Strange Bedfellows

A new exhibition tracks the turbulent nine weeks that artists Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin lived and painted together in the South of France

"In general, Vincent and I do not see eye to eye, especially as regards painting," Paul Gauguin wrote to a friend in 1888. "He is a romantic and I am rather inclined to a primitive state."

The tense friendship and unspoken rivalry between these two great avant-garde artists, and the creative sparks that flew between them during the two months in 1888 they spent living and working together in van Gogh's little Yellow House in the Provençal town of Arles, produced works that helped set the stage for much of what we know today as modern art.

The mutual influence and interaction between these two opinionated artists are the focus of a stunning and comprehensive new exhibition organized jointly by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. "Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South" (which is on view at the Art Institute through January 13, 2002, before traveling to the Van Gogh Museum in February) features many of the key pictures upon which these two artists' reputations rest, including van Gogh's The Bedroom and several versions of his Sunflowers, along with Gauguin's Human Miseries and Vision of the Sermon. The curators of the show have pieced together an almost day-to-day picture of the pair's collaboration, documenting their subjects, their styles, and the paintings they worked on side by side. "It's exciting," says Louis van Tilborgh, curator of paintings and sculpture at the Van Gogh Museum, "because this gives us a chance to see these two treating the same subjects at virtually the same time."

Although Gauguin left Arles after van Gogh cut off part of his ear, and the two never met again, the weeks they spent together in Arles had a profound impact on them both. In June 1890, just a month before he killed himself, van Gogh sent Gauguin a sketch of a painting he was working on of a cypress tree against a starry sky with two wayfarers (meant to represent the artists themselves) on the road in the foreground. "A cypress with a star . . . a last attempt," he wrote.

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