Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art

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Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art

New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000. 576 pp., 147 color ills., 59 b/w. $60.00

Although many writers on the life of Vincent van Gogh have commented on his religious background, the relationship between avant-garde art and religion has not received the attention it deserves. The historiographical reason for this probably dates to the abandonment or avoidance of religious subjects by the first practitioners, who embraced anticlericalist politics and relegated religious art to academicians. Yet, as Rene Girard reminds us, "To expel religion is, as always, a religious gesture."1 Although the Impressionists, in varying ways, resisted religious art (a good example being Camille Pissarro's assiduous attempt to rework Jean-Francois Millet without the earlier master's overlay of piety), avant-gardists in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries were frequently preoccupied with questions of the sacred in art. In Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art, Debora Silverman charges into the largely secular world of sociohistorical scholarship on Post-Impressionism with a mission: to retell the compelling story of the collaboration of these two very different figures, to "reemphasize the critical role of religion in the development of modernism, [and] to bring religion back into the story of artists' mentalities and formations" (p. 13).

As she has with earlier books such as Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siecle France, Silverman treats her subject with the refreshing perspective of a cultural historian who is capable of writing incisively about broad cultural phenomena, and who also applies herself to close readings of particular works of art. "I intend the book as a bridge between specialists and a curious, non-expert public who read and think about art and go to see it," she states (p. 11). Silverman writes successfully for this audience. She carefully lays the groundwork for each chapter, each formal analysis, each contextual investigation; she summarizes her findings within short sections; and she links each piece of the puzzle to her thesis. Although some scholars will find some of this summarizing to be unnecessary, I have to admire the way she manages to vary her language enough to keep this approach from sounding overly repetitious. The book is filled with new research done in several areas, notably having to do with religious doctrine in each artist's education and contexts of popular piety in the regions in which the artists lived during the period in question.

Van Gogh and Gauguin is divided into six parts. Part 1, "Toward Collaboration," pays particular attention to the exchange of self-portraits that consolidated the beginning of what was to be the "Studio of the South." Van Gogh's first impression of Paul Gauguin as a "schemer" and a "speculator" was radically altered when he received Gauguin's Self-Portrait: Les Miserables accompanied by the artist's dense explication of it. After that, van Gogh formed a new conception of the religious dimension of the Yellow House and envisioned Gauguin as its "abbot." Part 2, "Peasant Subjects and Sacred Forms," establishes the artists' interests in the sacred before their collaboration actually began: Silverman devotes a section to van Gogh's Sower (which gets overexposed in the book; the index counts over forty separate references to the painting) and one to Gauguin's Vision after the Sermon. Part 3 then focuses on the familial and pedagogical religious formation of each artist. Although the outlines of this material will he familiar to some readers, much else is new: here are detailed discussions of religious doctrines embraced by various influential figures, such as the new catechism at the core of the seminary education received by Gauguin, and the particularities of Dutch Reformed Protestantism that comprised van Gogh's heritage. Silverman theorizes that the essential direction each artist took can be mapped from these early practices and areas of belief. …