“The Yellow House”: Book Review
In the book “The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles” Martin Gayford analyzes Van Gogh and Gauguin as people and as artists tracing historical context of their artworks. The author focuses on how Van Gogh and Gauguin influenced each other, how their strong and self-confident personalities ensured that they lived together for a short period of time. The author wonders how Van Gogh and Gauguin appeared to be roomies stressing that such unexpected twists of life may add new knowledge of anguished artists.
In particular, Gayford focuses on the nine momentous weeks that had led to Van Gogh’s crisis. The author restores the very details of their lives at the Yellow House in Arles. Arles is ancient French town near the Mediterranean Sea, and Van Gogh viewed the town as long-awaited opportunity to establish new colony of skillful painters – a new studio where sun would revelatory impact avant-garde painters.
Gayford writes that Van Gogh had to spend about five months persuading Gauguin to join him at the Yellow House.
Gauguin was five years older than Van Gogh, he was formidable leader of avant-garde young artists, and he was impoverished. Luckily, Van Gogh managed to convince Gauguin to accept his invitation to stay in Arles. Gayford vividly describes Gauguin’s arrival at the Yellow House stressing how exhausted he was at five in the morning. In particular, Van Gogh was dreaming of making the Yellow House a place where avant-garde painters would fine understanding, peace, where their artworks would be highly recognized and appreciated. Moreover, artists would be encouraged to forget their miserable past. Van Gogh and Gauguin had to share modest studio with no bathroom, and every day Gauguin had to pass through Vincent’s bed to reach his own.
The only positive moment with the studio was the walls alive with Van Gogh’s astonishing works that illustrated local gardens and sunflowers. Gayford defines Van Gogh and Gauguin as struggling painters meaning they promoted experimental art in hard times. Theo, Vincent’s younger brother was an art dealer trying to sell extraordinary paintings. However, only Gauguin decided to sell his paintings, whereas Van Gogh didn’t sell anything. Therefore, he felt “morally crushed and physically drained by it”. (Gayford 2006) Both of them had little money and, thus, had to live together in the fall and winter of 1888. Gayford stresses that Van Gogh admired Gauguin artworks, and he was willing to live together and to establish artist’s colony in ancient French town of Arles. With years Van Gogh’s works outshined Gauguin’s works, but in those times Gauguin appeared to be more successful. Nonetheless, instead of feeling jealousy or competition, Van Gogh treated Gauguin as older brother. Gayford underlines that it is Gauguin who was alpha male in their complex relations, and often Van Gogh felt anxiety not knowing how to impress him.
Martin Gayford has done an excellent job in describing settings and scenes as they are represented as vividly and expressively as readers may seem they are involved in those past events. For example, Gayford vividly described Vincent’s erratic behavior stressing that he often failed to control his hot temper. Interestingly, Gayford reveals that Van Gogh’s instable temper resulted in anyone’s inability to sit for Vincent as subjects of the artworks. Thus, the majority of the objects were painted from the side as persons were facing Gauguin. Further, Gayford elaborately describes the systems developed by Gauguin for keeping the money straight. Gayford illustrates how closely Van Gogh and Gauguin were sitting as they painted, how they talked and behaved. Through closely interactions of artists Gayford presents that the artists were greatly influenced by each other, and, what is more important, their mutual influence resulted in the most famous works.
Further, Gayford argues that Van Gogh’s behavior was increasingly strange. For example, Van Gogh enjoyed staying in the middle of the night near Gauguin’s bed for some time and then he quickly fell asleep. Gayford argued that Gauguin appeared the only person that tolerated Van Gogh’s ravings. Nevertheless, Van Gogh realized that his strange behavior might drive Gauguin away, and such thought strengthened his state of anxiety. He often claimed, “Old Gauguin and I understand each other basically, and if we are a bit mad…”. (Gayford 2006) In his turn, Gauguin seemed to fear how own safety because of Van Gogh’s behavior which he attributed to mental illness. Gauguin thought Van Gogh was “teetering on the edge of derangement”. (Gayford 2006) One night Gauguin had to spend night in a hotel because of too worrisome Van Gogh’s behavior. Gayford says that Van Gogh’s fear that Gauguin would leave soon made him slice off a part of his ear. After slicing the ear, Vincent returned to the Yellow House before the next attack of madness sent him to mental institution. The Starry Night, one of Van Gogh’s famous works, was produced at the Yellow House during one of his stable periods. Soon Van Gogh was confined to a mental institution where he spent the rest of his years and where he committed suicide at the age of 37.
The key strength of the book is that Gayford doesn’t simply described facts and events in the lives of Van Gogh and Gauguin; instead, Gayford offers interesting and well-argumentative theories why Van Gogh decided to cut off his ear and then visited a prostitute at the brothel. Moreover, Gayford defines Van Gogh’s strange behavior as general mental illness. Gayford concludes that Van Gogh was very likely to suffer from bipolar disorder or manic depression as Van Gogh often entered a mixed state “combining the rushing mind of mania with the fears and frantic anxiety of depression”. (Gayford 2006) Bipolar disorder excellently explains why Van Gogh could go from the state of prolific creativeness to uncontrollable excitement and dark depressions. Bipolar disorder explains also why Van Gogh was attacked by madness in the final years. Periodic madness followed by periods of sanity is the key signs of bipolar disorder. In “The Yellow House” the author offers deep analysis of complex relationships between Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. He shows that Van Gogh and Gauguin greatly influenced each other, and such influence resulted in Van Gogh’s most famous artworks.
Gayford, Martin. The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles. USA: Little, Brown and Company, 2006.
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