CHICAGO - They're all here: the Starry Nights, sunflowers, naked natives, self-portraits, chairs, bedrooms, and amber waves of grain. “Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South” is a huge, sprawling exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, featuring the best works of two post-Impressionist icons.
With Impressionism providing the biggest draw in the art world, bringing together the works of these two tortured souls is a sure slam-dunk. The curators at Chicago and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam didn't have to trouble themselves much to pull in the crowds. (More Van Gogh, Gauguin photos)
It's our good fortune they decided to throw their hearts into this. “The Studio of the South” is a dream show for “art watchers” making their way through a personal list of the world's masterpieces - the people who have their pictures taken in front of Mona Lisa. But this show is so much more.
It is built around a 9-week period in 1888 when both artists lived and worked together in a little yellow house in Arles, a village in southern France.
Vincent Van Gogh, a Dutch idealist on a long slide into madness, wanted Arles to become an artists' colony, a group of like-minded visionaries laboring in a beautiful setting. Paul Gauguin, a French striver, was looking for fresh inspiration and a cheap, warm place to dig in for the winter. The men shared an art dealer - Vincent's brother, Theo - an extensive correspondence habit, and a love for Japanese prints.
Using the artwork as illustrations, the show moves viewers through events leading up to the fall of 1888: Van Gogh's impossible expectations, Gauguin's dithering and debts, and events that produced their self portraits as well as Sower, Breton Girls Dancing, and several ceramic pieces that sparkle through the show.
Van Gogh's beloved Sunflowers series, for instance, was created as decor for the studio, inducements for Gauguin to join him in his southern “paradise.” Meanwhile, the Frenchman immersed himself in the folk culture of Brittany, in northern France, and painted static, Japanese-inspired dancers, wrestlers and bonneted ladies.
Gauguin finally arrived on Oct 23. The duo bought a long roll of rough canvas, stretched it over frames, and went outside to paint.
It's always fun to see two artists' views of the same site. Their side-by-side canvases, painted Oct. 29, are stark examples of how different the two men were: Vincent's alley of poplars shows a factory smokestack in the background, a bile-green sky, a muddy foreground, and figures slashed on with simple, fast strokes.
Gauguin's version is mannered, neat, and finished, with the factory transformed into a “Temple of Venus.” The strolling figures stand in a prim line.
When it rained, the painters brought in a local to pose for portraits, yielding up the famous La Arlesienne pictures. The woman in the picture is the barmaid from the pub around the corner, another setting for the painters: thus, The Night Cafe.
Van Gogh's bedroom scene, and paintings of his own cane-bottom chair and a more elegant bentwood model bought for Gauguin, were meant as portraits of himself and his friend.
Van Gogh painted quickly, from life. Gauguin created studies, then assembled an idealistic painted vision on canvas. Van Gogh was raised in a strict Christian household, and was himself, briefly, an evangelist. His roommate was a smooth-talking lady's man who'd abandoned his wife and children years before. Neither had money or worldly success. As cold weather approached and the small yellow house grew more cramped, the partnership began to unravel.
After much anguish and drama - including the famous severed-ear incident - Gauguin left just before Christmas. The two never met again, but remained in contact. Their mutual influence carries through the rest of the show, as it did through the rest of their lives.
Together and afterward, the Arles experiment spurred both artists to breakthroughs. Van Gogh's paintings took on a more formal, geometric look. Gauguin's fussy technique grew more loose and expressive.
Paintings from the following months show Van Gogh's madness only sparked greater leaps of genius: a roomful of Starry Nights is breathtaking, and a nearby Cypress is a wonder to behold - with two men walking in the foreground.
Gauguin outlived Van Gogh by 13 years, becoming the character many know as “the South Pacific Impressionist.” But Van Gogh haunted him. Included in the show are some of Gauguin's final works: dark potfuls of sunflowers.
“Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South” remains at Chicago through Jan. 13. It opens in Amsterdam Feb. 9. Admission is by timed ticket, which are $10 on Tuesday, and $20 all other days. Information is available at 312-930-4040.