Archive for the Idealizing bohemian excess Category

Here’s a review of a recent failed art exhibition that I wrote for The Thousandth Word blog: “Bang a Drum for the Losers.”

Be forewarned: My take on the show at hand, “Millions of Innocent Accidents” by the artists collective Hardland/Heartland at the Minnesota Artists Gallery (at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts), is a tad harsh. But I had a point to express, related to the cause of so much artistic failure across the land of late, which was this:

Shrill gestures like breaking windows, destroying property, and flouting the rules of civilized society do not make compelling symbolism. Instead, acts of a hopeful, imaginative, empathetic, or out-reaching nature are what’s needed to attract and capture the attention and support of others….

….As soon as I walked into this gallery and saw the poorly conceived, dolefully hopeless work that this well-meaning group of artists purported to consider compelling visual art—all their random and indistinct trash and burnt paraphernalia and jumbles and piles of detritus and tossed off dreck and doodles and goats’ heads and black tar corner accretions—my spirit fell. The show was a disaster, off-putting and uninspiring, and it was clear at a glance that this loudly shouting, in-your-face visual group had failed to reach out to others in any meaningfuly to get their righteous points across….

The chief problem is that, while it’s clear that Hardland/Heartland’s hearts are in the right place and they have the energy to make a lot of work (and I mean a lot of work), they just don’t know how to make much that is compelling and symbolically relevant or that embodies and expounds on their frustrations, fears, and angst in a way that someone else would care to look at. There’s no hope here, no imagination, and certainly nothing to empathize with.

On my Minneapolis-based arts blog, The Thousandth Word, I recently collaborated with Minneapolis artist-warrior, Gabe Combs, on a piece called  “Dried Blood and Dandelion Wine.”  It reveals, in the artist’s own words, much about the raw details of his present life (as an artist recently made homeless); here’s a sample:

Being an artist is not a fashion statement that passes with the season; it’s not something that hinges on gas prices. Art is something that combines with the culture to establish roots that intertwine with and break up the cement of society so the wildflowers can grow.Art breaks up a false foundation and replaces it with dirt. I wonder if it’s really possible to make dandelion wine…

Regular readers of CAFA will recognize that I have been following Gabe’s story, as best I can, since just before he was made homeless in March. You can read about the early stages of this artist’s self-destruction here, here, and here.

Also, here’s an informational post that tells you what’s up with this new Thousandth Word blog on Rakemag.com. I suggest you visit this site often (perhaps nearly as often as you visit the Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America) to read more such stories by me and five other capable and informed local arts writers.

The cartoon below says everything you need to know about why artist are doomed to failure. (Side effects of creativity include: “poverty, impaired judgement, poor health, difficulty with relationships, delusions of grandeur, alienation, anxiety, dependence on the approval of strangers, and bad reviews.”)

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Just to check back in, below is pasted the most recent online forum post by Gabriel Combs, the artist who self-destructed (and went homeless) a few months ago.

Note: I haven’t seen Combs since just before he was evicted from his apartment. He was not particularly pleased with what I wrote about his experiences, so I don’t imagine he’d have any interest in meeting with me again. Therefore, unfortunately, the only way I have of knowing how well the now-homeless artist is doing is by reading the scant words he writes on this online forum. (And these words don’t paint a pretty picture.)

i sold my soul for a bowl of soup, and there was a fly in it.
cuts don’t heal
slow seeping blood
its death and it creeps

testosterone and adrenaline mixed with alcohol
my senses have gone animal. survival explicitly dictates it. its a fine line from here to hell, and i’m aware of every instinct, sight and smell. dreams are theatre and threatening and nostalgic nightmare with beauty and godpleasesomeonehelpmeplease. sleep face down arms crossed in a coffin with the process of suffocation. radiate light in the day, solar cell (prison) becomes anemic until after midnight shadows confiscate lack of contrast.

an ideal balance of alienation and abstracted nostalgia.

“i don’t care about my bad reputation
never said i wanted to improve my station…”

choooke…. my body is afflicted with this heartttttt…… brokenbreakcrookedandstraight

“runnin through the field where all my tracks will be concealed

and theres no where to go…”

nothing is making much sense. i don’t know where i am.

here are three 3″ x 4″ statik kinetic tortoise, now up on ebay for only .99 cents. i gotta get out of here soon…

(posted on mnartists.org by Gabriel Combs, May 18, 06:35 PM)

Meeting Gabriel Combs again after nearly five years was a shock. All the former young-punk anger and wiry strength that I had seen when I first met him was gone, replaced by frail deliberation, lumbering gentleness, even a kind of solemn grace. “Can I offer you some coffee?” he asked apologetically when I arrived at his small apartment in the rough and densely populated Stevens Square neighborhood of Minneapolis. He seemed unwilling to look directly at me, turning his back to the sink of his tiny kitchenette. “It’s fairly fresh. I just need to heat it up.”

I demurred, and held up the bag of Middle Eastern food I had picked up on the way over. “I can’t drink coffee this late in the day,” I said, “but I am hungry. You guys want to eat?” (Another artist named Ray, who has long spread an itinerant life between an old RV and the couches of friends, was also present.)

They accepted the food without thanks, like prisoners do, and ate mostly in silence. I swallowed pieces of spinach pie and chattered nervously, trying to get conversation going. I mentioned I was specifically interested in their artist careers, and how had art had perhaps let them to their current stations. This got them both started on a littany recitation of the slights, insults, and the past treacheries they’d endured in their lives, jobs, art pursuits, and so on.

I didn’t take careful notes (I wasn’t thinking of this as a journalistic visit), but I learned a few indelible facts that I record here. Combs had been supporting himself by selling art on eBay for more than two years–ever since he’d quit a job at a photo processing place, supposedly because of “some bitch” coworker who was blaming him for things that had gone wrong at work. In a typical month, Combs makes 25-30 small art works to sell, working in series to save time and reuse colors between images, thus conserving supplies. He couldn’t say exactly why he started selling art on eBay as a “survival thing.” It just happened “by chance,” he said, as he was applying, unsuccessfully, for job after job to replace the one he’d left. “I saw some others doing it on eBay, and I thought I’d try. I just put it out there. I weigh it against all the jobs I’ve hated, and I like this much more. I just need to figure out all of the marketing strategies.

“I feel like I got pushed into this… but I’ve made a pretty good run of it,” he said of selling his art at $10-$20 a pop, mostly to collectors from Europe.

While Combs luck seemed to have run out finally, it lasted awhile. And his art got sent out all over–Germany, England, Spain… “A bunch of people in Spain have my work,” he said. “If I could go anywhere, I’d go to France or Spain. The street art there is just incredible.” But Combs doesn’t have money to get to those countries, let alone to sustain himself for any length. He hadn’t paid his rent since November, and in the weeks leading up to his call-for-help blog and forum posts in early February he had been dealing with the heavy-handed mechanisms of the legal system.

Prior to ending up at the photo processing place, Combs had attended school in Minneapolis for graphic design. I can’t recall which school he attended, as there are several for-fee schools here that purport to train the next generation of working designer. I don’t know the details, other than Combs left school with a degree and a sizeable debt, but he was unable to find work in the field. “I really liked graphic design,” he said. “Really. It just was impossible to find a job doing it.”

The littany of blame, excuse-making, and self-demurral tossed out by Ray and Gabe against all the people in the art and professional world who were keeping them from success reminded me of some recent blog-writings about work and creativity of another Minneapolis artist who seemed to have hit rock-bottom of late.

I’m making no money on music. I can’t get a gig. I can’t find a decent job. And I don’t have a social life because I’m too broke to do anything, and besides, I should be at home recording anyways… Taking a chemical won’t change who you are. It won’t change your brain. It definitely won’t make your life situation any better. It can only promote change. So I’m trying to see what I can change and how I can help myself. I’m just afraid that the answer is to “find a job.”

Any job that fits my qualifications does not fit my skills or personality, and vice versa. That’s the trap I’m stuck in. I’ve gone after jobs that “fit me,” and I don’t get hired, usually because someone more personable is just as available. I was able to slip in to jobs only to get treated passive-aggressively, and sometimes even used as a scapegoat. If I’ve ever had a job that did not fit this profile, it was low pay and small hours.

EVERY employer wants a “motivated, team-oriented, self-starter,” which I can be if I were running a gallery or something. I can’t be that while answering bitter emails from dissatisfied Target customers. And I can’t pretend I’m going to. What the fuck is the point of that?

I’ve always known this about myself and that’s why I fight against the odds and work my ass off in my spare time, making music, making art, promoting the arts, volunteering, running a zine fair, etc. hoping that it will pay off down the line. The fact is that it WILL NOT pay off…

Based on former experience, the best case scenario is that I will settle for something that will pay me to simply maintain my human existence. If I save anything, it’ll cover the hole that I create when I get pissed off and quit. My only life, it seems, is a flat line. It also seems my creativity has been dwindling since I stopped getting student loans and switched to paying them. I made a huge mistake. I invested in myself. I thought being educated would get me somewhere. I didn’t realize that you’re more prepared for the workforce as a high school graduate than as a college graduate.

Anyone who sees the way Gabriel Combs interacts with and approaches the world would quickly know that the root of his problems–his inability to keep a job, to market his art, to get along with others in a position to help him–likely lies solely within himself. It is a case where a person’s voracious creativity not only creates conditions for alienation and isolation, but makes the person blind to the reasons why he is shunned.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a good thing to see a person lose his vibrancy and vigor in this way–particularly when it’s a result of a voracious creative drive. Combs, compared to his old self, is a zombie now–diminished, hungry, lacking any spark of joy. It was vastly preferable to know him when even the smallest slight would provoke a shitstorm of rage and spew, when you were afraid that he might explode on you just because you looked at him wrong, and when you knew he was only seeing the world as a canvas on which he could make marks, literally and figuratively.

It was sad to see him like this, even if he told me he was hopeful and optimistic for the future, proud of his petty art sales, and eager to keep making art work. In the course of conversation, Combs brought up several times the name of Van Gogh, citing something he’d read in his letters to his brother Theo or talking up some aspect of his life. He also mentioned he had recently seen the Schnabel film about Basquiat. I wasn’t sure if he was identifying with these famous artistic failures, or if he was just acknowledging those who had previously traveled the path he was now setting off on.

“All things considered,” says Combs, “I’m a happy guy. What have I got to complain about?… I literally have nowhere to go. I could couch-surf, but I have no permanent place to go. If that’s what it is, then so be it.”

The latest updates on one of Combs’ websites suggest he was scheduled to hand over the keys to his apartment to a court representative on Monday–yesterday–at noon. Below is a picture he posted as the last image from his studio, just before it must have been carted away:

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Today, just a few hours ago, Combs posted the following on the mnartists forums:

i’m close to kmart on lake… i have’nt been on since friday, so i missed about the painting on saturday. officially without a home now, having handed over the keys yesterday at noon. anybody know how to get a dvd out of a macbook drive? i stuck the last harry potter movie in here and it does’nt know its there and won’t let it out… i hope it does’nt mess this thing up. i got a ton of drawing done, as i’d been holding back from it for quite a bit. lots of thumb nails for paintings to do. have to get back to painting i a little bit here, but had to check the net. ramen noodles and bread… spring should bloom nicely this year. gotta run…

“[Galleries and art firms] are in the clutches of fellows who intercept all the money,.. [and only] one-tenth of all the business that is transacted… is really done out of belief in art.”

–Vincent Van Gogh, after his failure as an art dealer, in a letter to his sister Wilhelmina Van Gogh 

When I saw that Gabriel Combs’ situation had spiraled down to the point that he was facing eviction and out of options—likely to end up in a shelter, alone and doomed—I debated what I would do.

On one hand, despite my ambivalence about his art but because of a history of being serendipitously “connected” with him, I was terribly curious about what sort of life he was leading, and would lead, through this personal, art-driven disintegration. In a way, I thought, it’d be a kind of window-view into the life of a modern-day Van Gogh—as, in many respects, Combs’s life seemed to mirror the life of the Dutch icon of the quintessentially unrealized-genius/failed artist. After all, like Van Gogh, Combs is remarkably prolific. By perusing his website, scanning through the mnartist forums, and his eBay seller ID, anyone could see he is compulsive about producing art (some of it derivative, some of it rather empty of any meaning, but much of it remarkably inventive and facile in rendering). Further, like Van Gogh, Combs speaks a severe dedication to the act of art-making; it’s all he really wants to do, nothing else—and in fact he had done nothing but art for the past few years.

If Combs had the intellectual discipline to match his hand skills, he could have been, like Van Gogh eventually proved to be, a great artist—he’s that visually inventive. Instead, as with Van Gogh, Combs seems just another angry young (tagger) artist trying to go legit, who, by striking out at everyone—in bar fights, through substance abuse, or by taking offense at every cross word (as he has often described on the forums)—dooms himself to failure.

did’nt sleep much last night. something about 3 liters of wine, mushrooms, and speed. oh, and some whiskey too. and i may have to fight tonight but its not my fault she was left neglected. i will likely lose this fight too, but one never knows. only a little half done with an american tragedy. i like dreisers style alright, but hes fairly long-winded and makes errors. i think i’ll pick up some joseph conrad after this, and may have to read the heart of darkness again first. time passes and certain texts come off a bit differently in going back over them. i am currently morose, confused, and solidly self-destructive but its nothing new and tomorrow will bring new scars to earn. what difference does it all make? to twist out of that moribund shit, here is something cute. hide your fishes… (G. Combs, mnartists.org forums, February 12)

I debated going to visit Combs’s studio/apartment not only because of our history, but because I knew I’d end up accused of “exploitation”—taking advantage of one person’s (in this case an artist’s) dire situation for my own gain, or to get my sick jollies, or for revenge. It’s a conundrum and a fine line. On one hand, one could see this sort of writing as very vulture-like—a feeding frenzy on the dead or dying carcasses of artists. On the other hand, the most compelling stories I tend to write, the stories that get the best response and attract the biggest readership—to this (uncommercial) blog and to my (commercially) published writing—are the personal stories of artists who are teetering, or falling over, the edge. These stories, strangely, are what people seem to want to read, and, despite the inevitable accusations and questions about my motives, I continue to write these stories (without seeking them out), because I think they serve an important and useful purpose. They make people, generally speaking, more aware of the life-realities (and dire struggles) of working artists today. Vultures, after all, serve a very useful function as a warning and spur, for those who are still well-fed and healthy, not to set off on the dry gulch pathways.

So, despite my hesitation, and recalling the Artistic Failure mission—to a record the “struggles of myriad failing and failed artists across the communities of this country, as well as the failure of the “entire structure that supports artists and arts viewing… so that we somehow, someday may collectively rise up and fulfill our national creative promise”—I continued wondering if I should visit Combs, see his work-live space, and get a brief glimpse of what was at the heart of his personal dissolution. My intention was I might (or might not) write about him specifically, but that I would at the very least use information about his situation to feed a large essay about the great make-or-break, career-crushing hurdle that every artist seems to face at some point in life. Still, I continued to have serious misgiving about whether visiting Combs would be worth the inevitable frustration to me, and, likely, to Combs.

I had very nearly decided to back off, let my curiosity die, and ignore Combs’ obvious cries for attention, but then he posted the message below on the forums:

i cannot believe how crazy last night was, and how it was an extension of the days before that. tonight threatens to be worse. i am officially out next friday. things are more fucked up than i can remember them ever being. if you live around stevens, look for random art on the street, as i’ll be setting odd boards and panels out in the next few days. if i don’t get killed. walked right into a crack den to tell someone what was up, like ten people in there. the guy who is evicted today that lived there laying naked on the bed except for his underwear, with the place full of people smoking. landlord “uhhh, just what happened in your apartment last night?” all hell. i’m carrying a hammer with me as i might need it to hit someone (s). mopping up blood thinned by liquor. let it all come, i can take it. heres five drawings i did awhile back. sold the lot for 99 cents to a guy in germany. one of my worse sales lately. got some better prices from a series of people from spain, which makes spain the foreign country i’ve sent the most work to i think. i’m to about $500 a month on art, and maybe 25+ pieces to make that. so desperate today, and out of my mind… (G. Combs, mnartists.org forums, February 15)

That same day, I wrote a hasty email to Combs and to one of his forum friends, and I waited to find out if he would let me visit.

TO BE CONCLUDED…

Note, below is a representative sample of Combs’ most recent work (originally posted by the artist on the mnartists.org forums).
Combs has been supporting himself exclusively for the past few years—ever since he quit a job at a photo-processing company (something to do with the politics of the place and some evil fellow employee)—by selling his paintings/drawings on eBay. These paintings typically sell for $20-$30 a pop, though occasionally a bit more.

You can support Combs directly by bidding on the work he sells on eBay.

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Sorry, fans of Failure, that I’ve missed a few posting days this week.

Part of it is I’ve been swamped 24-7 of late putting together a fundraising event for the little art organization I direct as my day job. Don’t let anyone ever tell you (ever) that fundraising, no matter for what amount (even for small-town nickels and dimes), is easy… Oh man, is it anything but easy.

By the way, the auction we’ve put together is pretty awesome, in a small-town Minnesota kind of way (with at least two world-renowned artists)—in case you happen to be one of the rare people at present in this country who are flush with cash.

The other part of my absence is I’ve been following the self-destruction of a young artist here in Minneapolis named Gabriel Combs. Combs has known for a number of weeks now that he’s going to be evicted from his drug-den urban-core apartment in the infamous Stevens Square section of Minneapolis. Here’s what he wrote (unedited) to a local artists’ forum back in early February, during the coldest part of what has amounted to the coldest winter in Minnesota in the past 15 years:

looking into renting a weekly room for awhile. luck seems to have run out. was inevitable i suppose. strange how i can’t get a job. i’ve always been curious as to what my character would become reaching complete desperation… what i will be reduced to doing, simply to survive a little longer… my instinct to survive is mercenary at rock bottom.

I should back up a bit.

I first met Gabriel Combs in 2003 or 2004. I had been writing for a website in Minnesota run by the Walker Art Center and funded by the McKnight Foundation called Mnartists.org, which also had—in an effort to connect the local community of artists—established an open forum for artists. I, of course, with my interest in community affairs, my Gen-X lack of online savvy, and my infernal optimism, have been a regular contributor, participant, and watcher of the Forums since they were mounted.

I also, in 2002, founded a local arts writer association called the Visual Art Critics Union of Minnesota, and, around 2003, I set up with the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts a lecture series called the Trialogues, in which we connected a local art critic/writer with the artists exhibited in each of the MAEP’s exhibitions.

Long story short, I met Combs at one of my favorite venues (a bar) after an early Trialogue event—back when I was pushing the events to any and all comers. I remember him as being smallish, but strong and wiry, full of the angry energy of a disciple of the Juxtapoz movement, and I’ve had a kind of ongoing “connection” (for lack of a better word) with him through the online forums ever since. As I recall, he had brought a small drawing (of a techno-beetle done in graphite on paper), that he made a point of passing around the bar table to see how the critics would react. (I kept my cards to my chest, as I was the nominal organizer of the event and had to remain political; but let’s just say here and now that I’ve never really been much of a fan of the acolytes of Robert Williams…)

Needless to say, Combs and I haven’t always gotten along. Let’s face it, I’m an opinionated arts writer, and he was an artist struggling to get noticed in a market overflooded with artists. It was inevitable that I’d eventually be the target of his frustration—if only because I stupidly kept myself in proximity. At one point, after something I wrote that only indirectly concerned him ca. 2006, Combs wrote the following gut-clenching diatribe against me on the mnartists forums (which I post primarily because it reveals, I think, something essential about the artist):

I think you need to be called on your shit. So far, i’m up to Sam Spiczka, Ben Olson, and John Grider whose comments could’nt be posted on your blog, which you say you did’nt pull down in a hissy fit, yet I think we all know better. The hypocrisy of how you complain about artists whining about not being noticed is sad, and at times a blot on the (or clot in the) scene. In contrast, a general rule i’ve heard repeated over the years has been that it takes around ten years for many collectors to acknowledge artists. Judging by the time you arrived in MN, got in the MIA’s foot in the door show, and then bailed from showing your visual art, you are what? At one third of that time? Another example of your long history of not getting what you want and getting negative. I would’nt bring these things up, but you insult other people who refuse to give up. You speak of artists harassing you for attention in your columns, which I have personally witnessed, but you asked me for images from the Inkala, Grider, and Combs Caffetto collab show, at which I was first hesitant, but gave in on your *second* request. You proceeded to hack it up in reality, again dismissing the “Juxtapoz” movement, which you’ve been unable to correctly set in history in any way, raising suspicions of yet another acidic kickback from your weaknesses. Your bashing of Olsons’ work was pathetic, (especially in contrast to the glowing and truthful review by Mark Wojahn on mplsart.org, (and you are both VACUM)) with an even more pathetic attempt at tying into a supposed overall flaw in art history. I would call it basic disrespect. Insult without a backup. Your blog came down again after a criticsm by myself, and a statement made by Spiczka on mnartists.org forums that was dismissed and dodged. True, you have given your hand to some decent (not great) writing on the arts the last few years, but also have undermined your own work better than any artist “attack” could by your general bitterness laden with venoumous hypocrisy, child-like behaviour, and your thinly masked pen-names. You’ve alienated the audience, the core peoples who would back you up.

Without you, we exist.

Without us, you do not.

There were worse comments along the way about things I’d written in print. I didn’t take offense (after a locally well-known and respected printmaker wrote, in a letter to the editor, that he’d like to smash my head in with a brick, I long ago stopped caring what local artists say about me for what I’ve written as a critic). I never responded. So why, you wonder, would I even care about such an erratic and unstable artist now—now that he’s about to be out on the street, primarily due to his own choices?

Well, if I don’t care about the self-destruction about one lowly artist in one insignificant American backwater town, then who will?…

TO BE CONTINUED…

Gerald Prokop, in his new blog, has a few bones to pick with how Minneapolis/Minnesota treats its artists (even as we pat ourselves on our collective back for our self-perceived enlightenment).

He writes (in one post):

Minneapolis can’t support artists. Take the number of venues or galleries and compare it to the number of musicians or painters and you have a problem. And some of those people are cooler than you. Some have “friends in the scene.” Some have money in their family or other weird sources of income. Plenty of them are younger than you and willing to take greater risks. Add my own personal struggle with myself, and it gets hard to compete.

And in another post he writes:

I have mixed feelings about the art “scene” here, if you can call it that. I used to really believe in it. Afunctionul was all about investing in our place, and the local scene and how we could build it through those “unestablished” venues to create a healthy, diverse culture. But that was over four years ago. Since then, I tried my best at creating and marketing my visual art. I constantly felt like the “scene” was going on without me. Being an artist here is more about choosing your friends then creating your work. It’s more about having a style and fitting in somewhere socially. I closed my studio because I ran out of juice. I was broke and I wasn’t being myself. I would go to every gallery opening because that’s what you’re supposed to do.

It’s partly my fault for being socially awkward. But I dread the day when misfits don’t have the privilege of a career in the arts because overachievers have changed the standards.

It’s quite possible that the reasons I failed here as a visual artist would have caused me to fail anywhere. Regardless, I wish people would just shut up about how great it is here.

Minneapolitans like to create insulated communities, or cliques. And from that viewpoint, you can convince yourself that it’s anything you want it to be. And with our corporate paychecks, we can finance our fantasies.

For those who are interested, here’s a bit more bio about the work that Gerald Prokop has done since the early 2000s. He sounds like a doer, and it’s a shame he hasn’t found a community of support. I’m going to keep reading his blog to see how his career develops…

All this talk about Vincent van Gogh has got me thinking a bit about how artists often ruthlessly back-stab, undercut, and undermine each other in order to get themselves ahead. I recently wrote a quick essay on the subject of artistic competition for a project by the artist Monica Sheets, which began:

ARTISTS AND ART LOVERS OFTEN CREDIT COLLABORATION as a prime driver of creative expression. But if one examined the actual record of artistic accomplishment, one would find that togetherness and cooperation aren’t a very common spur to artistic efforts. Rather, artists often are driven in their creativity by baser impulses: jealousy, vindictiveness, competitiveness, even pure hatred.

Call it “creative differences” if you will, but head-to-head battles abound in art history…

Such behavior makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that artists struggle for a very small pool of reward. On one level, it’s simple and basic law-of-the-jungle behavior. At the same time, it may also just be that artistic people tend to be more high-strung and high-maintenance than their non-artistic counterparts.

Two recent stories bear out both theories. One, an account by Joseph Harriss, in the Smithsonian magazine, of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin’s life together for two months in Arles, for instance, relates numerous examples of the “creative sparks that flew when these two opinionated avant-garde artists came together in the South of France.” At the key moment, Van Gogh, upon learning his friend planned to leave their “poor little yellow house” after only two months (instead of the planned six months) threw a glassful of absinthe at Gauguin’s head and ran after him in the street hurling wild accusations; then, sometime before the next day, there was that whole cutting-off-the-ear episode (the exact circumstances of which we may never know).

Leading up to this climactic moment, of course, it was clear that Gauguin and van Gogh—though connected by an artistic affinity—were not compatible as people. Their work styles were different, Gauguin approaching each work in a more measured, plotted and composed, intellectual manner, van Gogh working with impetuous, “pell-mell,” poetic and manic energy. Whereas Gauguin worked to build up thin layers of color that affected certain moods, van Gogh’s technique was replete with gestural strokes and an impasto accretion of paint. “Their ideas on art differed greatly,” the article quotes Andreas Blühm, former head of exhibits at the Van Gogh Museum. “[While in Arles] they influenced each other to a degree, and then went back to their original styles.”

The two also clashed over ideas. “Our arguments are terribly electric,” van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. “We come out of them sometimes with our heads as exhausted as an electric battery after it has run down.” Ultimately, according to the article, Gauguin grew contemptuous of van Gogh’s intellect, citing his friend’s “disordered brain” and “absense of reasoned logic.”

Still, the real reason for the dissolution of the friendship may have been simple and petty feelings of jealousy and competition. A few weeks after Gauguin’s stay in Arles, Theo van Gogh sold a number of the artist’s paintings in Paris, giving him more money than he’d had in years, and Gauguin began thinking immediately of leaving Arles to go to Martinique, where he’d start a “Studio of the Tropics.” The portraits that each artist painted of each other in this time period—in their posing, composition, and rendering—were tense, loaded with “defensive and aggressive implications.”

After the glass-tossing, street-shouting incident, Gauguin left on a night train for Paris. The two artists never met again. A few months later, in early 1889, van Gogh entered the asylum in Saint-Rémy, and just about a year later he shot himself.

In 1891, Gauguin finally abandoned his family (back in Denmark) for good and moved to Tahiti. He became ill (possibly of syphilis) and developed a drug addiction. In 1892, he attemped suicide with poison, but he failed. He died of a heart attack, broke, in 1903 in the Marquesas Islands at the age of 55.

I can’t help but wonder whether either artists’ lives would have been different had their relationship not been fraught with mutual competition, back-biting, and intense jealousy; had they managed instead to inspire each other mutually and provide support in each of their struggles.  These questions, of course, are naive and moot. Not only can we never have an answer to them, but competition, jealousy, and ruthlessness are ever the artist’s bread and butter.  So intense and inbred is this behavior that Paul Gauguin, tellingly, continued exhibiting it years after van Gogh was gone.

Toward the end of his life, Gauguin, realizing that van Gogh’s reputation (even in death) was growing faster than his own , began to refer to his former friend as “crazy.” He wrote in 1903 that his stay in Arles was for purposes of “enlightening” a struggling and lost van Gogh. “From that day on,” he claimed, “my van Gogh made astonishing progress.” Gauguin even attempted to alter chronology to date van Gogh’s sunflower paintings after his arrival in Arles.

Even in death, even at the end of life—when nothing else was stake other than reputation—an artist will without a thought throw a fellow artist under the train.

Et tu, artifex?

(Note: A second story of the tragic consequences of artistic competition and mutual jealousy will follow in the next few days.)