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Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art Hardcover – November 15, 2000
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From Publishers Weekly
The paintings of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin continue to attract critical attention in books like Stephen Eisenman's acclaimed Gauguin's Skirt. The artists' stormy friendship, which climaxed in the famous incident when Van Gogh cut off part of his ear and sent it to an Arles prostitute, contains high drama amid some world-class art. Now Silverman (UCLA professor of modern European history, art, and culture and author of Selling Culture) weighs in with this massive new study, as ponderous as it is extensively pondered. Attempting to deepen the understanding of Van Gogh and Gauguin's work during the time the artists spent together in Arles, Silverman examines their religious education in sections like "Catholic Idealism and Dutch Reformed Realism" and "Peasant Subjects and Sacred Forms." A galumphing prose style does not lighten the load of these subjects. The author goes on at great length, for example, about Bishop Dupanloup, a 19th-century French pedagogue, and Cornelius Huysmans, a Dutch teacher, and their supposed influences on Gauguin and Van Gogh, respectively. However, these influences come off as generalized at best, and indisputably dull at worst, smothering the natural drama and excitement of both the work and the artists' lives. Dramatic rights, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. (Nov.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
The stormy relationship of Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh during their tenure in Arles has enjoyed a long history of speculation. The relationship's failure and van Gogh's infamous self-mutilation are usually interpreted to be the result of Van Gogh's pychopathology. Silverman (Selling Culture; Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Si cle France) provides a broader perspective, emphasizing key ideological differences that likely drove the two artists apart. Gauguin and van Gogh were engaged in developing a contemporary form of sacred art, but they approached their subject matter very differently. Gauguin, who was Catholic, saw the material world as an obstacle to spiritual attainment. Van Gogh, on the other hand, was enmeshed in the social fabric of the Dutch Reformed Church and saw the material world as a direct expression of the divine. For Van Gogh, the highest form of contemplation was daily activity and attention to one's craft. It's no wonder that this brotherhood of artists, which began in friendship and was generally positive, was due to have conflict. Silverman's scholarship and lucid writing makes this one of the most refreshing and insightful texts on these two artists in years. Because there are so many, this is saying a lot.
-DSusan Lense, Columbus, OH
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
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Silverman has taken a different tact in writing about the artists Van Gogh and Gauguin--who will linked together through eternity if for no other reason than the episode in Arles with Van Gogh's "earlobe" (not ear). Like many, I have wondered just why these two men behaved so antagonistically towards each other. I have heard about personality conflicts, differing life styles, and mental illness, but somehow these reasons have never resonated with me. The explanation for the Gauguin-Van Gogh conflict according to Silverman was owing to nothing less than their conflicting interpretations of the meaning of life.
Gauguin was raised Roman Catholic and attended a Catholic boys school where he was taught the theology of bearing one's cross and dying to the material world to attain the transcendent good--paradise. Van Gogh came from a humanistic Dutch Reformed background in an era when this church was focused on the need for a consolatary religion in the face of EVOLUTION. Their conflict seems to have been a feud of a particular kind as both men attempted to understand the eternal truths, grapple with the new reality of science, and abandon their relgious upbringings.
While Gauguin's paintings reflect the transcendent as "otherworldly" and point the way for later abstract symbolists such as Picasso, Van Gogh's works are tied to the sacred presence of the eternal in the natural world. In painting after painting, Gauguin flattens the canvas, uses paint sparingly and depicts scenes of misery and suffering, sin and redemption. On the other hand, Van Gogh focuses on the sacred nature of work and rural life--threshing, weaving, milking, and rocking the baby by the fireplace. Where Gauguin creates angels strugging with men and flying cows, Van Gogh paints wheat fields and grape vineyards filled with sowers, thrashers, and harvesters. Where Gauguin sees classical elements such as the three muses and a Greek temple and admires Delacroix, Van Gogh sees bridges, sailboats, looms, and walls, and adores Millet.
During their short time together in Arles, Gauguin sought to influence Van Gogh--to have him paint from memory, flatten surfaces, and introduce overt religious symbolism into his work. Van Gogh did partially adapt some of Gauguin's techniques such as cloisonism (black outlines separating flat patches of color), but while Gauguin continued to tackle the sinful ways of man (and apparently sin quite heavily when he wasn't working) Van Gogh adapted Zenlike techniques reminiscent of Hiroshege and other Japanese artists who saw no boundary between the divine and natural worlds.
Silverman writes beautifully (I read every word..this is a powerful book) and there are hundreds of drop-dead beautiful facsimilies of the works of Gauguin and Van Gogh. I think Silverman favors Van Gogh, and I do too so I was not disappointed (though she covers Gauguin quite well). She spends a great deal of time on style and technique, which I also liked very much. She is not merely pointing out technical differences, however, she is showing how their respective techniques were tied to their philosophical outlooks. Several "sets" of paintings by both men are discussed in detail--Van Gogh's Langlois bridge paintings (all nine are reproduced) and the Berceuse paintings (she who rocks the cradle); as well as Gauguin's repeated use elements such as the women of Brittany, cows, angels, and "the dead."
This is a wonderful book and if you love Van Gogh and want to better understand his painterly ways, you must have it. It will enrich your life.
Part One: Toward Collaboration [two "Self-Portraits"]
Part Two: Peasant Subjects and Sacred Forms [eg Van Gogh's "Sower" and Gauguin's "Vision After the Sermon"]
Part Three: Catholic Idealism and Dutch Reformed Realism
Part Four: Collaboration in Arles
Part Five: Theologies of Art After Arles
Part Six: Modernist Catechism and Sacred Realism
Silverman carefully identifies and then eloquently explores all manner of comparisons and contrasts between the lives and art of Van Gogh and Gauguin within an historical, theological, and anthropological context. Hers is a magnificent achievement.