Christ in the Garden of Olives
Gauguin's Christ in the Garden of Olives 1889

Many of you will know that we are currently at that time of year, October to December, when Gauguin and Van Gogh were together in Arles, 122 years ago. After repeated requests by Van Gogh to join him, Gauguin finally arrived on 23rd October. And only then because Theo Van Gogh’s offer of a monthly allowance was contingent on him making the journey south. They were together for about 9 weeks but I can imagine it felt like an eternity for both of them! In a letter to his friend Emile Bernard (someone Gauguin also fell-out with in spectacular fashion), Gauguin says, ‘Vincent and I don’t agree on much, and especially not painting…He is romantic, whereas I, I am more inclined to a primitive role.’ (December 1888) The situation reached crisis point on 23rd December…but more of that later… That this brief relationship was intense, violent and artistically invigorating for both men is perhaps the understatement of the year. And the outcomes for Gauguin, represented in our exhibition, are diverse and sometimes surprising. For example, did Gauguin show himself with red hair in ‘Christ in the Garden of Olives’ to somehow acknowledge Van Gogh? If so, then it adds greater poignancy to the analogy Gauguin makes between the role of the artist and the isolation and suffering experienced by Christ, just prior to being betrayed, tried and executed…don’t you think? A painting that comes directly out of Gauguin and Van Gogh’s time together (albeit set in Brittany) is Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin’.  The artists went to Montpellier to visit the Musée Fabre and see the celebrated collection of paintings given by Alfred Bruyas (1821-1877) - no doubt part of the attraction was that Bruyas had been one of the foremost collectors of French contemporary art, exactly the kind of patron Gauguin craved. Among the treasures is Gustave Courbet’s ‘The Meeting’ otherwise known as ‘Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet!’ (1854) Courbet shows himself being met by Bruyas, his greatest patron, and his servant, on the road to Montpellier. The greeting is respectful (the servant is bowing his head), as if the artist and the patron were, in fact, equals. What a powerful scenario for someone like Gauguin! Indeed, he imagined himself in a similar ‘meeting’, painted in 1889. But this interpretation comes with a healthy dose of irony…in the place of a wealthy art collector is a poor Breton woman, who can hardly be described as deferential! Still, would Gauguin have been inspired to create this image, if he hadn’t made the trip with Van Gogh? Probably not…


John Whiteley

Why did you suggest that "The ham" was supposed to represent John the Baptist's head? I cannot see any reason to suppose this.