“What intensity of colour, what pure air, what vibrant serenity” wrote Vincent to his brother on the 17th of September, 1888. He was describing the Provençal countryside around Arles, the rather grotty little town where he had been living since February that same year. In just over a month, he would be joined by another artist destined to become one of the giants of Post-Impressionism: Paul Gauguin.
‘The Yellow House’, by Martin Gayford, charts the period during which Van Gogh and Gauguin lived together. For me, the book’s greatest strength lies in its intimate and detailed portrayal of the personalities and psychologies of both men, in a way which allows us as readers to build up a clear idea of the motives and moods behind their paintings. The book leaves no stone unturned: their childhoods, appearances, ideas, drinking habits, temperaments, correspondence, influences, sex lives, ambitions, family relationships, diets and pastimes are all explored, giving us what is effectively a portrait in words. It’s extraordinarily evocative.
I’ve also never before been able to visualise the situations and settings in which artworks were created to this extent of detail and precision. Gayford describes everything from the weather and the local news to the smell of the studio and the texture of the canvas material. I also really love the incidental details in this book, such as a little anecdote, recalled later by Gauguin, of when Van Gogh attempted, disastrously, to make soup.
“How he mixed it I don’t know; as he mixed his colours in his pictures I dare say. At any rate, we couldn’t eat it.”
Both painters were larger-than-life characters. Gauguin was exaggerative, pompous and charismatic. He’s often portrayed (as he would like to be) as a ‘noble savage’, a man who rejected the stuffiness of Western civilisation to found an art- and a lifestyle- based upon unconstrained primitive sensuality. In many ways, this was true. However, in this book he also comes across as much more practical and pretentious than one might expect. He was an acutely shrewd businessman, a snobbish linguistic purist and “an enthusiastic homemaker” with an eye for interior decor.
The mentally unstable Van Gogh is conveyed with honesty but compassion. Gayford says that “Vincent was neurotically incapable of tolerating disagreement. And the more nervous opposition made him, the more compulsively verbose he became.” Immediately, we can see why, as time went by, Van Gogh became so difficult to live with. ‘Nervous’ implies anxiety and sensitivity, giving us the impression that Gauguin was often walking on eggshells. Van Gogh’s jumpiness and tendency to over-elaborate his points could understandably be maddening, especially as, during the long periods of bad weather affecting Arles that autumn, they were both cooped up in a cramped studio.On the other hand, we can see from this that Van Gogh was a man of good intentions. He wanted agreement; he hated discord.
Throughout the book, we get a sense of Van Gogh clinging almost desperately to Gauguin, becoming more and more fearful that he is going to run away to Martinique or Paris. This was because Gauguin was tied up with Van Gogh’s idealistic dream of a ‘Studio of the South’. His vision was that artists would live together to support each other, whilst they created the ‘art of the future’, as inspired by the intensity of the colour and light of the South. The book implies that Van Gogh had anticipated Gauguin’s arrival with such excitement because he saw it as the beginning of the realisation of this dream. This is when he painted his Sunflowers, which were symbols of his hope and sunny optimism.
Another aspect of this book which I love is the way in which it explains the Arles paintings in the light of the actual thought processes of the artists. Gayford has clearly undertaken extensive research, because he often feeds into his interpretations details such as the books which the artists read, their earlier experiences, and other images that they would have seen. An example of this is Van Gogh’s Chair, and its companion piece, Gauguin’s Chair. These are incredibly exciting paintings, as Van Gogh has taken a mundane object and loaded it with symbolism; a symbolism which he himself had invented and which emerged from subconsciously absorbed influences.
Gayford unpacks both paintings in great depth, explaining the influence of a print Van Gogh owned of Dickens’ chair, the birds’ nests he painted at Neunen, an experience with his father, his ideas about colour, and even the novels which he read. In short, the chairs are both a defiant statement of his hopes for the Yellow House, and indicative of his differences to Gauguin. This part of the book was my favourite, because Van Gogh’s Chair is a painting I have seen many times in the National Gallery. Its significance is illuminated with sensitivity and intelligence, so that the way I look at it has been utterly enriched.
Gayford allows us plenty of room to empathise with both artists as their relationship deteriorates, without ‘taking sides’. This makes his description of ‘the crisis’ even more poignant, because we see it as being almost inevitable. This crisis, famously, is that Van Gogh, in a fit of insanity, cut off part of his ear and presented it to his favourite prostitute. Gauguin was prompted to flee Arles, and the two friends never saw each other again. The atmosphere of intensity which had prevailed as they worked and lived alongside each other had finally proven to be more than Van Gogh could endure.
The book proposes, extremely convincingly, that Van Gogh had bipolar disorder. Gayford interestingly suggests that if he had been mentally healthy, then his art would never have reached such dazzling heights. I am wary of examining Van Gogh’s art purely through the lens of his mental illness, because I think that this is a slippery slope into over-simplification. On the other hand, the author does not suggest that this illness defined Van Gogh’s art- he sees it instead as a kind of engine, spurring Van Gogh forward to greater visionary intensity. I can definitely see the truth in this argument.
It is perhaps because of their sheer intensity that these nine weeks in Arles produced some of the most breathtaking works of 19th century art, by the hands of both of these artists. The story of their creation is one which Gayford has told with the intelligence and perceptiveness which it merits.