A remarkable, shared time in the lives of two artists

A gigantic book and a current exhibition offer a densely detailed reassessment of the relationship between Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. The study more than measures up to the intensity of this remarkable friendship. It examines the cross-pollination that differently affected both artists' work.

They had met in Paris, in late 1887. Then Gauguin went north, to Pont-Aven. Van Gogh went south, to Arles. Both felt impelled to paint away from the city. It was an escape to ruralism - and to a rather selectively self-deluded primitivism.

In Van Gogh's case, this move resulted in isolation, from which he longed to be free. He did all he could to persuade Gauguin, five years his senior though less formed as a painter, to join him in what he dreamed might become a "Studio of the South." Their south-north correspondence developed, as the book's authors put it, into "a fruitful misapprehension." The egocentric Gauguin, flattered by Van Gogh's admiration, finally consented.

Their period together in Arles, in particular the way it ended abruptly with the incident of Van Gogh's self-mutilation, has attained the status of popular myth. It comes as a surprise to be told how brief this stimulating, though increasingly dissonant, "collaboration" was.

They shared the Yellow House as living quarters and studio for no more than nine weeks, from Oct. 23 to Dec. 23, 1888.

The book traces their story day by day - literally. We learn which days it rained, what kind of rough canvas they shared and when. Where they both sat to paint Madame Ginoux's portrait. Whose chair she sat in.

This is the one time that Van Gogh's flow of self-revealing letters to his brother Theo, art-dealing in Paris, dwindled. But curator-authors Douglas W. Druick and Peter Kort Zegers still manage to demonstrate, convincingly, the chronology of paintings in these productive weeks.

The book's many illustrations show works before, during, and after Arles. In them, we see how the two artists influenced each other and how they resisted that influence. .

Other painterly duos have been the subject of similarly revealing comparative studies. Picasso and Braque, for instance, when they invented Cubism. And even, though far more competitively, Picasso and Matisse. Such close encounters, fruitful or explosive, are extreme instances of a game all artists play. They admire, watch, imitate, argue with, or steal from each other.

This study becomes most fascinating when both artists painted a common subject. The two paintings shown here indicate how subtle their differences and similarities could be. Madame Roulin and her family, as people and sitters, brought Van Gogh a quality he persistently wanted his art to express - consolation. He and Gauguin painted simultaneous portraits of her in the Yellow House. Both portraits remained after Gauguin left.

Van Gogh then found lonely solace in painting an archetypal image of Madame Roulin singing a lullaby as she rocks her son's cradle. He repainted this subject five times after Gauguin's departure, doubtless glancing, as he did so, at his earlier paintings of her - and at Gauguin's portrait.

'Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South' is at the Art Institute of Chicago until Jan. 13, 2002. It then travels to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where it will be on view from Feb. 9 to June 2, 2002.

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