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from issue no. 03 - 2005

That single Pietà of Van Gogh

The different visions of art held by Van Gogh and Gauguin clashed even over the depiction of Jesus. The former, who made only one, was outraged at Gauguin’s Christs. He wrote: "Our task is to think, not to dream"

by Giuseppe Frangi

Pietà (copy from Eugène Delacroix), 7 September 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Pietà (copy from Eugène Delacroix), 7 September 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Why did Vincent Van Gogh, a painter of a religious temperament, who for a long period of his life thought of following in the footsteps of his father, a Calvinist pastor in his native Holland, paint only once an image of Christ? The answer to the question may lie in a crucial episode, well documented by letters and reports, in which he clashed in 1889 with his great friend Paul Gauguin. The subject of the quarrel was the notion of producing a series of works devoted to the Gospel episode of the Garden of Olives.
The year previous Van Gogh and Gauguin had been involved in a brief and tumultuous attempt to create a kind of artistic brotherhood in Arles, in the south of France. An attempt that foundered dramatically after barely 63 days, when, following yet another furious clash, the Dutch artist wounded himself, cutting off the lobe of his left ear with a razor. That was on 22 December 1888: Gauguin returned immediately to Paris, Van Gogh, put into hospital, finished up after several months of moving about in a clinic 25 kilometers from Arles, in Saint-Rémy en Provence.
Getting over their grudge, the two made contact again, often through Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, a dealer in Paris who was trying without much success to sell the works of the two artists. Among other things Gauguin, who abhorred by city life, left after a few months for Brittany where he tried to set up in Pouldu a similar experiment to the one that had failed with Van Gogh. His partner this time was Meyer De Haan, a young man subservient to his leadership. But other young members of the school of Pont Aven hovered around, among them, in particular, Émile Bernard and Paul Sérusier.
The choice in no way pleased Theo Van Gogh, a very pragmatic man, who, in an angry letter to Gauguin described Brittany as «an over-monastic place». That is where it was easy to slip into a mystical tendency, at which, indeed, Gauguin’s new friends were explicitly aiming. The young dealer had seen rightly: at the end of August 1989 he received from Brittany a new group of canvases, among them two that fully confirmed his forecast. Gauguin had painted a Pietà and a Crucifixion, respectively titled The green Christ and The yellow Christ. The first inspired by a Breton calvary, the second by a polychrome crucifix in the church of Trémole, close to Pont Aven. Theo was perplexed. And he spoke of his perplexity to Gauguin himself. Who responded by writing that, according to him, the works «exuded pure faith». Theo’s perplexity was indirectly confirmed by the critics. Octave Mirbeau wrote of a «pitiful Christ spattered with yellow»; whereas Charles Morice saw in the canvas the «symbol of a sacrifice, or rather of an eternal death that doesn’t impinge on life nor console the living».
And Vincent? Isolated in the clinic in the south he caught no direct echo of Gauguin’s shift, something that his brother defined as symbolist. In June Van Gogh had started work again, painting an emblematic self-portrait, with palette and brushes in his hands, in which he showed the unmutilated side of his face. In September, extraordinarily enough, he was also to paint the only image of Christ in his life as a painter: a copy of Delacroix’s Pietà, an artist who, according to him, had «a hurricane in his heart». «He lies recumbent in the mouth of a cave, with his hands stretched out... the face is in shadow, the pale head of the woman is silhouetted clear against a cloud», Vincent wrote to his brother on 19 September in describing the Delacroix copy he had just made. His thinking on the subject took an unexpected direction: he had in fact painted the context - that is an opening representing the entry to the Sepulcher – missing out the figures of Christ and the Mater Dolorosa. Van Gogh said that he had painted it under the fierce gusting of the mistral, so fierce that he had to tie his easel to the ground. «It is a very beautiful and grandiose work», he wrote with pride in another letter to his brother.
In the meantime Gauguin wrote to Theo from Brittany, telling of his struggles: «I am trying to combat corrupt civilization with something more primordial». And to make himself clear he sent Theo a black-and-white photo of a painting that had impressed him: a Christ in the garden of olives painted by his friend Émile Bernard. A very “biographical” painting: Gauguin was in fact the model for Judas, while Christ with his red hair was an obvious allusion to Vincent. A yellow angel by the side of the Lord evoked the one Van Gogh had vainly tried to paint the year before. The canvas confirmed Theo’s worries and he became infuriated by the mysticism that was overwhelming his painters in the north. Time was too short for him to tell his brother of the matter for in the meantime Vincent had received a letter, dated 8 November, in which Gauguin described his recent works and gave a sketch of his painting of Christ in the garden of olives. If it was a provocation, it succeeded perfectly. Van Gogh was furious. He wrote that the Pont Aven people were victims of «abstraction»; that «Bernard didn’t even know what an olive tree looked like» (letter to Theo of 17 November). It looked as if the figures were in an epileptic fit, so skinny as to all look «sick». As for himself, he asserted he had nothing to do with the tendency: «I worship the truth, the verisimilar, even though I am capable of spiritual elevation». To him Gauguin’s and Bernard’s canvases were a «nightmare», to the point where he had «no desire to speak of them» (letter to Bernard of 20 November). Conclusion: «These works are a slip back instead of progress».
The green Christ, Paul Gauguin, September 1889, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles

The green Christ, Paul Gauguin, September 1889, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles

But Van Gogh did not restrict himself to words. For some weeks he, too, had gone back to considering the subject, after the failed attempt of a year earlier: in July 1888 he had written to his brother telling that he had scraped a «large painted study, a garden with olive trees, with a figure of Christ...». But the theme had stayed in his head and heart. So in the month of November he painted five canvases of the olive groves that surrounded the clinic in Saint-Rémy. He said he was seeking for a correspondence with his own painful personal experience, precisely a year after his first crisis. «The first tree is an enormous trunk but stricken by lightning and fallen», he wrote to Bernard in the famous letter of 20 November. «Nevertheless a side branch launches itself toward another and falls back in a cascade of dark green needles». But the real unfolding of the reasons for the work is contained in a letter to Theo the day after: «This month I have been working among the olive groves, because Gauguin and Bernard have outraged me with their Christ in the garden of olives, where there was nothing real. Of course, I have no intention of doing anything drawn from the Bible – and I have also written to Bernard and Gauguin also that I believed it our task to think and not to dream». «In art, truth is what an individual feels in the state of mind», was Gauguin’s reply in a letter of 1 December. «Those who want and are capable, can dream. We grant to whomever wants and can to abandon their own dreams».
These were two visions of the art lucidly and frontally at odds. Some months later Paul Gauguin left for the tropics convinced of the need to be the «John Baptist of the new painting». Van Gogh instead returned to the north to seek a cure for the illness that was attacking, in ever more devastating waves, his precarious mental balance. In the end he was overwhelmed, and on 30 July in a field in Auvers sur Oise he took his own life.
«With or without our permission the cold finally yields and one fine morning we find that the wind has changed and it has begun to thaw», he had written in a letter barely months before. Unfortunately that desire and that expectation would be tragically crushed by the mystery of human frailty.

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