Archive for the Paul Gauguin Category

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.)