Co-Opting the Cooperative: Vincent Van Gogh's "Studio of the South" and Nineteenth-Century Utopian Socialism

By Rahmlow, Kurt | Utopian Studies, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Co-Opting the Cooperative: Vincent Van Gogh's "Studio of the South" and Nineteenth-Century Utopian Socialism


Rahmlow, Kurt, Utopian Studies


ABSTRACT

In contrast to several recent studies that align Vincent van Gogh's plans for a "Studio of the South" with entrepreneurial capitalism, this essay considers the scheme in the context of nineteenth-century cooperative socialism. It traces the artist's experiences among striking miners in Belgium and impoverished weavers in the Netherlands, and it examines the artworks that these encounters inspired. In the process, I identify basic principles that would inform Vincent's plan for a producers' cooperative in Arles in 1888. Working from Vincent's letters, I identify two stages in the development of the artist's proposal. In the winter and spring, Vincent discussed a strategic "association" of Impressionist artists and dealers. By the fall, he had combined this concept with his long-standing desire for companionship; the resulting conception was a cooperative avant-garde atelier in which member artists and dealers would dedicate themselves to maintaining communal working and living spaces and providing materials for production. The essay then explores Vincent's plan in the context of mid-nineteenth-century discussions of cooperative organization. I conclude that Vincent's scheme should be understood as a revival of the reformist, even socialist, literature that was current at mid-century.

In fall 1888, while not painting furiously, Vincent van Gogh devoted much of his attention to planning an artistic producers' cooperative to be headquartered in Provence. Vincent wished to facilitate the rebirth of art by founding a Studio of the South, a brotherhood of artists and dealers sited in the Midi, the South of France, and dedicated to disciplined experimentation, as well as to the popularization and the profitable sale of avant-garde work. Vincent felt that the project would help painters develop their art more efficiently: He hoped that by living and working in close proximity in his Yellow House in Arles, his companions would inspire one another and build upon each other's innovations. But he also recognized that the plan promised financial advantages, and he expanded upon these in his letters. (1)

Scholars have long recognized the importance that money played in Vincent's scheme, and their attempts to characterize its role have resulted in a range of interpretations. Historically, most observers have been content simply to recognize Vincent's recurring interest and to emphasize the biographical implications of the episode. John Rewald, who considered Vincent's plan a characteristic example of the artist's endearing propensity to fantasize, writes, "Though Vincent spoke frequently of financial matters in his letters, he did so with a superb disregard for the practical and the possible, freely putting wishful thinking and pleasant dreams on the credit side of his accounts." By contrast, in more recent studies, Carol Zemel and Debora Silverman have chosen to stress Vincent's attention to monetary concerns and to take his interest in distribution seriously. Zemel takes a less patronizing, more pointedly critical view of the situation, attempting to "narrow the moralized gap between Van Gogh's 'poverty' and [his posthumous] commercial success," and while she, too, identifies Vincent's studio as a "utopian" fantasy, she closely associates it with his aspirations toward "success in the capitalist markerplace"--a sentiment echoed by Silverman, who insists that the artist's plans represent a "new capitalistic logic [that] temporarily displaced the invocation of artisanal industriousness and agrarian exertion as the governing rationale of van Gogh's pictorial labor." (2) In short, all three authors decline to accept Vincent's reformist objectives at face value, in the first instance because those plans seem patently fantastic and in the second because they smack of entrepreneurialism, the artist having conceived them to take advantage of the existing art market.

Yet fantasies like Vincent's were taken seriously in the nineteenth century, and they articulated a range of stances toward existing institutions. …

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