Sunday, June 8, 2014

Gauguin - Sympathy for the Devil

How to evaluate Gauguin? In the roll call of 19th century artists, surely he is one of the most diffcult to like as a man.

His background was exotic - part French, part Peruvian. He was born in France (7 June 1848 - 8 May 1903 but at the age of 18-months, his parents decamped for Peru. His father died on the voyage out, leaving Gauguin's mother to fend for herself.

The family lived for four years in Lima. Gauguin was to claim that Peru's pre-Columbian past was an early influence. After the family returned to France, Gauguin's mother took up with a wealthy stockbroker who financed Gauguin's schooling and later, his own career as a stockbroker. He married a Danish woman, tried his hand at a business career as a tarpaulin salesman. He was not successful and his wife supported the family.

Paysannes bretonnes (Breton peasant women). 1894
In the meantime, Gauguin fathered five children and got "bit" by the painting bug. He studied with Pissarro who was the kindly grandfather/teacher to the obstreperous Gauguin just like he was to Paul Cézanne. Eventually Gauguin left his wife and kids and started on his real artistic odyssey.

But even Pissarro had his doubts about Gauguin. “He’s not a seer, he’s a schemer,” one-time mentor Camille Pissarro railed, arguing that Gauguin never really lost his capitalist streak; that with his paintings of sun-soaked islands, Gauguin was just cashing in on the Parisian bourgeoisie’s fondness for all things “other”.

Self-portrait with Halo.1889
He was also a genius at self-promotion. He created his own myth in his self-portrait as a Christ-like figure, martyr for an art that no body else appreciated. Early on, he functioned as a guru to a coterie of younger artists and a thief of other mens' ideas and other men's women. The painter Emile Bernard accused Gauguin of stealing his ideas; another, Emile Schuffenecker, accused him of stealing his wife. Van Gogh ended up going for Gauguin with a razor.

 Jacob wrestling with the angel. 

After a stay in Martinique, where he contracted a number of tropical diseases and was returned to France courtesy of the French government's policy of return, he went searching for a new path that would reveal the inner essence of things. In Brittany he found it, “the wild and the primitive... resonating in this granite ground”, though he had gone there initially because living was cheap and credit easy to obtain. It was in Brittany, in a lesson to his young disciple Sérusier, Gauguin gave one of the most seminal talks in the history of modern art. Gauguin asked Sérusier what color the trees appeared to him. “Yellow? Well then, put down the most beautiful yellow on your palette. And that shadow is blue, so render it with pure ultramarine. For those red leaves, use vermilion.”

                               Tahitian Women on the Beach, (1891)

Gauguin told Sérusier to cut out the muddy intermediary colours, to render every colour in its purest and most intense form, straight from the tube – to create what one of Sérusier’s fellow students later described as “a passionate equivalent to every sensation received”.

In the space of a few minutes, Gauguin set in train one of the principal trajectories in the art of the next hundred years, from the Fauvism of Matisse and Derain to the colour fields of Rothko and Barnett Newman – to which might be added the notion that it is the idea behind the work rather than the person who created it that is significant.

"When Sérusier’s fellow students saw the tiny painting that Gauguin had “dictated” to Sérusier on the back of a cigar box – which looked like something Matisse might create 30 years later – they formed a new movement, the Nabis (Hebrew for “prophets”), which included such luminaries as Bonnard and Vuillard. They called the painting 'The Talisman,' venerating it as an icon of the art that was to come."

In 1891, Gauguin left the decadent West for what he romantically imagined was an untouched paradise, the South Pacific islands of Tahiti and Hiva Oa.

                                         Maternity, (1899)

He took three native brides – aged 13, 14 and 14, for those keeping score – possibly infecting them and countless other local girls with syphilis as well as fathering several more children. He always maintained there were deep-rooted ideological reasons for his emigration, that he was quitting decadent Paris for a purer life in a tropical South Seas paradise, but one wonders how pure things really were in the hut he christened La Maison du Jouir (“The House of Orgasm”).

But by this time he was too ill and too disillusioned by the influence of Christian missionaries in his remote Pacific islands to do more than write - and paint his last, brilliant, vibrant masterpieces.

 Te aa no areois (The Seed of the Areoi), 1892, The Museum of Modern Art

Ever the rebel, Gauguin got into trouble at the end of his life for taking the natives' side against French colonialists. He was sentenced to a month in prison and fined 500 francs.
 Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch)

Suffering from syphilis, he died at 11 a.m. on 8 May 1903 of an overdose of morphine and possibly a heart attack before he could start the prison sentence. His body had been weakened by alcohol. He was 54 years old.

 A 2010 show at the Tate Modern helped to put put him back on the art history tree. By presenting a huge number of paintings, many of them seldom seen, reveals his complex art, a charismatic figure whose influence was greater than we imagined. His themes are archetypes - the woman, the mother, desire, death, fear, obscure, quasi-religious symbols. The paintings became more and more mysterious but Gauguin neither wanted nor felt the need to explain what the meanings were. He remained true to the motto he carve on the doorway of his last dwelling place in the Marquesas Islands: Soyez mystérieuses – Be mysterious.

The vogue for Gauguin's work started soon after his death. Many of his later paintings were acquired by the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin. A substantial part of his collection is displayed in the Pushkin Museum and the Hermitage. Gauguin's posthumous retrospective exhibitions at the Salon d'Automne in Paris in 1903 and an even larger one in 1906 had a stunning and powerful influence on the French avant-garde and in particular Pablo Picasso's paintings.

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA

In the autumn of 1906, Picasso made paintings of oversized nude women, and monumental sculptural figures that recalled the work of Paul Gauguin and showed his interest in primitive art. Picasso's paintings of massive figures from 1906 were directly influenced by Gauguin's sculpture, painting and his writing as well. The power evoked by Gauguin's work led directly to Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907 Gauguin paintings are rarely offered for sale; their price may be as high as US $39.2 million.

No comments: