Van Gogh and Gauguin:
The Search for Sacred Art

By Debora Silverman
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
November 2000; $60.00US/$99.00CAN; 0-374-28243-9

Van Gogh and Gauguin, The Search for Sacred Art by Debora Silverman During the Fall of 1888, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin lived and worked together in the town of Arles, in Provence. Until now the Arles period has been interpreted in the light of the temperamental differences between the two painters, culminating in the famous incident in which van Gogh cut off part of his earlobe to spite Gauguin. In Van Gogh and Gauguin, Debora Silverman reinterprets their vexed collaboration: concentrating on their very different religious backgrounds, she traces the quest of each painter to discover a modern form of sacred art to fill the void left by the traditional Christian system that he rejected but could never fully escape, as a man or as an artist. Both artists emerge in startling new ways, as the paintings they produced -- before, during, and after Arles -- are given close readings and new meanings.

At the heart of this beautifully illustrated book -- an Van Gogh and Gauguin, The Search for Sacred Art by Debora Silverman art story even more than a personal story - are two contending ways of using paint and canvas for spiritual ends, of putting God in pigment. Silverman uncovers the ethos of the sanctity of labor in the van Gogh family's Dutch Reformed Church, and discovers van Gogh as a weaver-painter and builder of craft tools, seeking to express divinity in the labor forms of paint as woven cloth, plowed earth, and crumbled brick. Gauguin, on the other hand, was educated in a little-known Catholic institution that emphasized release from a corrupt earth and corrupt bodies; Silverman presents him as a penitent sensualist, who turns to painting as a new site to pose the fundamental question of the Catholic catechism -- "Why are we here on earth?" -- and who oscillates between visionary ascent and carnal temptation.

Throughout Van Gogh and Gauguin, Silverman unfolds the cultural meaning of visual form. Analyzing specific pictures, she shows how van Gogh's labor theology pressed him to emphasize the materiality of painting and to embed the sacred in the stuff of matter and the faces of ordinary people. Gauguin's quest for the sacred, by contrast, led him to develop techniques that would dematerialize the physical surface of Van Gogh and Gauguin, The Search for Sacred Art by Debora Silverman the canvas as much as possible, emulating the matte permeation of the fresco, for example, or devising unusual forms to represent what he considered the misery of the age and one of its key sources: sexual suffering.

Debora Silverman's book enables the reader to see van Gogh's and Gauguin's art -- from the familiar masterpieces of Arles, Nuenen, and Tahiti to lesser-known drawings and objects -- in constantly new and surprising ways and to appreciate the special character of their nineteenth-century cultures and contexts. This book, the first of its kind, opens up an unmined terrain of central importance: the relationship between religion and modernism.

Debora Silverman holds the University of California President's Chair in Modern European History, Art, and Culture at UCLA. She is the author of Selling Culture and Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France.

"A highly original and challenging account of the tortuous and revealing relationship between two seminal figures of modern painting. Silverman's revelation frames through which van Gogh and Gauguin saw themselves and the world brings a rich new dimension to the history of art and culture."
--Jerrold Seigel, author of The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp: Desire, Liberation, and the Self in Modern Culture

"Debora Silverman's new book discovers an important subject and proceeds to make the most of it. The tremendous encounter between van Gogh and Gauguin, which has been worked over by generations of scholars, receives unexpected illumination, and what had seemed a familiar story emerges deepened and transformed."
--Michael Fried, author of Manet's Modernism: Or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s

"The Friendship between van Gogh and Gauguin is one of the great adventures in modern art. Debora Silverman's book on the subject reminds us that scholarship can be its own rich and stirring adventure."
--Deborah Solomon, author of Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell

The following is an excerpt from the book Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art

Publicist : Caprice Garvin
FSB Associates

Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art Barnes & Noble

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