Two masters, side by side on canvas

"I have a hankering after the eternal...."

- Vincent Van Gogh, July 1888

"In general, Vincent and I do not see eye to eye, especially as regards painting."

- Paul Gauguin, November 1888

In the 1956 movie "Lust for Life," Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn chewed up the scenery and spit it out in brilliant colors as they enacted the grand drama of the relationship between Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. It was a good movie, if not entirely accurate. And it promoted the myth of artists as troubled geniuses.

The mythology surrounding their lives is so rich and vivid that it continues to influence how we understand them today.

They represent two important (sometimes intertwining) strands in modern art - expressive, energetic painting and the more subtle, cerebral mode. They influenced each other's work and spent one important autumn together.

A stunning exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South (through Jan. 13), helps us understand how much their ideas contributed to contemporary thought, as well as how each sharpened the other's aesthetic while following his own path.

The exhibition uses their own words and works to show the amazing dialogue between the two painters as they labored side by side in a rented house in Arles, France, for nine weeks in 1888. It was the Studio of the South, as Van Gogh dubbed it. There, these two self-taught artists changed the course of western art forever, each breaking into new territory in terms of style and meaning.

"Both of them have been looked at mythically," says Douglas Druick, Searle Curator of European Painting at the Art Institute of Chicago and one of the show's two organizers. "Vincent [Van Gogh] wasn't dead but a few years when the question of the saintliness of his life, his devotion to his art, and his tragic circumstances became part of the way people thought about him. Many of his letters were published ... and so many people became acquainted with him even before they had seen his art."

The letters are profound, insightful, and revealing. He is the quintessential suffering artist. Gauguin is, in the public imagination, the Gauguin of the South Pacific - on a primal voyage of mastery.

Van Gogh approached art as a kind of religious quest. He had been an evangelical pastor and had ministered to the poor and sick, giving away his possessions in an attempt to imitate Jesus' life. Gauguin abandoned wife and family in pursuit of art, a kind of macho individualism that made art and his own needs more important than anything.

Van Gogh was demanding and intense. He believed that every committed friendship had to be tested, and his ideas wore out friends. He paid a high price for his visionary art. But visionary it is. To view his "Starry Night" (1889) is to see the universe pulsating with energy, and united. Heaven and earth team with life and the foreground tree reaches to the sky.

"It does me good to do difficult things," wrote Van Gogh to his brother Theo that important fall. "That does not prevent me from having a terrible need of - shall I say the word? - religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars." Van Gogh wanted to create art that would speak to an audience that wasn't especially educated. And he was enormously successful. He laid down paint as if it were alive. Gauguin, however, was interested in a more subtle art. He preferred mystery expressed in an opaque and suggestive way, Druick says. Gauguin respected Van Gogh's work, but thought he wore his heart too openly on his canvases.

"Vincent saw in Gauguin's art what he found in Rembrandt, in an earlier generation of painters, [and] what he did not find in Impressionists, and that is a profound humanism - what he would call the deep poetry of Gauguin," Druick says.

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