Spirits on Canvas

Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art

Debora Silverman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 494 pp., $60.00

The turbulent two months that Gauguin and van Gogh spent together in Arles in 1888 have been described in movies and popular novels as well as by art historians. They were, in many accounts, peintres maudits, quintessential Romantic artists who were mocked and misunderstood by conventional society in their own time and only later could be seen as tragic heroes of modern art.

Among the many recent books and exhibitions devoted to these artists, two in particular have original things to say. In Technique and Meaning in the Paintings of Paul Gauguin, Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and H. Travers Newton Jr. draw on the results of scientific study of Gauguin’s canvases to show how the use of unorthodox techniques and materials can be linked with the “primitivism” of earlier European and non-European arts, particularly with the bold painting of early Renaissance frescoes. In Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art, Debora Silverman analyzes the paintings of the two artists of the later 1880s in the light of their religious origins, van Gogh’s in Dutch Reformed Protestantism, Gauguin’s in Catholicism, particularly in the teachings of a leading Jesuit who dominated the seminary he attended in Orléans.

Both books demonstrate the great differences between the two painters, and show the arbitrariness of the label “Post-Impressionism.” Since Roger Fry organized the 1910 exhibition that gave currency to this term, van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, and Cézanne have been linked together by it. The more closely we look into their paintings, however, the less they seem to suggest a coherent style. Seurat, the youngest of the four, pursued such a distinctive style that the entire movement called Neo-Impressionism centered on him; Cézanne, the oldest, belongs with his contemporaries, the Impressionists, rather than with the younger artists; van Gogh and Gauguin had vastly different conceptions of painting. Each learned from the Impressionists but traveled along divergent paths.

Technique and Meaning in the Paintings of Paul Gauguin is the first book showing not just that Gauguin apprenticed himself to the Impressionists, but also that he systematically created a new way of painting. Although most critics assumed there was a lurching irregularity in Gauguin’s shift from being a Sunday painter to being a serious apprentice before he became a full-time professional in 1885, Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton demonstrate that his methods were calculated and orderly, and that the image of him as an amateur rebelling against all previous systems is quite wrong.

A professor of art history at Queen’s University in Canada, Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski has been writing on Gauguin since 1974, and Newton, a fine arts conservator, has collaborated with him since 1984 in several essays on Gauguin’s techniques. In their new book, they concentrate on a handful of paintings that they were able to examine closely, using chemical analysis of pigments, X-rays, infrared and ultraviolet light, and special techniques of photography. These allowed them to analyze the progressive layers of a painting, from the particular kind of canvas or wood support and its initial preparation, to its priming…

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