Sunday, October 4, 2009

That darn Gauguin

Well, Monsieur Gauguin has arrived on the scene, and things--as they did in real life--suddenly have gotten very interesting. For those who don't know: At the request of Vincent's brother Theo and of Vincent himself, Gauguin (after considerable dawdling) moved to Arles in October, 1888 to share Vincent's "Yellow House." The two were housemates, in short. And it didn't turn out well. Gauguin is quite the case. And to get it out there: I don't treat him too well in the book. I worry a teensy weensy little bit that I'm being unfair to him, but I don't really worry that much because: a) he's an excellent foil to the more sympathetic Van Gogh, and b) I don't actually think I'm being unfair. Don't get me wrong, one can't simply say that Van Gogh was the saint and Gauguin the devil in their relationship. That's an obsessively Vincent-centric way to look at things, and, besides, it's true that in different quarters Gauguin spoke generously of both Vincent and his paintings. It's also true that Vincent was likely a piece of work to live with, if only for two months.

On the other hand, I think it's perfectly fair to say that Gauguin was always, his entire adult life, concerned with only one thing: Paul Gauguin. This is true to his relationships with people both inside and outside of the art world. He was concerned with establishing a reputation for himself and "making it," even if this meant resorting to personal manipulation, abject dishonesty, and character assasination. After all, this is same man who, upon hearing of Vincent's death, wrote to an artist friend that perhaps "[they] could use this to [their] advantage." This is the man who in his autobiography, Avante et Aprés (follow the link for a relevant snippet), told a story of being attacked by a crazed, knife wielding Van Gogh, a story that today is almost universally regarded as a self-serving fairytale. In the same book, Gauguin presented himself as the master and tutor of Van Gogh during their time together in Arles. Gauguin took credit for the stylistic breakthroughs that allowed Vincent to paint pictures such as Sunflowers. (See above.) The entire Sunflowers series was completed before Gauguin ever moved to Arles! And the pictures that Van Gogh painted under Gauguin's direct influence are generally considered to be among his least successful. That's certainly my opinion, and that's the case I make in my novel.

But, again, both for the sake of the novel and for the sake of fairness, I'm trying to make Gauguin a bit more rounded character than simply a mustached bad guy. After all, given the praise (call it hero worship) that Van Gogh lavished on Gauguin when trying to convince him to move to Arles, given that Van Gogh told Gauguin he would be the "abbot" of their new "Studio of the South," Gauguin can be forgiven for feeling in a superior position to Van Gogh. And likely he was miffed, so soon after Van Gogh's death, to see the meteoric rise of Vincent's reputation, so strong and so fast that it surpassed Gauguin's own reputation. I can see the man thinking Wait a minute. This is Vincent Van Gogh we're talking about. So far I'm loving the contest between the two men. Lots of fascinating psychological currents to play with, not only the ones I discussed in my last entry, but a whole bevy of others too. I can see, as I write, how the blowup between these two odd, complicated, and driven men was inevitable.


Post a Comment