PAUL GAUGUIN: A BRIEF STUDY
“Gauguin was a monster. That is to say, he can’t be pigeon-holed into any one of the moral, intellectual or social categories that suffices to define most individuals…”
It has been a while I have been sifting through the lives and works of many of the prominent artists through history. There had been no specific aim to the exercise, except, of course satiating my own curiosity on one hand, and appreciating, among many things, the methods of ‘representation’, the psychological aspects of the creative process (in regard to painting) and of course, to understand the limits of beauty, or the lack of thereof, in Art.
Even though the list of artists to choose from is as vast as the voluminous scholarship that each and every one of their works has inspired, I stumbled upon Gauguin and choose him over other equally beguiling names such as Degas, Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Klimt, Renoir, Van Gogh or the others, because of two main reasons. Primarily, his whole life has literally been a struggle against fate to preserve his fidelity to Art. But more than this, his preoccupation with the world of emotion, and his vision of art as a reflection of inner spiritual reality, which, by the way also made him a precursor to the Expressionism, was at once stunning and awe-inspiring.
As a matter of fact, he wasn’t concerned, unlike the Impressionists before him, in depicting things as they appeared. He was of the view that ‘first comes feeling, the spiritual shock, and only then comes understanding’.And his paintings thus bear in equal parts, a vision which was both sensitive to the spiritual forces which tug at man, and which espoused an aesthetic vision that was unique to his own worldview.
For instance, in one of his most famous works, Vision after the Sermon (1888, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), Gauguin shows peasant women experience a vision of Jacob – the father of Israel – wrestling with an angel. In regard to the content of the painting, Gauguin implies that the faith of these pious women (the purity of their thoughts symbolised by white head-dresses) enabled them to see miraculous events of the past as vividly as if they were occurring before them.
The painting is divided into two parts by the large diagonal tree-trunk, an arrangement taken from Japanese woodcuts. The foreground is filled by the group of women, dressed in traditional Breton costumes, as they return from the Mass. Blending symbol with reality, Gauguin frames the blood-red field symbolising a spiritual battle.
Another work which falls in line with the above one is The Yellow Christ (1889, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo). In this one, one can see peasant women kneeling to pray at a wayside crucifix in the countryside (most probably in Breton). I was astounded by the humanity and more over simplicity of the Christ-like figure and just as easily the artist has simplified the mystic experience of the kneeling women.
Yet, the colour, I felt, is totally unreal (I mean, who has a body of that colour?!?) i.e. I suppose, the body of Christ and even the red trees stress the otherworldliness of the scene.
What ought to be mentioned about the above two paintings is that he composed both of them after abandoning civilisation and ‘civilised’ Paris for the Breton countryside in 1886. Both of these expressed his feelings about religion in a distinctive, non-realist manner, with bold colours and outlines. Such subjectivity would run throughout his paintings.
In Yellow Christ, Gauguin returned to religious subject matter for the first time since painting The Vision a year previously. In fact, the two works have a number of similarities. Both are essentially synthetic, distilling the essence of the subject in order to render it as forcibly as possible, and relying on the use of colour to symbolic ends. They share the same theme; of the naivety of the allegedly simple Breton peasants, who by their faith transform what was simply a statue of Christ into a living embodiment of his suffering.
As mentioned earlier, as his paintings were not supposed to be mere copies of reality, he was bound neither to realistic coloration, nor to the persepectival laws required to produce an illusionistic sense of depth. Moreover, most of his paintings are ‘flat’. The thing was, as can be seen from many of his other works, he simplified forms, renounced modelling shades and minute details in order to get a psychological edge into his paintings. In this, he acted as a precursor to the Expressionists.
I read in Nancy Ireson’s scholarly account (Tate, 2010) that he also juxtaposed glowing patches of colour, whose flatness he stresses with strong outlines. He thus returned to two-dimensionality. Frankly, as Anna Krausse (The Story of Painting, Konemann, 2005) mentions, “the supreme law that Gauguin followed in his compositions was that of rhythm within the painting, and the preservation of harmony of the over-all structure”.
Another period which aided in his producing some of his most remarkable works, while at the same time enriching his vision as an artist was the time he spent in Tahiti. I think his representation of Tahitian women was both remarkable for its empathy and affection that the artist felt for his subject.
In 1890, he wrote to a friend, “I am leaving got Tahiti, where I shall hope to end my days.’ His decision was influenced partly by the fact that Tahiti was as far away from Paris as it was possible to get, but also by the stream of enthusiastic reports reaching Europe from travellers who had visited the hauntingly beautiful island (The Great Artists, Part 8, 1993).
In search of more ‘primitive’, rather ‘primeval’ forms, he had already made forays to Brittany and Pont-Avon. However, his arrival in Tahiti in 1891 was of immense relevance to the artist.
‘And they are called savages?’, he pondered, as if facing the prejudices of the Age he lived in, face on! I think more than anything else, Gauguin’s preoccupation with ‘the Other’ becomes relevant at this juncture, as another great artist, or writer if you may, by the name of Joseph Conrad was working on his draft of Heart of Darkness during this time. His first set of Tahiti paintings are dated 1891-92 and the other set dated 1895-1900. Joseph Conrad, who had dealt with the similar theme of representing the ‘other’, ‘savage’ cultures, had published his masterpiece in 1899. Heart of Darkness, a novel of ferocious energy, espoused the vision of the ‘darker’ races of Africa, as ‘savage, uncivilized’ brutes.It had done immense harm to the perception the Western world held of the African continent. In fact, its effect echoes to the present age, in V.S Naipaul much celebrated and critiqued A Bend in the River.
I am still researching whether there was any link whatsoever, between Conrad and Gauguin, even remotely.
However, such a link seems improbable through whatever I have read until now. Not only because there isn’t any documentary evidence supporting it, but also because Conrad and Gauguin had very, very contrasting perspectives.
And the only reason I brought in Conrad, was to create a contrast between his and Gauguin’s vision of ‘the Other’. Unlike Conrad, Gauguin’s representation of the Tahiti women was resplendent with feeling, harmony and what may even call a sustained, delicate affection. Below, I have shown and discussed some of the prominent Tahitian paintings, also highlighting the major motifs or the historical backgrounds of the paintings.
Above shown is the Arearea, or Pastime (1892, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). This is one of the most important Tahiti paintings as it is one of the first paintings which has as its theme the awakening of sexuality. The young women, one of whom is dressed in white of virgin-hood, are accompanied by a bright, red dog, often used by Gauguin as a symbol of (male) sexuality.
I noticed that like the Sermons… painting, the artist here too establishes a compositional relationship between the red dog and the woman in white; this time by drawing the dog’s neckline parallel to the woman’s arm which is placed over her lap. The statuesque monumentality of the painting with its block like surfaces (as will be seen in the next few paintings more clearly) is broken by the long, searching lines of the plants.
As mentioned about the complex relation between form and content in most of his paintings, especially the Tahiti ones, the picture’s message derives from a synthesis of what is depicted and its painterly treatment. The secret of course lies in its composition.
Another painting which stands as a healthy precursor to the one above is The Loss of Virginity (1891, Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia).
It depicts a Breton landscape with a naked young woman lying in the foreground. Behind her, a fox, the symbol of lust in Hindu mythology, can be seen. In the background, a wedding procession in Breton costumes is approaching the nude.
Frankly, it can be observed that the work is a deliberate attempt at a symbolist painting, probably produced to appeal to the literary figures who were Gauguin’s main supporters at this time (Ireson, Tate, 2010). As such, the work is rather laboured in its use of symbolism, in which rather than creating a mood as was more customary, Gauguin has proceeded by a series of easily discernible visual clues. The fox, for example, with his hand on the woman’s breast, is both demonic and lubricious, and the red-tipped cyclamen in her hand is a reference to the girl’s recent defloration.
Another set of paintings from I found immensely engaging were the ‘Sea’ pictures i.e. By the Sea (1882, National Gallery of Art) and In the Waves (1889, Museum of Cleveland). Below shown is the former:
By The Sea shows the sexual abandonment as part of the natural rhythm of Polynesian life (the two women do not appear perturbed at the presence of the fisherman in the background of the work), a notion that was integral to the highly popular practices during that time in the Islands(Marshall Cavendish Weekly, 1985).
Whereas, in Ondine or In The Waves depicts a naked woman, seen from behind, cast adrift in the waves.
In both of these, the feminine form is rendered sans any inhibition.Au contraire, there is an element of playfulness, of abandon, and of coming to awareness, both inwardly and externally.
In all his paintings, one can observe the play of bright colours; shall that be the red in the Sermon…, yellow of The Yellow Christ or green in Ondine, what he aimed for, and achieved quite remarkably was to heighten the emotional intensity of the paintings. He rejected the previously held belief of the Impressionists that painting had to capture the natural world with vividness and directness.
This is why his foray into the South Sea Islands is significant. It piqued his curiosity into the traditional culture and gave him models to work on and depict them as suited to his own subjective vision. His The Spirit Watching the Dead (1892, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo) is another apt example. The painting shows a girl, lying face-down, almost terrified, with another figure in black overlooking her through the background.
The idea of the picture came from a real incident: Gauguin returned home from buying lamp oil one night to find his 13-year old wife Teha’amana lying awake in the dark, terrified of ghosts. She believed that spirits entered unlighted houses in the dark. So Gauguin depicted the ghost as Teha’amana would have imagined it – ‘like an ordinary little woman stretching out her hand to seize the prey’. Some suggest that this was also a free adaptation of Manet’s Olympia (below).
Certain thematic similarities like a reclining nude and a black figure cannot be overlooked. [This shall be discussed during my study of Manet.]
Akin to The Spirit… three of the most important paintings executed during Gauguin’s second stay in Tahiti are the Nevermore and The White Horse, and Two Tahitian Women.
“Nevermore” is the refrain of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven.
Nevermore is one of Gauguin’s monumental nude paintings. It reflects the depression by which the painter was overcome in 1897 which led to his attempted suicide. This work is again a free adaptation of Manet’s Olympia, which Gauguin had copied before going to Tahiti in 1891.
It attempts to suggest the superstitious dread of the Tahitian woman who lies alone in the foreground. Although Gauguin denied any association with Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, the links are too obvious to be overlooked, particularly since it would have been well-known in the literary circles within which Gauguin moved, and had been illustrated in translation by Manet.
In the Two Tahitian Women (1899, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) I noticed the underlying grace of this painting which shows two Tahitian women with an offering of mango flowers. Looking closely one can spot a gentle curve sweep down the white dress and through the bowl, linking the girl’s breasts, while the off-centre composition provides a sense of movement, as if the women were swaying.
The White Horse of course is the furtherance of feelings of calm and tranquility that Gauguin came to associate with Tahiti.
This canvas, typical of Gauguin’s late style, is one of the most successful paintings done on Tahiti. The animal stands at the front in water amidst mysterious vegetation. In the centre and background are two almost hidden horsemen emerging from the branches of the trees.
Gauguin has placed these three animals in this tropical Eden as if they belonged there quite naturally. The white horse in the foreground lends the work its name. It is rider-less, but the two animals in the background are mounted. It is difficult to know exactly what Gauguin intended by the work, given the absence of his usual inscribed title, but the lush vegetation, rich colours and naked figures suggest an earthly paradise in which man and nature co-exist quite happily.
Another painting which I would want to show-case here is The Day of the God (1894, Art Institute, Chicago). Gauguin had painted this exotic Tahitian scene in Europe, the year before he returned to the South Seas for the last time.
The brooding idol and the strange postures of the women summon up the mysteries of Tahitian mythology. But the beautiful colours are chosen for their decorative as well as expressive effect: the rippling waters of the lagoon form a vivid, abstract pattern, heightened by the use of large blocks of colour. Moreover, the ritualistic aspect of the scene is enhanced by the use of a frieze-like arrangement of figures and by the work’s esoteric nature.
I shall end this with one of my favourite self portraits of his.
This Self-Portrait (1889, National Gallery of Art, Washington) with elements of caricature is one of Gauguin’s most important and radical paintings. In it the painter seems to be melancholic. The background is filled with three Christian symbols: the apple, the halo, and the snake.
Gauguin’s head emerges from simplified yellow angel wings, which contrast with the red background, symbolizing the demonic side of his character. The apples and serpent are references to the garden of Eden, to temptation and to Milton’s Paradise. Once again, Gauguin has freely plundered different cultural traditions in the interests of a strikingly bold, essentially decorative work, combining Christian iconography with the treatment found in Japanese prints.
To sum up, these were only some of the representative works of the master. If you liked his works, I would strongly recommend you to google his Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going To? It is his most ambitious work, and by en far, monumental in its scope and conception.
On my part, I felt that the qualities of his work which moved me i.e. strong emotional character, vividness of colours, uniqueness of vision and more than anything else, a palpable affection towards his subjects, have been brought out in this short post.
I hope it was an informative as it was engaging. Moreover, I hope it piqued your interest in the subject.
[Image source: Web Art Gallery. Other references: Paul Gauguin, Nancy Ireson, Tate, 2010; The Great Artists, Marshall Cavendish, Part -8, 1993; History of Art, Anna C. Krausse, Konemann, 2005]