However, the two painters disagreed on almost everything; they would get into heated discussions about the work of their forebears, like
. In a letter to Theo, Vincent once described their conversations about artists as “excessively electric.” He added: “We sometimes emerge from it with tired minds, like an electric battery after it’s run down.” Their differences extended to their core artistic values: Van Gogh aspired to capture the essence of life, while Gauguin sought to depict the products of his imagination.
Just before Christmas in 1888, Van Gogh and Gauguin had their final row. Some believe that the falling out was so intense and devastating that it may have played a role in Van Gogh cutting off his ear (or that Gauguin sliced it off
for him). Two days later, Gauguin left France for Tahiti. Their creative relationship and their time as roommates lasted a whole 63 days. But in that time, these two giants of modern art produced some of the most significant and memorable works of both their careers. Looking back on their creative relationship, Van Gogh is often cast as the true genius, who was pushed to greatness by Gauguin’s criticism and support. So while Van Gogh’s sunflowers may appear to have little to do with Gauguin, the latter is a critical part of their origins.
Creative pairs and (not always romantic) power couples are everywhere. According to Shenk, we’re not primed to acknowledge the great prevalence of such duos due to our inability to detach the idea of a “couple” from any romantic implication and our obsession with narratives of lone geniuses. “We have an impoverished understanding of relationships, generally,” Shenk recently explained, “especially as it pertains to creative work.”
He offers the examples of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who, through years of one-upmanship, pushed each other to helm the most influential tech companies the world had ever seen; and
and Paul McCartney, who, at one point as Beatles, wrote songs like mad libs, taking turns to add to each other’s song lyrics. Broad City
’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer make their friendship the subject of their hit TV show. These duos all seem to share a mystifying essence, a sort of covert chemistry or language that manifests in wild success.
Shenk calls it “creative intimacy,” noting that it blooms when two (or more) people share what he describes as “an extraordinary rapport and sense of self-identification,” as well as an “extraordinary difference.” In most successful and innovative pairs he studied, Shenk was shocked to find “that any two people could have that much in common,” and “that any two people could be that different,” he said.