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"Some Things Bear Fruit"? Witnessing the Bonds between Van Gogh and Gauguin

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"Some Things Bear Fruit"? Witnessing the Bonds between Van Gogh and Gauguin

Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South

The Art Institute of Chicago, September 22, 2001-January 13, 2002 and Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, February 9-June 2, 2002

Douglas W. Druick and Peter Kort Zegers in collaboration with Britt Salvesen, with contributions by Kristin Hoermann Lister and the assistance of Mary C. Weaver. Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South, exh. cat. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago; New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001. 418 pp., 300 color ills., 175 b/w. $65.00.

Unbeknownst to the public, two men accomplished in that period a colossal amount of work, useful to both of them. Perhaps to others as well? Some things bear fruit.-Paul Gauguin, "Avant et apres," 1903 (last text panel in the exhibition)1

Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South, as curated by Douglas W. Druick and Peter Kort Zegers at the Art Institute of Chicago, was a blockbuster with gravitas. Its probity outshone the marketing hoopla and its interpretative elan surpassed even the dazzle of its manifest ingredients. As Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times critic, aptly observed: "Unlike the familiar brainless extravaganzas, this effort involves real ideas and even a little hard work on your part, with the result that you leave it not quite the same."2

Such seriousness made for a challenging and unusual museum visit, entirely unexpected in a large temporary show chockablock with popular and extremely costly works of art by two affiliated artists with exceptionally high name recognition. The curators structured the show as an argument by explicitly interpreting an instance of "influence," one of art history's indispensable but often opaque concepts. Yet the exhibition did not reflect on the classic vectors of inspiration and anxiety; it emphasized neither the burden of the past nor the weight exerted by tradition.3 The show endeavored instead to demonstrate the volatile ebb and flow of supremacy and submission in the case of two contemporaries working and living side by side. The influences under the microscope in Chicago were the pressures exerted by the personal ties between two artist colleagues. It thus construed influence as something embedded in yet largely external to the sphere of art. Therein lay the exhibition's singularity and complexity as well as its lessons for the history of art.

Because the blockbuster assembles works unseen together before, it always leaves room for the idiosyncratic investments of the specialist,4 but the Druick-Zegers show demanded high-mindedness and an active perspective on its exhibits from expert and amateur alike. How does "influence" actually operate between allied contemporaries, the exhibition asked, and where are its traces to be seen? The exhibition cued us to look at the art in the framework of the psychodynamics of a noteworthy working relationship defined in large measure by the juxtaposition of visual art and texts. As we "absorbed" the intensity of their friendship and interchange, we could see that the brotherhood experience actually widened the gap between their increasingly distinctive optiques. There were instances of borrowing and emulation, but on balance the encounter mattered because it enhanced and focused the discrepancy between their approaches and values, as well as the particularity of their artistic creations.

Every art exhibition makes an implicit argument, but Druick and Zegers made an explicit case with their show. It aimed both to demonstrate and explain multiple modes of exchange between two of the titans of modern art, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, artists whose works are customarily compared as exemplifications of the meaningless category Post-Impressionism (Roger Fry's ex post facto early 20th-century coinage). While van Gogh's troubled assault on his own ear at Christmastime of 1888 in Arles is legendary, the larger personal and professional framework of that notoriously wild act, the index par excellence of the instability of the modern artist, and the give-and-take between these otherwise exhaustively studied individual artists had not previously been subjected to thoroughgoing and focused scrutiny in a joint exhibition of their work. …