From October to December of 1888, the French town of Arles played host to what is probably the most famous collaboration in the story of painting - and while it began with high hopes and mutual admiration, it ended with self-mutilation and nervous collapse. An account of this nine-week interval in the lives of two of history's great painters is told online at Van Gogh & Gauguin.
Hosted by Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, Van Gogh & Gauguin is the online presence of an exhibit that closed in June 2002. Using Flash, animation, and a spartan soundtrack, the site explores the personal and artistic development of the painters in question, as well as each artist's influence on the other during what was a surprisingly short period of collaboration given the place it holds today in the history of art.
The most immediate impression upon loading Van Gogh & Gauguin is the use of a color palette that you're not likely to find at any other site on the Web (but one that will seem right at home for anyone familiar with the artists' works). At the top of the browser window, an unusual navigation grid guides visitors to information about the exhibit in seven languages, as well as an online shop, press releases, and a "background" section. This last option holds biographies, excerpts from letters, investigations of the artists' techniques and, probably a best first stop for visitors unfamiliar with the subject matter, "The Story" behind this meeting of artistic minds.
The main component of the online exhibit, "The Experience," is an intricate Flash presentation that explores four themes: Van Gogh alone in Arles, Gauguin's arrival, their period of collaboration, and Gauguin's departure after the infamous incident in which Van Gogh cut off a piece of his own ear.
"The Experience" opens with a few notes of music and the fleeting appearance of some icons that later serve as navigation. These icons represent the various stages of the exhibition, and are situated along the path of a virtual sun as it travels across the sky. Once familiar with the presentation, the visitor can also choose to move to a specific part of the exhibit by dragging the sun icon to the desired symbol. Almost invisible at the extreme right of the window, and sliding into view only when requested, is the site's "back" button, which takes the visitor out of each subcategory and back to the main exhibition.
Within each stage, visitors move forward by clicking on animated silhouette and/or quotes taken from the writings of the artists, and each resulting mini-exhibit takes its own approach to the material being featured. An excerpt in which Vincent asks his brother to send paints leads to an interactive list of the colors in question, which changes the background color of the page with every click. A letter about taking up residence in the famous Yellow House reveals a series of sketches and paintings Van Gogh made of his new home and its surroundings. A comment about decorating Gauguin's room loads a drag-and-drop jigsaw puzzle of one of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" paintings.
Gauguin's arrival in Arles introduces such elements as the artists' reflections on each others' work as well as their own, interactive comparisons of methods and choices of colors, and even side-by-side interpretations of the same subjects. Further in, the site presents a uniquely web-theatrical production of the final collapse of the collaboration, and closes with brief epilogues to both careers.
There are no instructions as to how to explore this site, and as the navigation is anything but typical, this certainly adds to the element of discovery. It was the intention of the webmasters that "The Experience" would provide a different experience with every visit, and this seems a likely prospect for any but the most methodical of surfers.
It's worth noting that any exploration will be time-consuming. Because of its design, this is not an exhibit that the visitor (especially a first-time visitor) can simply dive into, quickly scan areas of interest, and know that they can seamlessly pick up where they left off at some later date. But if you have the interest, it's worth the time. The site's navigational idiosyncracies will add to the experience of "The Experience".
Van Gogh & Gauguin can be found at http://www.vangoghgauguin.com/.
Jim Regan is a graphics artist and writer who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.