Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 16, 2002
Debora Silverman Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. 576 pp.; 147 color ills.; 59 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0374282439)

The sometimes cordial, often contentious relationship of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin has inspired scholars, curators, novelists, and Hollywood filmmakers. Their personal differences and the divergences in their approaches to art, particularly when they shared a studio in Provence, have fascinated art historians and the broader public alike. Debora Silverman’s Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art addresses both groups of readers. This ambitious goal may explain both the book’s qualities and some of the problems it poses for the specialist.

Silverman, a cultural historian, focuses on the religious background of each man to elucidate their stylistic and thematic preferences. Arguing that religion has thus far been ignored, she contends that van Gogh’s Dutch Reformed Protestant background and the particular strain of French Catholicism Gauguin encountered in his youth determined each artist’s view of art, nature, and the supernatural, as well as their relationship to “idealism and abstraction in the 1880s” (14).

Silverman introduces the painters by allowing them to introduce themselves. Comparing van Gogh’s Self-Portrait as a Bonze and Gauguin’s Self-Portrait ‘Les Misérables,’ she analyzes each man’s selection of a borrowed persona: van Gogh as a Buddhist monk and Gauguin as Jean Valjean, hero of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. She contrasts those choices, as well as the style that each painter adopted in their guise. When van Gogh offered himself in homage to Buddha, his paint-handling “enhanced the materiality of the artist’s presence as it visibly drew the bonze outward to realms beyond the surface” (37). Gauguin, however, restricted his presence on the surface in accordance with his goal of ever greater “subjectivity through…self-immolation” (34).

By pairing paintings by each artist or analyzing clusters of related canvases, Silverman seeks to compose the book as a “sustained duet” (4). Her comparative approach has several merits. It keeps the paintings at the forefront of the discussion, rather than forcing them to accommodate methodological arguments. Form and content debates are avoided, as each man’s selection of themes is closely tied to the manner he chose to depict them. Van Gogh’s preference for images derived from the natural, tangible world is related to the physicality of his facture and the palpable surfaces he creates. Gauguin’s fascination with the immaterial, the subjective, and the supernatural is tied to his suppression of marked facture and to the smooth binding of pigment to the canvas. Finally, Silverman’s method seeks to ground both artists in their historical era, rather than situating them in modernism’s inexorable trajectory toward twentieth-century abstraction.

In the investigation of both men’s oeuvre during the months preceding their cohabitation in Arles, Van Gogh’s landscapes and views of rural labor are related to his use of a perspective frame, while his highly visible facture is presented as his way of working his canvas as a peasant works his fields. Developing her earlier work on van Gogh’s weaver paintings, Silverman connects the Arles and Dutch canvases in terms of the artist’s preoccupation with craft and metier. A discussion of Arlesian religious festivals and imagery demonstrates that van Gogh avoided these manifestations of Catholic devotion. Gauguin did the opposite, immersing himself in themes of Breton peasant piety while turning away from traditional perspective and the palpably painted surface. A comparison of van Gogh’s Sower and Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon, Jacob’s Battle with the Angel identifies the former as “Protestant counterimagery” that tied the “sacred and the natural” (89). Gauguin’s canvas, on the contrary, “explore[d] visionary incorporality” (91). Like many scholars, Silverman discusses Breton pardons, reinforcing her point that Gauguin, unlike van Gogh, portrayed local Catholic practices. She reiterates this by linking his choice of vermilion for the supernatural field of this painting to contemporary prints of the Sacred Heart. Unfortunately, Eugene Delacroix’s Saint Sulpice Jacob and the Angel is never mentioned, though it must have provided an incentive for Gauguin’s choice of the subject of the sermon and may also explain his desire to donate his work to a church, an idea otherwise at odds with his acute commercial sense. Also absent are comments on the literary associations of Jacob and the Angel as a metaphor for artistic struggles, most notably in Emile Zola’s L’Oeuvre. Finally, there is no acknowledgement of the irreligious implications of Gauguin’s repeated reference to Breton piety as “superstition.”

Like much of the book, the presentation of the painters’ respective religious backgrounds and its affect on their work is more convincing about van Gogh than Gauguin. Because van Gogh, a pastor’s son, sought to enter the School of Theology in Amsterdam and was employed as an evangelical minister, Silverman’s discussion of the influence of Reformed Dutch Protestantism is both plausible and interesting. The section on Bishop Felix-Antoine-Philibert Dupanloup, director of the seminary Gauguin attended for roughly four years, is less persuasive. If Ernest Renan, another student of the bishop, was deeply marked by his teacher, nothing proves Gauguin was equally impressed. Gauguin’s frequent self-identification as a tortured martyr was consistent with the current Romantic myth of the artist. The exaltation of the imagination and the ideal was no less prevalent. His exploitation of religious and supernatural themes betrayed a comparatist, syncretist approach common to many in the late nineteenth century, including those who never benefited from contact with Dupanloup.

The determination to demarcate the two men may explain certain silences. A discussion of the 1889 Gethsemane images produced by Gauguin and Emile Bernard, and van Gogh’s disapproval of them, makes no reference to the Dutch painter’s attempt at a Garden of Olives with a Figure of Christ in the previous year. While Silverman differentiates van Gogh’s avoidance of Arlesian religious themes from Gauguin’s exploration of Breton piety, she offers no explanation for why Gauguin, purportedly marked by Catholicism, was equally reluctant to depict Provencal religious practices.

Many interesting sections of the text are not directly related to religion. Among these is the chapter devoted to economics and to Silverman’s discussion of van Gogh’s enthusiasm for Michel-Eugene Chevreul, the chemist and color theorist employed at the Gobelins tapestry factory. The scientist’s work with textiles increased his appeal for the painter and incited van Gogh to keep a box of colored yarns, which he used in composing his palette. Silverman’s painstaking analyses of the paintings, on the other hand, can be as labored as the facture she ascribes to van Gogh. The length of these descriptions, which seem more prescriptive than persuasive, may have encouraged her use of unfortunate neologisms, such as “textrous” and “thanatal” (sic).

The strengths and weaknesses of the book are perhaps most evident in its final chapters. In the excellent analysis of van Gogh’s images of La Berceuse, Silverman ties the artist’s repeated exploration of the theme of the cradlerocker to events in his life, his reading, Provencal nativity festivities and imagery, and paintings he had seen in Holland. Her interpretation is rich, complex, and sensitive. The same cannot be said of the chapter on Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From, Who Are We, Where Are We Going? Maintaining that Gauguin’s education left enduring traces, Silverman argues that the title’s interrogatory form mirrors Dupanloup’s catechism. Is the interrogatory form, especially regarding major existential and metaphysical questions, Dupanloup’s exclusive property? Indeed, a text popular with the Symbolist generation, the Swiss philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel’s Journal, asks virtually identical questions. Further problems appear in her comments on a sketch of the Gauguin painting included in a letter to Daniel de Montfried. Silverman states that a cruciform mark in the upper left corner refers to the Christian cross. However, because the same shape appears in the letter, next to Gauguin’s mention of the title, it is certainly a mere marker, akin to a footnote, tying the area in the image to the text. Clearly, Gauguin lacked the space in the sketch to include the full title. Similarly, Silverman declares that what she identifies as a fish in the upper right corner is a symbol for Christ. However, she never explains why, in the painting, the fish disappears, replaced by a deer.

Throughout the book, the discussions of van Gogh are richer and more persuasive than those devoted to Gauguin. Indeed, the reader is left feeling that Silverman’s “sustained duet” between the two artists gives van Gogh “top billing.” This is among the reasons that Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art, undeniably interesting and informative, is also problematic. The focus on religion provides many important insights but leaves the reader wishing the discussion was broader. How did traditional Christian beliefs coexist with Neoplatonism, Eastern religions and philosophies, pantheism, theosophy, and other esoteric approaches prevalent at the time? How do all of these issues relate to the wider context of Symbolism? Indeed, why use “Symbolist” to describe the work of both men without explaining its meaning? Finally, the absence of a bibliography, despite copious footnotes, is regrettable, making us wonder if an author can succeed in satisfying both art historians and the broader public.

Filiz Eda Burhan
Associate Professor, American University of Paris