One of art history’s most dramatic events came to a head when Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) cut off a piece of his ear in 1888 and thereby put a bloody end to nine weeks of intense collaboration with Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) in “the yellow house” in Arles in the South of France.
‘Van Gogh, Gauguin, Bernard: Friction of Ideas’ describes the background for the two artists’ fatal confrontation, and it introduces the lesser-known Émile Bernard (1868-1941) as a significant catalyst for the very tense discussions about art that not only had sparks flying in the yellow house, but were also transformed into epoch-making paintings.
These “electric discussions”, as van Gogh would refer to them, did not take place among two, but three people. They developed especially during 1888, soon through their correspondence, soon through the collaboration between Gauguin and Bernard in Brittany and then between Gauguin and van Gogh in Arles. The “electric discussions” were later resumed in their letter correspondence in 1889. Thus, the artists were mostly together two and two; however, the third party was always present as a voice in the discussions. Partly through their correspondence and partly through experimenting works used as visual arguments.
Seen from a distance you would think that van Gogh, Gauguin and Bernard shared a common aim for the creation of a new imagery. This, however, was not the case – although van Gogh for a time believed it to be so. For where van Gogh believed that an artist of that time should depict the motif as he saw it in front of him, Gauguin and Bernard believed that he should depict it taking his point of departure in memory and imagination.
The rift between van Gogh’s true rendering of the outer world and Gauguin and Bernard’s loyalty to an inner world pervaded by dream and fantasy eventually became so deep that it ended in human tragedy for van Gogh. It is the choice between reality, being true to nature and realism on the one hand and dream, myth and abstraction on the other that this book brings into focus.