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Paul Gauguin: Still Life with Sunflowers
Still Life with Sunflowers
Paul Gauguin, 1901
The State Hermitage Museum
St. Petersburg, Russia.

Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South

September 22, 2001 through January 13, 2002

111 South Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL
ph. 312-443-3600

The names Van Gogh and Gauguin in the world of major art museum shows initially bring to mind the word "blockbuster." And the questions most asked of artists, living and dead, are about the artistic process. Bring together these two divergent concepts and the major museum show "Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South" showing at the Art Institute of Chicago through January 13, 2002, becomes an absolute "must see" and an important milestone in contemporary museum curation.

"The Studio of the South" focuses on the pivotal moment in Gauguin's and Van Gogh's history when they shared a few short months together in Arles, France. The exhibit seeks to "construe, not reconstruct," the dialog between the two artists that began at their first meeting in Paris in 1887, and did not end until Van Gogh's death in 1890. The most fascinating aspect of this concept is that never before has the artistic process between two dead artists been analyzed to such a degree as this, and the real meat of this exhibit is not necessarily the show itself, but the mounds and mounds of research both scientific and academic that made this exhibit possible. The curatorial staff for this exhibit looked at dates, weather patterns, correspondence, and scientific data enmassed by museums all over the world on such things as pigments, x-ray data, thread counts of canvas and jute, and painting methods. The only thing seemingly missing is the staff psychologist to decipher emotional motivation. But the focus here is not psychological dysfunction. The true focus of the exhibit is to determine who influenced who to do what, and what were the possible elements that convinced one or the other to do what they did.

Much has been discovered and debated on the relationship between Gauguin and Van Gogh that culminates in this exhibit, which begins with the work of each artist just before they met in Paris, proceeds through their developing relationship and their work together in the "Yellow House" in Arles (so called because it was a small house on a public square on the outskirts of Arles that happened to be painted yellow), and ends with Gauguin beginning alone in the "Studio of the Tropics" in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. Paramount is how much Van Gogh influenced Gauguin instead of the other way around, as has been previously understood. Their friendship and collaboration is best summed by this quote from the catalog on page 243:

"...it would seem that Gauguin 'had fear of the other man.' In Vincent, Gauguin had met his match. There was no precedent in his experience for a relationship of give and take: with Pissaro and the Impressionists, he had assumed a junior position, he had stayed clear of Seurat; and none of the artists with whom he had associated since 1886 (either much younger or less talented than he) could give him a run for his money. There is no doubt that living with Vincent in close quarters for weeks on end was intensely difficult and demanding. But it was also challenging and ultimately rewarding. Gauguin found Vincent's mythic view of the artist's mission compelling and (dangerously) stimulating--more so than he had anticipated. Vincent had been candid about the possibility that Gauguin's presence would have an impact on his work; Gauguin had probably never imagined a conversation of equals. When, in the final weeks of 1888, he did begin to fear Vincent's influence, he was also beginning to fear his person."

Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South, Druick, Douglas W., and Peter Kort Zegers, in collaboration with Britt Salvesen, Thames & Hudson, 2001

Vincent Van Gogh:  Sunflowers
Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
Vincent Van Gogh Museum
Amsterdam, Dutch Netherlands

The exhibit and catalog go on to debunk many Van Gogh and Gauguin myths that are still promulgated today: that Vincent attacked Gauguin with a razor, that Gauguin was just passing time in Arles before he could make his trip to the tropics. And even though the focus of the exhibit is not Van Gogh's crazy-artist distemper, it does give insight into the passion for art between the two artists and how much they were devoting themselves to their craft at a time when the role of the artist in contemporary society had just completed the change into an individualistic modernism. The show almost glosses over Vincent's obsessiveness in arranging the Yellow House into his vision of the Studio of the South. The show is also well sided with Vincent in showing his influence on Gauguin, as much of the work we see of Gauguin's before he heads to the tropics is so heavily influenced by his Impressionist contemporaries including Cezanne and Pissaro.

With all this study on the collaboration between these two artists, it would be dangerous for anyone to conclude that this is the model for all artistic collaboration, as I fear that examining such well known artists and temperaments distracts from lesser known, though equally talented, artists both living and dead, who the world could benefit from learning more about. But it is a blueprint for how two individuals listen and are eventually influenced through mutual dialog -- art notwithstanding. It's an interesting study in the art of conversation, persuasion and eventual hybridization of concepts.

On its own, and art work and artists notwithstanding, the Art Institute and an astonishing 63 other institutions and private individuals including (and foremostly) the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, put on a monumental show that fits 107 paintings (landscapes, portraits, self-portraits, interiors, flowers, still lifes, and religious subject), 19 works on paper, and nine sculptural objects into 21 galleries together with a reading room into Regenstein Hall. Gallery 14 even includes a scale model of the first floor plan of the Yellow House in Arles where Vincent and Gauguin worked. Sound bites dot the walls everywhere you look, giving context to the work on the walls, or general historical point-of-view. The overall effect of the show is that of a Field Museum exhibit for art. The sound bites go into enough detail to give the overall scientific, academic, or historical idea, but (like VH-1 popups) are more like teaser information. A memorable quote is from Camille Pissaro on Gauguin, referring to Gauguin's past as if it weren't good enough or appropriate for an artist of the time, and his current ceramic work: "There are some good works, others not. It is the art of a sailor, a little taken from everywhere." A classic back-handed complement, to demonstrate Gauguin's position in the art world of the time.

Paul Gauguin:  The Vision After the Sermon
The Vision After the Sermon
Paul Gauguin, 1888
National Galleries of Scotland

The art work is distracting. Grand masterpieces that they are, unless one extensively travels the world, one would never see them, much less all in the same place at the same time again. Putting the sound bites together with the art work, to comprehend the exhibit as a whole in one afternoon, is expecting too much of oneself. I highly recommend renting the audio tour, even for the well-seasoned professional. Reading is fundamental, but it's also too contemplative for such an extensive experience.

There is, of course, no need for me to go into the details of the art work here, except to say: where else (or when, for that matter), is one ever going to see Van Gogh's Sunflowers and La Berceuse together on the same wall again, or the two Starry Nights together for comparison, or Gauguin's self-portraits mixed with Van Gogh's (which each often painted in response to the other's).

In this age of blockbuster museum shows, "The Studio of the South" is a tremendous step in bringing quality academic information and study to the masses. It's a compromise between the academics and museum leadership so hotly debated in the art world today. But it is also proof that such blockbuster shows are increasingly difficult to produce. To put this show together required incredible involvement of lawyers, and business and financial support, not to mention massive amounts of insurance. (Ameritech sponsored the show; although no numbers were given, the amount has to be substantial.) The only question left is, now that this Valhalla of museum blockbusters has been produced, what can be done next without being an also-ran? (Only time will tell.)

Vincent Van Gogh: The Starry Night
The Starry Night
Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Numerous events are planned for the show, so there are many avenues to exploring this exhibit, including family and children's programs, lectures, symphony performances, and tours. And there are at least two new publications published by the Art Institute that specifically address the show: a catalog big enough to fell a moose, and the simpler, visually centered "Highlights from Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South". There is even a city-wide manhole-cover program whereby various manhole-covers are painted with Van Gogh and Gauguin paintings by the city's Gallery 37 apprentice artists.

For anyone interested in seeing masterpieces or who attends museums for entertainment, you don't get much better than this. For academics and people interested in expanding their understanding of visual art, you also don't get much better than this, except maybe the catalog and the promise of a similar in-depth show in the subject of your choice.

"Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South" runs from September 22, 2001 through January 13, 2001 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 100 S. Michigan Ave. Visit http://www.artic.edu for more information on show dates, times, and to buy tickets.

There will be special tribute on October 5, 2001 in honor of those who died in the September 11 terrorist bombings in New York and Washington. The galleries will be open from 6:00 pm until 10:00 pm (last entry). People may stay in the exhibition halls until 11:30. Honored guests will be all Chicago city and suburban fire-fighters and police officers and their families, and donations will be accepted to the "Chicago Remembers Fund."

--Richard Donagrandi

Richard Donagrandi is the Executive Producer and brains behind ArtScope.net. He is an artist with a BFA from Michigan State, and currently shares a studio space in the Flat Iron Building on the corner of Milwaukee, Damen and North Avenues. You can visit his homepage at http://home.earthlink.net/~donagrandi

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