Paul Gauguin. Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ (1889-90. @ Musee D'Orsay. The contrast between the two images- one religious, one secular; one serene, the other grotesque; one flat and schematic, the other fully modeled confounds any attempt to pull out a clear meaning from the canvas. Part of the Post-Impressionist exhibit now at the De Young.
It difficult to see Gauguin through the shadow of his self-created legend, the bad boy of late 19th century art, Van Gogh's nemesis, all arrogance and ego, fleeing industrial Europe for a South Sea paradise (which never materialized). In his flight from the urban world of 19th century Europe, Gauguin left behind a host of victims - his wife, his family, the 13-year old Tahitian girl that he "married," his former disciples whose work he at first praised, then denigrated with withering scorn, his creditors, even his former friends.
But he was always more than his public persona. Coming from a lower class bourgeois background - and not from Peruvian nobility as he often claimed- he quickly grew beyond the limits of Impressionism, evolving a style, which combined mysticism, symbolism and imagery from the cultures of Peru and Polynesia that he both idealized and misunderstood. His notebooks and writings, as Richard Bretteil pointed out, are "The largest and most important body of texts, illustrated and otherwise, produced by any great artist in France since Delacroix...That he has always been treated as a businessman-turned-artist rather than as an artist-turned-writer shows the extent to which his literary achievement has been undervalued."
His past was often less romantic then he would have people believe, and it took a major financial crisis in France to turn Gauguin into a full-time painter. After a youthful stint as a sailor, Gauguin spent a decade as a stockbroker. During that period he became seriously interested in art and taught himself how to paint partly from works he collected with his new found wealth.
He studied with Pissarro and by 1880, was considered good enough to exhibit with the Impressionists, but soon moved in another direction. He found his true artistic voice, in Brittany, presiding over a colony of fellow artists. The strong patches of color, the flat perspective, the simple forms and harsh line are all present in "The Yellow Christ" (1889) with its red and yellow background, stick-thin Christ surrounded by solid figures of Breton peasants. "Savage and primitive, he wrote where "the flat sound of my wooden clogs on the cobblestones, deep, hollow and powerful, is the note I seek in my painting."
But he was restless, always seeking some mystical paradise, some place of primal innocence. First it was Brittany, then Martinique where he became desperately ill. After returning to Paris, he fixated on the South Seas as the place where his fantasy world could materialize. He had to auction his works in order to fund a trip to Tahiti (1891) but soon found Tahiti not primitive enough for his fantasy.
Gauguin returned to Paris in 1893 with just four francs in his pocket but departed for Tahiti again two years later where he was hampered by ill health and short funds. He continued his search for the perfect paradise, going further and further away from any civilization but suffering immensely from a lack of decent food and medical care. He died of syphilis in 1903 in the Marquesas Islands.
Gauguin did not go to nature to paint. He chose what nature to paint and when he finished, it was a new vision of art, which owed nothing to Impressionist en plain air studies. He was after a certain style - not only his sexual style, the swagger and bombastic bravado but how to transmute, like an alchemist, the art style that he admired into his own vision. "Imagine," he once wrote, alluding to the purples, reds and chrome yellows he loved, "a confused collection of pottery twisted by the furnace!" In fact, he saw the world through art-colored spectacles. He was after emotion, not the fleeting pleasurable but non-personal beauty of the world that the impressionists painted, but some deeper, more primitive, more authentic feeling.
He's been dead for over 100 years and we are still looking at his paintings, still finding new things, still pulling out new meanings. He was Christ and satyr, abuser and victim, martyr and cultural iconoclast. What is confusing to us about Gauguin is that he was all of those things and -- unlike many another artistic poseur - a very very good painter, in fact, as he claimed, a revolutionary painter of genius.
Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay: De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park: September 25th, 2010 through January 18th, 2011
References: Robert Hughes. Nothing if not critical.
Richard Bretell. The Art of Paul Gauguin
David Sweetman. Paul Gauguin. A Life