The major crisis in Vincent van Gogh's life began with his throwing a glass of absinthe at Paul Gauguin in a café near the house they shared in Arles. He missed, and Gauguin bundled him out and put him to bed where he fell into a very deep sleep. The next day Gauguin wrote to Vincent's brother Theo, an art-dealer in Paris, that they were "absolutely unable to live side by side". Within a fortnight he had decamped to a hotel and Vincent, left alone, cut off his ear, washed and carefully wrapped it in newspaper and delivered it to a girl called Rachel who worked at their favourite brothel. Then he went back to bed.
Understandably enough, on unwrapping this grisly and unsolicited gift, Rachel passed out cold. The police were summoned, found Vincent's inert body in the blood-boltered house, leapt to several wrong conclusions and accused Gauguin of murder. It was Christmas 1888, the end of an occasionally beautiful friendship.
Martin Gayford's drily witty, original and profoundly absorbing book tells the story of the weeks preceding the famous amputation. Vincent had rented The Yellow House and embarked on a series of stupendous paintings, including his famous Sunflowers. Now he wanted to start an artists' colony in the sunny south and, to his great delight, had persuaded Gauguin to join him.
The French Catholic Gauguin had worked as a stockbroker and as a tarpaulin salesman. Just beginning to enjoy some recognition, he was 40 with an estranged wife and five children. The Dutch Protestant Vincent was 35 and had been an art-dealer, a teacher and an evangelist - with very little success. The nearest he'd come to fulfilling an aching desire for domestic harmony had been a period living in The Hague with a prostitute named Sien and her little children: the decision to leave them was the hardest he ever took. He likened it to Christ's agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Both men were self-taught, both had forsaken everything for their art, both were touchy and each relied heavily on faith in himself. They lived on handouts from the generous Theo, who occasionally sold one of Gauguin's pictures, and they accepted each other's advice but - probably rightly - mistrusted its value.
Things were tense but tolerable for a time, until the wintry cold and damp forced them into the confines of their tiny studio. Even then, they painted on - though both were addicted to pipe-smoking and Vincent was phenomenally untidy. The experiment would surely have failed sooner had it not been for a devoted cleaning-lady who came in every day to clear up their mess - one of many unsung heroines in the history of art. But it could not last.
The Yellow House, the brothel and the café have long since gone, but the pictures and innumerable letters survive. From these, and from further meticulous researches, Gayford has reconstructed these tumultuous weeks as if for a documentary film: the reader lives them day by day, almost minute by minute.
One of Vincent's extraordinary letters to Theo is interrupted in the middle. He has begun in despair but he breaks off to paint two pictures of chairs - and he finds that he has painted himself into a state of exaltation. Gayford allows himself a brief and delightful essay on the significance of chairs, before considering Vincent's illness.
It is no surprise that he diagnoses manic depression, or bi-polar disorder. What is utterly fascinating is his reconstruction of the various influences driving Vincent to cut off his ear. That winter, as was widely reported, Jack the Ripper did the same to one of his victims, poor Catherine Eddoes; Vincent loved Zola, whose latest book featured a sad, red-headed boy called Vincent, persecuted by a bully who pulls his ears and then suffers the loss of one of his own. Most subtly, Vincent had been feverishly painting Mme Roulin, his neighbour, as La Berceuse, rocking her baby. In the tidal wave of manic associations that overwhelmed him, Gayford suggests, Vincent thought of his beloved Sien rocking her baby, and then of Gethsemane: the one-time preacher remembered St Peter slicing off the ear of one of the soldiers come to arrest Jesus. As for Rachel, Vincent always saw prostitutes as sisters of mercy, deserving of rich gifts. His own apparently bizarre actions become understandable, almost inevitable.
The dynamic narrative is punctuated by timely reproductions of both men's pictures, often of the same landscape, occasion or sitter. It is fascinating to compare them - but a shame that the work of these two supreme colourists should be seen only in blurry, imprecise monochrome. There is, surely, a strong case for reprinting this invaluable book with colour illustrations, whatever the cost.
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