Michael Prodger reviews The Yellow House by Martin Gayford.
It is a sad, sad story but, as this revealing and touching book reminds one, the path to this tragedy was documented in a series of paintings that have become among the best known in Western art.
Published: 12:01AM BST 09 Apr 2006
Martin Gayford’s account of the whole episode is particularly poignant, and he lays out a convincing explanation of the complex reasons why the painter turned on himself: manic depression with an admixture of religious mania and personal guilt over leaving the reformed prostitute he had lived with back in Holland. It was more than enough to overcome his already fragile mental resources. Gauguin himself left Arles on Christmas Day and the two painters never saw each other again.
In the late autumn of 1888 Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh spent a little over two months living and working together. It is a wonder they lasted so long.
The crisis came on December 23 when, of course, Van Gogh sliced off part of his left ear. He wrapped the grisly morsel in newspaper and delivered it to a whore called Rachel in a nearby brothel; on opening this unexpected gift the poor girl fainted, as well she might.
In December alone Van Gogh had painted 25 pictures, he was exhausted, often drunk, becoming increasingly unhinged and fearful that Gauguin was going to abandon him, as indeed he was. Years earlier, back in Holland, Van Gogh had asked: ‘Is being alone really living?’ He had come to the conclusion that it wasn’t and the prospect terrified him.
Martin Gayford deftly charts how the differences in temperament quickly became divisive, and his narrative shifts subtly from art history to psychological thriller. While Gauguin was stuck in the South his paintings were beginning to sell in Paris and his name to attract critical attention. He found himself feeling far from the action, marooned with a man whose mental unravelling was becoming more pronounced by the day. Gauguin’s increasing fretfulness transmitted itself to Van Gogh and only heightened the other man’s anxieties.
They made a very odd pairing, even for artists. Gauguin was 40 and Van Gogh 35 when they shared the Yellow House, a small, spartan dwelling on an unassuming square in Arles, a city which had once been the capital of the western Roman empire but had since fallen on hard times. Gauguin had a small avant-garde reputation and a considerably larger opinion of himself; Van Gogh was unknown and felt himself to be unworthy, an apprentice in everything.
The two men had been brought together by Van Gogh’s elder brother Theo, who was Gauguin’s dealer in Paris and Vincent’s sole source of money. The idea that they should live together had many advantages: Gauguin could keep an eye on the unstable Vincent on his brother’s behalf, the two impecunious artists could share expenses, and together they would form a ‘Studio of the South’, a quasi-monastic artistic community. The Yellow House, enthused Vincent, would be ‘an artists’ house, but not affected, on the contrary, nothing affected’.
This was all very well, except that their personalities were contrasting rather than complementary. The story of their relationship and the tragic disintegration of their high hopes is the subject of Martin Gayford’s wonderfully perceptive book.
The Yellow House, full of irregular angles, cluttered with paintings and right on the street was barely big enough for the oversized personalities of its inhabitants. The two painters existed in a fug of tobacco smoke, alcohol and paint, cooped up when the weather was bad, living, eating and working together in a room only 15 feet wide and 24 feet long.
Apart from outings to the local brothels – what they termed ‘hygienic excursions’ – and occasional visits from friends the pair were rarely apart. There was always going to be trouble. Gauguin felt it too: ‘Between two such beings as he and I, the one a perfect volcano, the other boiling inwardly, some sort of struggle was preparing.’
Neither man was an easy housemate but Van Gogh was particularly difficult. He would work frenetically, talk interminably and drink excessively: ‘If the storm within gets too loud,’ he noted, ‘I take a glass too much to stun myself.’ Gauguin himself often felt stunned by this intense existence, his nerves ‘strained to the point of stifling all human warmth’.
For a short while their hope that they might feed off one another artistically seemed to be coming to fruition. They painted everything that was at hand – scenes in Arles, the house, the furnishings, the square outside, each other. While Van Gogh admired almost everything Gauguin produced, the older man was more sparing with his praise, commenting tartly that Van Gogh did indeed ‘have an eye for blobs of impasto’.