van gogh and gauguin: electric arguments and utopian dreams
by Bradley Collins
(Westview Press, 280 pages, $30)
Most psychoanalysis of the dead comes off as a sick parlor game, or a sin of mental patricide. For Van Gogh and Gauguin: Electric Arguments and Utopian Dreams, Bradley Collins balances convincing evidence with theories on the ego and Mommy, making his psychoanalysis of two great painters honest and reverential.
If anyone is fodder for psychoanalytic criticism, it's van Gogh. He left behind paintings full of heightened feeling, long letters to his brother and documentation of his insanity. The text's strong first section covers van Gogh's life. Collins, who's primarily an art writer, explores Vincent's adoration of his father and relationship with his mother (who gave birth to a stillborn, also named Vincent, a year before van Gogh took his first breath) with easy and compelling prose.
Although Gauguin's life may be as fascinating as van Gogh's, Collins doesn't draw as brilliant a picture of the older artist. Instead of providing deep insight into Gauguin's behavior, Collins presents a simple genealogy and some theories on Gauguin's father's death. Gauguin didn't chronicle his life with letters, and, as Collins points out, his autobiography betrays more bravado than fact. So the author is forced to discern Gauguin's truthful moments, which he does without reaching for hyperbole.
The text's high point centers on the two painters' time together. Collins succinctly presents the men's theoretical disagreements about painting. In fact, he shies from psychoanalysis at this point, tacking it on after presenting exhaustive comparisons of the painters' compositions, colors and subjects. The paintings become part of a dialogue that is, as the title suggests, electric.
Collins delicately suggests that manly Gauguin might have fancied van Gogh, while Vincent's side of the friendship lay nested in a need for a father figure. It would have been wonderful to see these tensions teased out, since the most titillating part of psychoanalysis is libido. To his credit, Collins obviously respects his subjects enough not to offer unsubstantiated conjectures.
Collins' apparent thesis, that the two men painted differently because their lives and minds were different, won't cause any revolutions in the way we view either artist's body of work. Those looking for art-theory revelations or controversies will be disappointed. This is best regarded as an interesting and informative read. Lisa Lambert