A Nine-Week Drama 'Studio of the South' Tells the Story of Van Gogh, Gauguin's Stormy Collaboration

Article excerpt

Byline: Barbara Vitello Daily Herald Staff Writer

Every picture tells a story.

But in the case of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, the pictures reveal so much more.

Sunflowers, a chair, a postal worker's wife, each painting reflects the drama the post-impressionist titans played out during the nine weeks in late 1888 they lived and worked together in the south of France.

That drama underscores "Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South," opening Saturday at the Art Institute of Chicago. Developed with Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, the exhibition showcases more than 135 paintings, sketches and sculptures leading up to, produced during and inspired by their brief collaboration.

But more than that, it provides "a glimpse into the dynamics of creativity," says the Art Institute's Douglas Druick, organizer of "The Studio of the South" along with fellow curator Peter Kort Zegers.

"It's a rare opportunity to see the human story as part of the art story," says Druick.

While scholars have addressed the Arles period in isolation, this new exhibition places the southern sojourn within the context of the artists' entire careers

We see "it as a fulcrum," says Druick, "as a central point in their exchange, but not the only point."

Using microscopes and X-rays as well as fiber and paint-sample analysis, conservators from the Art Institute and the Van Gogh Museum determined a near day-by-day chronology, shedding new light on this significant period in both van Gogh and Gauguin's careers.

"Each time they painted together was a one chapter in a series of chapters," says Druick. "Depending on how they're ordered, you get a different story."

Assuming the role of a fly on the wall, scholars gained insight into a simultaneously embattled and affectionate relationship that proved every bit as compelling as the paintings themselves.

Organized thematically as well as chronologically, "Studio of the South" demonstrates how van Gogh and Gauguin's painting evolved, says Druick, and how they changed in tandem without merging styles and how, in art, life always intrudes.

More than that, it gives people an opportunity to see great works by two major modern artists, which until now, many have only encountered on posters and note cards.

Members and nonmembers alike recognized this months ago, flooding the museum with a record-breaking number of ticket requests. A museum spokesman confirmed 181,000 timed, dated tickets distributed as of last week, but said that number could exceed 200,000 by the time the exhibition opens to the public Saturday.

"First and foremost, they are ravishing works of art," says Druick.

Ultimately, that is where the drama begins.

And ends.

Act I

Van Gogh (1853-1890) was a preacher's son who left school at 16 to work for an art dealer, where he developed an interest in Christianity. After being fired by his firm and denied admission to theology school, he worked as a lay preacher until his extreme evangelical views came under fire from the church.

Determined to serve God anyway, he devoted himself fully to art in 1880, relying on his art dealer brother Theo for financial support, as he would for the rest of his life. He moved to Paris and discovered the Impressionists which resulted in hid lightened color palette. In 1888, determined to create a community where artists lived and worked together, he left Paris to pursue his dream, renting a house and studio in Arles, Provence and inviting Gauguin to join him there in setting up a studio of the South.

Gauguin finally arrived in October of 1888. A Frenchman raised in Peru, Gauguin (1848-1903) joined the merchant marines as a teenager and spent five years traveling around the world, after which he took a job as a stockbroker, married and had a family. Inspired by the first Impressionist exhibition, he took up painting, studying first with Camille Pissarro. …