In February 1888, Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles, in the south of France, to make use in his paintings of the bright colours under the Provence sun. He had a dream and a plan to make it happen. He wanted to create a community of artists, all living together, exchanging ideas and techniques, inspiring one another, sharing their innovations and taking art to a whole new level. A new Renaissance would be the inevitable outcome of this experiment. This was the utopia Van Gogh conjured up in his unstable and tortured soul. This is why he moved from cold, gray Paris and rented the famous Yellow House at 2, Place Lamartine, in Arles, in the south of France. It would be the sunny headquarters of a commune of innovators and founders of the Studio of the South, where a new tropical art was to be born.
Van Gogh’s Plan
Whether Van Gogh’s true ambition was to finally fit in, to become part of a group of avant-garde artists and to make up for a life of social ineptitude, loneliness and failure is anybody’s guess. He was no longer young, and he knew he had to find a way for his art to be recognized if he was to accomplish, if not fame, at least financial independence. He probably thought it was high time to free his brother Theo from the burden of supporting him. Perhaps he hoped to pay Theo back all the money he had spent on Vincent over the years without ever receiving any returns. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if Theo’s expenses finally turned into a highly lucrative investment?
Trying to entice Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin, the wild artist Vincent and Theo had met in Paris, was Vincent’s first choice for a guest in this community. Gauguin had spent time in Martinique, painting powerful, idealized versions of a tropical paradise. He could teach Vincent something – or so Vincent believed. Gauguin was older and wiser, with a lot more experience and more refined painting techniques. Vincent needed a mentor, a friend, a guiding hand. Surely Theo could help him out with this last financial contribution, supporting the Yellow House project, until their new art became profitable. Vincent was convinced it wouldn’t take long for this to happen. Recognition, fame and fortune were just around the corner.
With this in mind, Van Gogh started a relentless campaign to bring Gauguin – who had also left Paris but chosen the wild primitiveness of Brittany, in the northwest of France – to the Yellow House to share the Studio of the South. Gauguin seemed open to the plan, but he kept putting the trip off. Van Gogh sent him dozens of invitations, trying to lure Gauguin to Arles by singing the praises of the “Midi” (as the south of France is known colloquially), the healthy air of the region, its incomparable light and colors. Gauguin kept accepting the proposal but never actually came. Months went by until, in the autumn of 1888, Gauguin finally decided to travel south and put Van Gogh’s ideas to the test.
The Yellow House
The Yellow House had four rooms. Van Gogh’s plan was to have one of the downstairs rooms turned into a studio, which the artists could share. The other room would be the kitchen. The upstairs rooms were to be the bedrooms. To get to his room, Gauguin would have to walk through Van Gogh’s, but this would certainly not be a problem. Vincent asked Theo for more money to decorate and furnish Gauguin’s room in a suitable manner. His own bedroom would be more monastic. He thought of himself as a monk after all, one whose religion would be his new art. He had decided to live for it. Most of the artists’ time should be dedicated to painting. Their energy should be channeled toward the production of this new art. Despite the famed beauty of the Arlesian women, they would have less sex, avoid distractions and focus entirely on their work.
Unfortunately, it turned out Gauguin had other plans. He and Van Gogh were very different types of men, with idiosyncratic ideas about art and lifestyles. The weeks right after Gauguin’s arrival were peaceful, as Van Gogh made sure to show his guest all his favorite spots in the region, extolling its beauty and the benefits of painting outdoors (en plein air) and explaining his ideas about having nature and people right before the painter’s eyes as models. He also stressed the importance of contrasting complementary colors in paintings and talked about applying the strength and simplicity of Japanese art techniques.
The peace didn’t last long, however; soon, the fabric of Van Gogh’s dreams began to come apart. Gauguin preached about how important symbolism was to art. The motifs, the forms, the colors of a painting should not be linked to direct observation of the subject, he maintained, but come from memory, with all the distortions this might entail. Art must stem from the idea, from the mind, not from the eyes. Art should be enigmatic and mysterious. Gauguin wasn’t interested in painting outdoors. He would see something outside, maybe sketch it and then paint it as he remembered it in the peace and quiet of a studio.
Around this time, reports arrived from Theo in Paris, celebrating the success of Gauguin’s paintings, which had started to attract a lot of attention – and buyers. Theo was very excited about his investment.
Gauguin versus van Gogh
Gauguin painted slowly and methodically; Van Gogh, furiously and passionately. Serious tension began to build in the Yellow House, which assumed a claustrophobic atmosphere when both men were there together. The fear of being abandoned by his mentor reinforced Van Gogh’s latent paranoia, and he soon started to behave in erratic ways, which both bothered and frightened Gauguin. Van Gogh’s mind began to spiral down toward his inevitable breakdown. Gauguin’s success became another source of conflict, as the younger artist resented it and became even more frustrated with his own lack of recognition.
Despite clashes between the artists, Van Gogh was terrified of losing Gauguin and having his dream of the Studio of the South fail like all his previous enterprises. Gauguin, on the other hand, felt sure he needed to leave Arles as soon as possible, before Van Gogh became violent; his behavior was becoming increasingly explosive and unpredictable.
A final altercation between the men on Christmas Eve made it clear to Van Gogh that Gauguin would abandon him and his dream would be crushed. The tortured artist resorted to an act of self-mutilation out of sheer despair: with a razor, he cut off part of one of his ears, wrapped the torn piece in a newspaper and sent it to a prostitute he thought Gauguin was with at the time. Soon afterwards, Van Gogh was committed to a mental institution in Saint-Rémy.
That was the end of the utopia of the Yellow House. Van Gogh’s dream had lasted only nine weeks. However, the works both artists produced during this troubled time are worth millions of dollars today.
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