Gauguin, Maker of Myth
Tate Modern
National Gallery of Art Washington

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

There can be few artists who have been as lionised and lambasted as Gauguin. Condemned by many as a colonial pederast who bought the syphilitic worm into a South Seas heaven, an arrogant self-promoter who abandoned his wife and children for the life of a lotus eater, he represents for others the archetypal painter who gave up everything for his art, breaking away from the bourgeois strictures of a career as a stockbroker and the dab-dab of Impressionism to create paintings full of flat vibrant colour that pre-figured German Expressionists such as Nolde and Kirchner. For his champions he has long been held up as the hero of modernism, a painter who released art from the confines of the naturalistic world and liberated colour to create works of universal symbolism and mystery.

So much of the narrative that surrounds Gauguin is myth, often of his own making. He has been the subject of countless representations from Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence to Mario Vargas Llosa’s historical novel The Way to Paradise. One of the first artists to have the media savvy to exploit the narrative of his own life, the Faustian pact he made with posterity finally came back to taunt him when, in 1902, isolated and ill, he dreamt of settling in the Pyrenees. “You are,” his friend Daniel de Monfreid wrote, ” at the moment that extraordinary, legendary artist who sends from the depths of Oceania his disconcerting, inimitable works, the definitive works of a great man who has disappeared, as it were, off the face of the earth… In short, you enjoy the immunity of the great dead; you belong now to the history of art.”

Gauguin Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) 1888
Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888

That he had an extraordinary life is not in question. His father was a political journalist and his mother Aline the daughter of the writer and political activist, Flora Tristan, a pioneer of modern feminism. After the 1848 revolution his family left France for Peru and political exile, where his father died of a heart attack leaving Aline to bring up her two young sons in Lima at the residence of an elderly uncle. It was here that Gauguin spent the first five years of his life, which would later allow him to claim Peruvian heritage and caste himself in the role of a ‘savage’. “The Inca, according to legend,” he wrote in a letter to his friend Emile Schuffenecker in 1888, “came straight from the sun and that’s where I will return.” Yet his mythic, archetypal images of Polynesian women and his ‘essentialist’ stereotypes of Breton peasants have often proved problematic for contemporary audiences in these more politically correct times.

As a young man he enlisted as an Officer’s Candidate in the Merchant Marines where he served for six years, followed by military service in the French Navy from 1868 to 1871. “As you can see,” he wrote, “my life has always been very restless and uneven. In me, a great many mixtures. Coarse sailor. So be it. But there is also blue blood, or, to put it better, two kinds of blood, two races.” On release from military service he became a stockbroker and married the young Dane Mette Gad, settling in the 9ème arrondisment of Paris, which was then a hub of artistic activity, becoming a Sunday painter and gaining enough ground to show in the Paris Salon in May 1876. His time in Martinique after the breakup of his marriage, his stay in Pont-Aven, his infamous relationship with Van Gogh and his subsequent withdrawal to Tahiti have all been well documented.

Gauguin Teha 'amana has many Parents 1893
Teha ‘amana has many Parents, 1893

Yet to understand Gauguin’s life as a painter it is important to see him not simply as some devilish deviant but as a part of his times. The thinking that drove Gauguin to Tahiti, that lead Joseph Conrad to write about the Congo and D. H. Lawrence to become fascinated with Mexico was the same. The development of the idea of the ‘Orient’ as an unspecified local, an imaginative space fed by explorers’ tales and the visions of poets and artists, fitted very much with the mood of the late 19th century. Such ‘exotic’ locations stood in opposition to the restrictions and repressions of bourgeois (largely white) western society. Here the real and the imaginary, the civilised and the primitive could be woven together into a construct where erotic drives and sexual impulses, normally buried beneath a veneer of civilised behaviour, could be legitimised. Post-colonial studies have given the idea of the ‘primitive’ an understandably bad press. Yet for Gauguin the notion offered the possibility of breaking free from the constraints of naturalism and from the ubiquity of Impressionism. He had already been looking at Japanese prints and images d’Éoubak (i.e. popular 19th century prints depicting idealised scenes of French life) as well as absorbing the ‘authentic’ character of a people and place while staying in Brittany. There he had written: “I love Brittany. I find the wild and the primitive here. When my clogs resonate on this granite ground, I hear the muffled thud that I’m looking for in painting.” Whilst such views may seem rather naive, if not a little dubious in the 21st century, for Gauguin and other contemporary artists, as well as for the poet Victor Hugo who, in 1829 published his second book of poems Les Orientales, this ‘going away’ represented a voyage of discovery, not only into new ways of making art but also into the terrain of the unconscious.

In The Question of Lay Analysis Freud wrote in 1926 of women’s sexuality as a ‘dark continent’. The evocative phrase connotes a geographic space that is murky and deep, one that defies understanding. Freud borrowed the expression from the African explorer John Rowlands Stanley’s description of the exploration of a dark forest-virgin, hostile, impenetrable. This elision between sexuality, the unexplored and the primitive became a way of investigating instinctual drives that had no legitimate place within late 19th and early 20th century western society. For Gauguin the ‘dark continent’ – a mix of the sexual and the geographic – represented an escape from European civilisation, which he had begun to hate. In his writings and paintings he constructed a mythical vision of Tahiti as tropical paradise – an unspoilt utopia both savage and sexual – that was being destroyed by Western civilisation. “May the day come (and maybe soon)”, he wrote, somewhat tactlessly, to his wife Mette, “when I can run and escape into the woods of an Oceanic Island, living there on rapture, calm and art. Surrounded by a new family, far from this European struggle for money.” This rapture in the woods was, of course, largely an illusion. The ‘elsewhere’ that Gauguin was seeking did not exist. As he later wrote to Mette: “Tahiti is becoming entirely French.”

Yet such journeys were less about discovering geographical and anthropological truths than an opportunity to establish formal and aesthetic shifts away from a naturalistic European art based on the play and observations of light. “My artistic centre is in my mind”, he wrote, “what I desire is a corner of myself that is still unknown.” Whilst his first trip to Tahiti might be seen only as a journey, the second was a true exile, an escape from his lack of success, his financial problems and, to a large extent, from himself. His ‘dark continent’ can be viewed, therefore, as essentially an internal one, his journey a psychological voyage into the centre of himself where he sought to create a place of spiritual harmony through a sensual awareness of the colour and light of Polynesia. The deliberately exaggerated and simplified lines, colours and local religious cult objects – often of his own invention – aimed to produce a charged spirituality. Whilst he vehemently rejected Christianity, sacred themes permeate his art.

Gauguin Christ in the Garden of Olives 1889
Christ in the Garden of Olives, 1889

What Gauguin really discovered was that his study of the ‘primitive’ brought him back to himself and that by defining what was ‘other’ he could begin to unpick who he really was. This enduring quest for self-hood is emphasised in the single room at Tate modern that has been dedicated to his self portraits in the first major exhibition in London to be devoted to his work in over half a century. Here paintings such as Self-portrait as Christ in the Garden of Olives 1889 (Norton Museum of Art, Florida) and Self-portrait with Manau tu papau 1893 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) dramatise his aptitude for solipsism, self invention and role-playing as he adopts the various guises of victim, saint, Christ-like martyr and sinner.

The Exhibition traces his approach to storytelling bringing together over 100 works from around the world in an attempt to challenge commonly held assumptions about his life, revealing his narrative strategies and exploring the myths and fables that were central to his creativity. Included are many of his iconic works such as Vision of the Sermon 1888 (National Gallery of Scotland), inspired by a prayer meeting of Breton women, and Teha’amana has Many Parents 1893 (Art Institute of Chicago). Watercolours, ceramics, decorated walking sticks and his very large carved clogs, alongside rarely-seen illustrated letters, sketchbooks, memoirs and journalism all provide an insight into his character, working practices and thinking.

Despite the fact that the curatorial hand lies rather heavily over this exhibition it goes a long way to re-contextualise Gauguin, allowing him to throw off some of the labels coloured by contemporary morals and thinking, that of colonialist, self-mythologizer wayward husband and painter who simply filtered his version of the ‘primitive’ through Western fantasy. That he was arrogant, opinionated and a useless husband is probably true but there is no moral obligation on an artist to be nice. By definition the self belief needed to continue against the odds can often make them very difficult human beings. Gauguin chose to turn his back on mainstream Impressionism, using the language of symbolism in his own unique way to investigate fables and myths, much as Freud was to do with Greek legends, in order to understand his deepest and darkest desires. As he stressed in Diverses choses ‘pure’ colour could “facilitate the flight of the imagination, decorating our dreams, opening a new door into the infinite and the mysterious.

“Gauguin Maker of Myth at Tate Modern, London from 30 September 2010 to 16 January 2011 and the National Gallery of Art, Washington from 27 February to 5 June 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

1 Courtesy of the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
2 Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.
3 Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

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