is ongoing.” An interesting exhibition path that, by tracing the independent development of the two artists, before and after their meeting, recreates the atmosphere of cohabitation in Arles of the two founding fathers of modern art, examining the influences they had on each other.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), born in Holland, in a wealthy and very religious family, was a serious, calm, and thoughtful child. After depression, followed to the London period, always poised between faith, reason, extravagant sentiment, behavioral excesses, originality of expression, artistic genius, his life, finished with the probable suicide, at the age of just 37, has never finished to fascinate a vast and generous public, who recognized in him the true misunderstood genius, in which creativity and madness converge.

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), less troubled, but not less original than his friend, born in Paris, in a wealthy and progressive family, he spent his early childhood in Peru, Lima. A period which influenced all his later thought. His love for traveling, led him to embark as a sailor, allowing him to land in exotic places like Rio De Janeiro, Panama, Martinique, Tahiti, to end his life in Hiva Oa, an island of the Marquesas archipelago, at the age of 54. His pictorial evolution in a simplified form of the image, flat, almost devoid of three-dimensionality, where the protagonist is the color, was taken into account by all the painting of ‘900, despite having been underestimated until the artist’s death.

As it is known, in 1880, after a past as art dealer, with his brother Theo, a traditional profession in the Van Gogh family, at the age of 27, Vincent began to paint seriously, also at the insistence of his own brother, who financed him. He tried different techniques and materials, which didn’t satisfy him, until he experienced the oil color. A ductile material, which could be diluted or rendered pasty, allowing that sort of “ill-treatment” that was very suitable to the expressive needs of the artist, who painted nature from his subjective point of view, influencing it with his ideals. Van Gogh’s first oil paintings, inspired by Millet and Breton, of Barbizon school, dark, almost monochrome, are so far apart from the  most celebrated iconic paintings, which is almost hard to recognize the artist.

Although it is a well-known history, to be in front of Van Gogh’s self-portraits of 1886-1887 and see, in direct comparison with the works, how, in just six months, the pictorial expression, the perception of himself, even the same artist’s soul , had changed during his stay in Paris and the meeting with the Impressionists, is of strong impact. I had the feeling that the artist was looking at me from 2 far points of the same straight line tending to infinity, on which positive and negative were penetrating each other, stealing from one to give another, in perpetual balance.

Gauguin, fond in art, in 1874, at the age of 37, began to paint getting closer to the Impressionists as Camille Pissarro. He understood that the Impressionist style did not suit his expressive needs and gradually took distance. In the “Naked Woman Sewing” of 1881, a more personal style can be seen. But it was the brief stay in Martinique, in 1887, to mark a further detachment of Gauguin’s painting by Impressionist principles. In the paintings of that period, he simplified the colors, establishing strong contrasts. Vincent Van Gogh saw Gauguin’s paintings, on display, in the gallery of his brother Theo. He was struck by the chromatic expressiveness of the works, which he found of “immense, wonderful, poetry” and began to mature the idea of working alongside Gauguin, collaborating in the mutual search for a new expressive language. Gauguin, at first, refused the offer and moved to Brittany, at Pont-Aven, where he met several painters of the period. It was 1888 when Gauguin met Émile Bernard, whose innovative painting, a mixture of cloisonnisme and japonisme, is decisive in the turn of Gauguin’s technique. He paints from his memory, indoors, simplifying sensations and removing details, creating the expression of “synthetistic form” because deliberately simplified. He also waives to the complementary colors that, if put next to each other, merge, and prefers to maintain and enhance the pure color, which, however, doesn’t have the typical artist’s intensity, yet.

On February 1888, left Paris, Vincent reaches Arles. He is fascinated by the Provencal scenery, which reminds him many of the elements of the Japanese Ukiyo-e sighed world, which struck him so much, and paints many works.

Being in front of a work by Van Gogh is an experience engaging and disarming. The closer you get and more the work takes shape, as if the artist was still shaping the color with intense, frantic energy. The excitement is tangible in each brushstroke. The passion is felt in the mushy softness of the colors that enclose a mystical sensuality. The farther you go, the more the work becomes real. It captures with the sincerity of form and atmosphere.

He took as models for his figures, members of the Roulin family and the Zouaves stationed in the city. Van Gogh who recognized a “comforting” character in the art, also painted the calm beauty of the parks, where people could find peace and serenity. In that summer of 1888, Theo van Gogh stipulates a contract with Gauguin, which guarantees to the painter a salary of 150 francs, in exchange for a painting each month; then she invites him to join his brother Vincent in Arles, Provence, paying for his stay. Gauguin cannot refuse.

Vincent, waiting for his friend, with the prospect of creating a community of artists in Arles, full of vitality and optimism, painted the famous series of sunflowers in a vase, with which he intended to decorate Gauguin’s room.

On October 29, 1888, Paul reaches Arles.

The two artists’ stay in Arles, in the famous yellow house, is very profitable. Despite numerous quarrels, due to the short-tempered Vincent and the impatient and arrogant temperament of Paul, they find a great creative stimulus from their expressive diversity, influencing each other. Vincent is romantic and mixes the colors in bold strokes, while Paul is more attracted by the primitive and prefers a net crosshatch. Van Gogh likes Provence, while Gauguin finds it reductive.

Among the many works, Vincent paints the well-known Gauguin’s chair for painting. A work in which his friend’s influence is evident.

Paul paints landscapes and scenes of everyday life, among which, according to Gauguin himself, the best is the one that portrays the grapes harvest.

Despite Vincent admire Paul’s paintings, he always finds out some flaw that does not hesitate to comment, with considerable dismay of his friend. Paul, in turn, tries to do the opposite of what Vincent suggests. The constant confrontation, leads to a final argument, after which Gauguin decide to leave Arles. Van Gogh pursues Gauguin with a razor, but when he reaches him, lets him go. Back home, in the throes of a psychotic crisis, he severs part of his left ear, and delivers it, then, to a girl from a nearby brothel, begging her to take care of it. After the end of their cohabitation, the two men keep writing to each other. In May 1889, Vincent voluntarily enters the psychiatric hospital in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, at about twenty kilometers far from Arles, where he spends about a year, painting from his room or outside the hospital, when his mental state permits it. He portrays with mastery and originality, Provencal motifs like cypresses and olive groves. Stimulated by the style of his friend Gauguin, he experiences, sometimes, the method of painting using memory and imagination. Although you can glimpse, in his works, the influence of the religious symbolism of Gauguin, Van Gogh’s work, however, remains firmly grounded in reality. In May 1890, Van Gogh moves to Auvers-Sur-Oise, a suburb of Paris. He experiences a new kind of painting he calls “contemporary portrait”, actively seeking new forms of expression. On July 27 1890, after being in the countryside to paint as usual, he falls wounded by a fire weapon shot in the chest, which may have been inflicted himself, or being hit by two young boys who accidentally shot, while they were playing to annoy Van Gogh with a gun. On July 27 1890, after being in the countryside to paint as usual, he falls wounded by a fire weapon shot in the chest, which he may have been inflicted on himself, or being hit by two young boys who accidentally shot, while they were playing to annoy Van Gogh with a gun. He died two days later, on July 29. Van Gogh was buried lying in a coffin, covered with a white cloth and by sunflowers that he loved so much, from dahlias and other yellow flowers, in the cemetery of Auvers. On January 25, 1891, six months after his brother, Theo Van Gogh, who was also a psychiatric patient, dies. In 1914 his remains, by the will of the widow Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, were moved to Auvers and buried alongside those of Vincent. Ms. Johanna asked that a twig of ivy of Dr. Gachet’s garden was planted between the two tombstones, which are still now surrounded by a tangle of ivy.

Gauguin, left Arles, after staying between Paris and Brittany, disappointed at the lack of public recognition of his work, is able to fulfill his wish and, in 1891, he sails to Polynesia in search of a true primitive world, where he intends to end his days. Gauguin ha affermato che: “L’arte primitiva parte dallo spirito e usa la natura. The so-called fine art parts from sensuality and serves nature. Nature is the servant of the first and the mistress of the second. But the servant cannot forget its origin and debases the artist, being adored by him. […] The truth is the pure cerebral art.” In Tahiti,  he finds the serenity and beauty of the island motifs, but also realizes that Western influence has already produced changes. So, instead of only portray the Polynesian world, creates many works in which, Polynesian culture, Catholic culture, and other, blend reflecting his memory and his imagination. In 1893, Gauguin returns to France and begins to paint in Brittany, but then parts a second time for Tahiti, in 1895, from where he would never return to France. In Tahiti, he keeps painting landscapes, scenes of pastoral life and haughty islander images.

Gauguin’s painting surrounds and transports with the purity of the palette and the sincere eye. His strength is in the color and in the truth of the lines that create a dreamlike dimension of symbolic reality. It’s like having a sexual and physical relationship with the color.

Always in search of his simple ideal world, he leaves Tahiti in 1901. Just before leaving, he paints a still life of sunflowers on an armchair. 11 years have passed since the death of Van Gogh, but on that island of peace, Gauguin’s thoughts are still turned to his deceased friend, in faraway France.

Gauguin died, after syphilis, on the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas archipelago, where he was buried without a name, by the colonial authorities and the Bishop of the Catholic mission of the island, to whom he had never hidden his hostility. Few natives of the island were present at his funeral. His tomb was discovered 37 years later, when a small plaque with the inscription “Paul Gauguin 1903” was placed on it.

Perhaps, love may also mean watching colors with the same eyes, and having courage to make heretic decisions.*

Barbara Fontana Ozawa

(*for the definition of heretic, take a look at www.eretikosiki.com/concept)