The Yellow House, By Martin Gayford, [Little Brown and Company, 2006]
The Yellow House [Van Gogh, Gauguin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles], as the name suggests, is an account of the time that Paul Gauguin joins Vincent Van Gogh, in Arles, where they exchange ideas on art and paint together. This relationship was as nurturing as it was turbulent, and led to the most creative, and prolific period of their lives.
But, for Van Gogh, it also culminated in the famous ear-mutilating incident. A relationship any different from this would be hard to imagine, given that these men were as alike as they were different.
They were both impoverished, and had not only broken off from the art establishment, but also, from the rebellious impressionist movement, in order to explore completely uncharted directions – in territory, art and themselves. Gauguin, in French Polynesia; Van Gogh, in his little yellow house without a toilet in Arles, France. They both suffered from depression, and envisioned themselves as artists suffering for their art – Paul Gauguin, portrayed himself as Jean Valjean, of Les Miserables, and Van Gogh, made harrowing self-portraits. They both died alone and depressed, far away from family and friends. They had shunned convention in every way, although their ways of doing it were vastly different.
Gauguin had been exposed to adventure very early in his life. Born to a seafaring, journalist father, and Creole-Peruvian mother, Gauguin had sailed across the ocean several times before adulthood. His early years were spent in Lima. His family was bourgeois with socialist tendencies. Gauguin had served in the French navy, settled as a stockbroker, and fathered five children during his ten-year partnership with Mette, before shunning domesticity to pursue art at thirty-seven years old. Although he had several amorous relationships later, he never settled for domesticity again.
Vincent Van Gogh was born to a minister father in a small conservative village in southern Netherlands. Unlike Gauguin, the adult Van Gogh never had a conventional career. His evangelism took him to preach amongst the poor in the Borinage, a forsaken mining district in Belgium. Their miserable lives appalled him to the degree that he lost faith in the conventional church and its religious trappings, and turned to humanitarianism. He gave away all his possessions and time to bring comfort to these miners. He lived in conditions far worse than those he served – much to the consternation of his church. His unbridled zeal eventually broke down his health and forced him to leave the Borinage. The passion to pursue purpose in its purest form found expression in taking the little sketches he had drawn in the Borinage to a completely revolutionary form of art, and suicide.
Van Gogh was scattered, untidy, and as miserable a cook, as he was brilliant a painter. Gauguin, was organized, and imaginative – both in his cooking and painting. Van Gogh painted from his heart, and wanted to capture the immediacy of his surroundings. He painted in an unstructured, haphazard, impatient and explosive manner. Gauguin combined his keen observation with his imaginative mind, impeccable draftsmanship, and mastery of color to create resplendent, symbolic and lucid narratives. Van Gogh had deep nesting tendencies, and wanted to marry his prostitutes – “Sisters of Mercy” as he called them. Gauguin wanted the youngest one of the day, and spent a part of his life with a thirteen year old Tahitian girl, nearly thirty years his younger. While their medium of expression, and lifestyle were different, they were both seeking a life of unfettered authenticity that they felt lay in simplicity and freedom from the proprieties of European civilization.
Van Gogh sought it in nature, and the people of the earth – miners, peasants, postmen – people who put in an honest day’s work to earn their bread. Gauguin looked for it in the primitive people of Tahiti, and their sexual freedom. Yet, their common search for truth at any cost, drew these men to respect each other greatly.
So, what happens when these two juggernauts of artistic experimentation, spend time together, in Vincent’s little yellow house, which he had hoped would become a studio of the south for a group of like-minded artists?
Mr. Gayford, paints an intimate portrait of their lives and the qualities that made them different and alike. It is a rivetting account of the the people and places they visited – including a detailed layout of the house, objects that Van Gogh had carefully selected to decorate his home, the cafes, bars and brothels that they frequented, things that they ate, wore and drank, how they kept house, how and where they painted, their doubts and their fears – and he does this all with the fluidity of fiction and the keen eye of a historian.
The book starts with Gauguin’s innocuous arrival into the town of Arles, as night is falling. He is immediately recognized as Arles’ eccentric resident painter, Vincent Van Gogh’s, friend. Vincent’s tenuous mind is clued early on, by his fearful reaction to a painting that Gauguin had sent prior to his arrival, in which Gauguin, as Jean Valjean of Les Miserables, seemed as disturbed as Van Gogh himself, and not at all the stable companion he had hoped to live with and learn from. Gayford continues to build the tension between the artists, by constantly playing Vincent’s sensitivity, self-doubt and tenuous nature, against Gauguin’s arrogance, exuberance and emerging success. Gauguin gets news of selling a painting (followed by a few more) almost as soon as he arrives, and Van Gogh’s agitation is portrayed clearly, even as he tries to take joy in his friend’s success. The storm is brewing.
There is almost unanimous consensus that Van Gogh’s famous ear mutilation incident resulted from Gauguin’s unstable presence. He had made it clear that Arles, was only a temporary stop till he had enough money saved to sail to Polynesia – money that he saved from the allowance that Theo sent to Gauguin for providing companionship to his brother, and from eating at home. Despite this, Vincent had hoped that the unaffected charm of the small Provencal town, and their stimulating conversations, would make Gauguin change his mind.
However, Gayford doesn’t let this emerging turbulence, overshadow their evolution as painters, intellectuals and companions – as they keep house together and learn from each other. The pages are abundant with tender narratives – from saving money, sharing books and painting techniques including the cheap sackcloth canvas that Paul Gauguin taught Vincent to prime and paint, to gearing up for the big day when they will abandon their daily meal at Restaurant Vennisat and cook their first meal at home. Gayford uses their correspondence to track Gauguin’s requests to his friends, Emile Bernard and Claude-Emile Schuffenecker in Pont-Aven to send him the pots and utensils he needed to cook. He was appalled at Vincent’s unkempt kitchen. No one could cook there amidst all that debris.
It was a master and disciple relationship, with Vincent in awe of Gauguin as a painter, cook and financial manager – a role that Gauguin took on naturally, being older, more stable, and having greater domestic experience. Vincent reserved the best of everything – his paintings, and furniture – to decorate Gauguin’s room, while he himself, opted for a more rough shod bed and reed chair. Despite this seemingly balanced equation, Paul Gauguin, becomes progressively agitated and determined to make his journey to the South Seas, which turns Vincent’s craving for companionship into a threatening relationship. While one could argue that Van Gogh’s deteriorating mental health could have led to some similar bizarre incident irrespective of Gauguin’s presence, Gayford doesn’t lose sight of the emerging conflict, within themselves, and with each other, as Vincent progressively descends into madness and threatens Gauguin several times before apparently trying to kill him.
Even though the book focuses on the nine weeks in Arles, Gayford skillfully threads their past lives to build the crisis, not unlike a master weaver. He unfolds a rich tapestry of the minutiae of their lives, which gives body, resplendence, and touching tenderness to the larger narrative. The book ends with Van Gogh cutting off a piece of his ear, and Gauguin leaving Arles, without ever seeing the person who had, arguably, the most profound influence on his art.
The result is an intricate, delicate, heartfelt, and intensely human account that sheds light on what drove these men to produce great works of art, at enormous destruction to themselves. It definitely stands out from the several books I have read about Van Gogh’s life in the past couple of months, and is a captivating read for anyone who enjoys a well-crafted story.