Companion piece

<strong>The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin and nine turbulent weeks in Arles</strong>

Martin Gayf

In the early months of 1888, Vincent Van Gogh moved to the south of France. In May, he took out a lease on a small house in Arles. Faced with yellow stucco, the building seemed to symbolise his vision of a life lived in full sunlight. He had just embarked on the great creative period that was to end two years later with his suicide. In the 14 months he spent at the house, he completed 200 canvases: The Sower, Sunflowers, Van Gogh's Chair, and so on - pictures, as Martin Gayford points out, that are among the most famous ever painted. This is far from being an empty observation. They are famous not only because they have changed the way we see the world and the way we understand painting, but because they are widely and sincerely loved.

One of the main influences on Van Gogh's work was his profoundly religious nature. In the years of his greatness he had no objective faith, but as a young man he had tried to be a preacher. In one of his sermons he told the story of a pilgrim meeting a woman dressed in black. He asked her how far it was to a city that glowed in the sunset. "It was far, she replied. The journey took from morn to night." The pilgrim continued his journey, in Van Gogh's words, "sorrowful yet always rejoicing". Gayford implies that the secret of Van Gogh's greatness and appeal lies in this encounter between sorrow and his sense of the value of life. No great artist was more troubled. No great artist was more affirmative.

As the story suggests, he was a lonely man. He longed for community, believing that the work of avant-garde painters would flourish best in semi-monastic circumstances. Such artists were not made for family life but, if they supported one another and collaborated intellectually, they could achieve great things. The idea was given urgency by Van Gogh's intuition, shared by many of his colleagues, that the modern world has no time for artists - even though, as he rightly foresaw, it would grow indebted to them for its spiritual life.

He also longed for the sun and thrived artistically in Mediterranean light. So a commune in the south became his dream. Some friends expressed an interest, but it must have been obvious to most of them that Van Gogh was impossible to live with: garrulous, smelly, untidy, argumentative, given to mood swings, inclined to drunkenness and, when drunk, inclined to violence. But he was also, as a few realised, a deeply good man, whose capacity to love was constantly misdirected.

The one major artist to glimpse the Dutchman's worth was Paul Gauguin. He, too, was a difficult man. He shared Van Gogh's sense of the artist as the martyr of modern life. But he was a stronger character: proud to the point of vanity, self-contained and inclined to self-deception, disciplined in his work-ing methods and how he arranged his life. It is a theme of Gayford's book that Gauguin painted, by and large, de tête - in his head - composing his pictures in the studio, subjecting obsessive images to intellectual control. Van Gogh painted mostly from life, exposing himself to the stimuli that moved him, and so, despite the discipline of responding to real things, was constantly vulnerable.

The story is well known. In October, Gauguin joined Van Gogh in the Yellow House. The two men worked side by side, ate together, went for walks, frequented the brothels and bars, talked of art and the issues that concerned them. Productive as their companionship was, Gauguin became aware that all was not well with his friend. Despite, or because of, his creative surge, Van Gogh grew erratic. There were quarrels. The Dutchman, possibly sleepwalking, would wander into his companion's bedroom at night. Drunk, he threw a glass of absinthe at him. Eventually, after threatening to attack him in the street, he cut off part of his own ear and delivered it to a favourite prostitute. Alarmed, Gauguin departed, and a fruitful relationship was brought to a sudden end.

The achievement of Gayford's book is to indicate the value of those nine weeks - to both artists and, therefore, to the thrust of modern painting. Whatever the tensions, they learned from each other's methods and concerns, even to the extent of borrowing symbols or, in Gauguin's case, using Van Gogh's appearance to symbolise the suffering modern artist.

But important as Gauguin is - as an artist, and as one of the few to appreciate Van Gogh - the Dutchman (Gayford argues) was the greater. Moreover:

In a way, Gauguin got him wrong. Vincent wasn't an inspired, mad artist; he was a great painter desperately trying to remain sane. He saw the world with a rare intensity which gave great power to his work. And it was while looking and painting that he knew the greatest pleasure of which his tormented nature was capable.

Gayford is one of the best art critics we have, and it is this kind of humanistic insight that gives his book authority. There is little that is new in it; its merit lies in his judgement of the issues. He is a better critic than he is a storyteller. The hackneyed opening sentence - a train "clanking" into the station and "a solitary passenger" getting out - might well have put me off reading it altogether. It turned out to be uncharacteristic: a lapse his editor might have pointed out. If he had an editor. For good as The Yellow House is, the production of it can only be called disgraceful. In a book about two of the greatest colourists ever, there is not a single colour reproduction: some 60 illustrations, to be sure, but printed straight on the page in dreary monochrome, and often simply illegible.

Clive Wilmer's latest collection of poetry is The Mystery of Things (Carcanet Press)

This article first appeared in the 29 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, They can play, but they can never win