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The Search For Sacred Art
By Debora Silverman

(Book Review)

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN 0-374-28243-9 (alk. paper)
494 pages. With bibliography and index.
198 illustrations, most in color.
Price: (Hardcover) $60.00 U.S.A.


Van Gogh And Gauguin: The Search For Sacred Art by Debora Silverman is a sumptuous book: excellently researched, well-written and -- particularly given its subject -- intelligently illustrated. Indeed, its illustrations offer much that is difficult or nearly impossible to find elsewhere. One is especially grateful for the inclusion of artist juvenilia and memorabilia; documentation of locale and individuals personally or creatively influential to the artists; reproductions of work, the whereabouts of which are presently unknown; photographs of sites painted by the artists (some even taken by the author). There are 198 illustrations in all, many in fine color. In Van Gogh And Gauguin: The Search For Sacred Art, they are necessary. But that is the hardbound volume -- 494 pages, including biographical outlines of the artists, notes and index -- and not the real subject....

At first, it seems surprising that a book like this has not appeared much earlier. That is perhaps a testimony to this last century's fashions and fears. Men at times have felt compelled, rightly or wrongly, tragically, often ironically, to die for what they believe makes life worth living, be it God, country or the girl next door. But because of that, while religious faith has often been a powerful force among the creative, it has not always enjoyed appeal among trend-setting academics or even intellectuals. Van Gogh And Gauguin: The Search For Sacred Art is a book with a profound theme -- one with a potency which only now we are again beginning to come to terms with. Van Gogh And Gauguin: The Search For Sacred Art draws advantage from a distance in time and milieu to examine two very different, important, and fascinating masters in light of a profound human drive. We have had so many volumes which treat artists as classroom exercises: we learn the lists, the dates, details of method and technique, who they chummed about with, and what others thought and said. Occasionally, an author discovers that many artists know what it is they are about, and have expressed it, clearly and with insight.

Someone loves Rembrandt, but seriously -- that man will know there is a God, he will surely believe it... Try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another, in a picture.

Vincent van Gogh
(Letter to Theo van Gogh [brother]
Cuesmes, Belgium July 1880)

Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it...This is the only way of rising toward God -- doing as our Divine Master does, create.

Paul Gauguin
(Letter to Emile Schuffenecker [artist],
August 1888)

The Questions: 'What is poetry, music, art?', 'How can they not be?', 'How do they act upon us and how do we interpret their action?', are, ultimately, theological questions.

George Steiner, Real Presences,
(University of Chicago Press: 1989)

Van Gogh And Gauguin: The Search For Sacred Art.... For those who just love to look at pictures, or at personal albums, this book contains at least a decade of delight. For anyone interested in either artist, it is a major gift. But the truly serious may consider the artists' own declarations in light of George Steiner's questions, arrived at after a fruitful lifetime of writing about literature, music, art. Van Gogh And Gauguin: The Search For Sacred Art provides a case study. The narrative fascinates, but this book treats fact: it is a scholarly achievement. Paul Gauguin himself entitled one famous oil on canvas Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-1898). They are indeed theological questions; the driving force for both artists; and the subject of Silverman's Van Gogh And Gauguin.

ABOVE: Self-Portrait Dedicated to
Paul Gauguin

By Vincent van Gogh
Oil on canvas (1888)
59.55 x 48.26 cm.
© President and Fellows of
Harvard College, Harvard University 2000
BELOW: Self-Portrait: Les Miserables
By Paul Gauguin
Oil on canvas (1888)
45 x 55 cm.
© Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
(Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Today, we often forget that many, if not most, prominent universities were founded as divinity schools or seminaries for a subject now relegated to minor departments often euphemized as 'Studies Centers.' We allow, dissect, a denatured and generic 'Sacred.' Van Gogh And Gauguin: The Search For Sacred Art, objectively, dispassionately, examines two major artists driven in personal struggle with God and art. Silverman's book stimulates thought and engages its reader far more than Oedipus Rex or any wild Greek tragedy; more than Amadeus, or cinematic romance. It opens real lives -- of Vincent van Gogh, of Paul Gauguin -- here, Dutch Reformed Realism dances distance with Catholic Idealism. Debora Silverman takes the artists at their word and their deeds; both were insightful and articulate. Silverman examines their beliefs, how they were formed and how these informed the artists' art. And in this last year of the millennium, this volume offers pause to contemplate George Steiner's postulate: that we have since chosen form over substance, discourse over deed -- philosophizing over faith. Steiner asserts that real creativity either competes with, or completes, mens' intimations of divine presence. Van Gogh And Gauguin: The Search For Sacred Art offers striking images and living facts in example.

Certainly, the artists of this study provide dramatic tension simply in their differences of personality and background. Debra Silverman notes her original interest was in "tracing van Gogh's identification with craft labor," that is, until she turned to the Arles period. Upon finding "unexpectedly rich materials on Gauguin and the period before and after his collaboration with van Gogh," Silverman thought of writing "Protestant modernist meets secular egoist." But Gauguin, whose self-interest and clever manipulations came to disturb van Gogh, increasingly emerged "as beset by religious problems and preoccupations as van Gogh, although he expressed those problems in a different register and with different consequences for his art." With this, a different and more profound history comes to the fore.

Van Gogh And Gauguin reveals portraits quite different from popular stereotypes. Despite his illness, van Gogh was diligent, well-read, well-versed in art's past, and, as poet W.H. Auden once noted: "passionately Christian in feeling though, no doubt, a bit heterodox in doctrine." And van Gogh was an exceptional writer, as well as a very perceptive self-critic. One may profess reserve about his theories, the specifics of his new 'spirituality' seemingly revealed in color and composition, but those explorations addressed profound tensions and hopes, and the painter explored them with serious devotion. Van Gogh did regret the passing of a historic iconography of color and form, and believed an immediate -- because natural and universal -- vehicle would come to express faith in life, and presence beyond life:

I am always between two currents of thought, first the material difficulties... and then the study of color. I am always in hope of making a discovery there, to express the love of two lovers by a wedding of two complementary colors, their mingling and their opposition, the mysterious vibrations of kindred tones...To express hope by some star, the eagerness of a soul by a sunset radiance.

Vincent van Gogh
(Letter to Theo
Arles, early September 1888)

This made a strong impression on poet W.H. Auden, who, extolling the artist as honest, direct writer, frequently quoted from such van Gogh letters:

You will realize that this combination of red-ochre, of green gloomed over by grey, the black streaks surrounding the contours, produces something of the sensation of anguish, called "rouge-noir," from which certain of my companions in misfortune frequently suffer. Moreover, the motif of the great tree struck by lightening, the sickly green-pink smile of the last flower of autumn serve to confirm this impression.

In his September 1888 letter van Gogh confesses:

...in a picture I want to say something comforting as music is comforting. I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to confer by the actual radiance and vibration of our colorings.

Silverman concentrates upon "the visual forms, tools and textures of van Gogh's metier, his pursuit of art as a painstaking and rigorous craft, a product of arduous and methodical exertion rather than a sudden release of exalted vision." Paul Gauguin -- almost seminarian, quasi-sailor, stock agent, bank clerk, salesman... artist -- seems the one with one eye besieging heaven, and another fixed firmly on receipts: a worldly idealist, and self-promoting introvert. Gauguin was an ally, and a disturbing renegade. But it was not illness nor 'romance' which made their art; it was rather what they believed, or didn't; hoped to know, sought to divine. Van Gogh And Gauguin is rigorous scholarship which treats protagonists worthy of Balzac, their thoughts and theories, their society. Neither artist dallied with conventionalism.

D'ou Venons-Nous? Que Sommes-Nous? Ou Allons-Nous?,
(Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?)
By Paul Gauguin, 1897-1898
Oil on canvas
139.1 x 374.6 cm.
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Tompkins Collection 2000

Some of that is personality -- a popular concern in this age. But personality neither explains the artists' motivations, nor their art. A mathematician may obsessively seek certainty in an uncertain reality, but that does not explain his creations, nor their autonomous utility. Many such personalities produce only laundry lists. Silverman exhaustively traces van Gogh's and Gauguin's explorations of belief (not necessarily 'theology' -- the rationalization of belief). Van Gogh And Gauguin reveals that part of the total picture comes from society: the trends and people creatively influential in those times....

In Van Gogh And Gauguin: The Search For Sacred Art, Silverman examines as background, 'modernism's' earlier roots in the effort of organized religious institutions to arrive at an acceptable synthesis within the new society -- rationalistic, scientific, secularist -- then forming: a search for a harmony, workable, but still consonant with religious core teachings and traditions. In this, Silverman breaks ground in recovering a history which has been cast aside by the mainstream preoccupation with subsequent "cultural production and the avant-garde." This too makes Van Gogh And Gauguin essential reading. This book is important for its renewed insights, as well as its treatment of vital, but neglected themes. That is a necessary corollary of Van Gogh And Gauguin.

The book leaves an impression as well that both artists, albeit without rigor and intuitively, had each been effecting their own personal reconciliation of their new age with timeless belief. Soren Kierkegaard noted that "...Catholicism has the universal premise that we men are pretty well rascals," and that "...the Protestant principle is related to a particular premise: a man who sits in the anguish of death, in fear and trembling and much tribulation -- and of those there are not many in any one generation." (The Protestant Mystics (Little, Brown:1964)). It is of particular interest that van Gogh, a product of the Groningen School among the Dutch Reformed (well-examined by Silverman), sought increasingly to reach out through his art to the poor about him and to 'people' as a collective. Gauguin, born of a multivaried and communal Catholicism, was drawn into a heightened individualistic idealism. Although this is not an explicit conclusion of Van Gogh And Gauguin, this study of the two artists reflects W.H. Auden's examination of authentic human existence:

...protestantism is correct in affirming that the We are of society expresses a false identity unless each of its members can say I am; catholicism correct in affirming that the individual who will not or cannot join with others in saying We does not know the meaning of I.

W.H. Auden, "Greatness Finding Itself,"
(In Forewords and Afterwords).

Ultimately, and it is clearly revealed in Silverman's examinations, van Gogh, "a man who sits in the anguish of death," sought a greater, universal spiritual collectivity, a 'We' within humanity; while Gauguin, heir of a church, militant and victorious (a community linking living and dead), did pursue a religious 'I,' an individual, introspective idealism.

Van Gogh was aware of the tension, and expressed his longing in his correspondence:

Giotto and Cimbue, as well as Holbein and Van Dyck, lived in an obeliscal solidly-framed society, architecturally constructed, in which each individual was a stone and all the stones clung together, forming a monumental society....

The Letters of van Gogh
(Quoted by W.H. Auden, Op. Cit.)

One is also grateful for Silverman's comparative quotes to head the chapters of this book. Often the words of van Gogh, juxtaposed against Gauguin's, forms a precis for the following text, and offers succinct guideposts for each artist's evolution. In this book, a reader is also presented with generous excerpts from the artists' mentors and readings, and their effects for the subsequent art is often clearly, concisely treated. Van Gogh And Gauguin, however, does not neglect more diffuse and conventional influences. Both the awakening appreciation of Japanese woodcut at the time, and the enduring genres of popular and official sacred art -- Sacre Coeur or Sacred Heart, Ex-Voto images, even the Provencal Creche -- are examined and illustrated. Here, one joins in the beginnings of authentic interest in non-Western art traditions: another contribution of this book.

Finis Part I

--G. Jurek Polanski

Jurek Polanski has previously written and art edited for Strong Coffee in Chicago. He's also well known and respected among the Chicago museums and galleries. Jurek is currently a Visual Arts Correspondent for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through this site's Barnes & Noble Link. Artist quotes are from this book, unless noted otherwise. W.H. Auden's review of The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, entitled "Calm Even in the Catastrophe," is in Forewords and Afterwords (Vintage: 1973). The Letters of Vincent van Gogh is available in paperback (Ed. Mark Roskil, Atheneum: 1963), as is Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait (New York Graphic Arts Society: 1961). George Steiner's Real Presences is published by University of Chicago Press (1989).

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