Paul Gauguin’s famous guise as the original Western savage was his own embellishment upon reality. No mere bohemianism, that persona was, for him, the modern sequel to the “natural man” constructed by his idol, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Gauguin’s rejection of the industrialized West for an earthly paradise embraced, in artistic terms, all handmade arts and crafts as equivalent creative endeavors. As his own ideal artist-artisan, he produced an abundant, cross-fertilizing body of work in many media, dissolving the traditional boundaries between high art and decoration.
Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, Arles 1888
The artist and his older sister Marie were born in Paris (he in 1848) to highly literate upper-middle-class parents from France and Peru. Gauguin’s early life was shaped by his family’s liberal political activism and their blood ties spanning the Old and New Worlds. His father was a republican journalist; his maternal grandmother, Flora Tristan (Flora Tristán y Moscoso), was a Peruvian creole and a celebrated socialist active in France. Through her, Gauguin claimed a special link to the earlier New World as a descendant of its pre- and post-Conquest elite. With or without foundation, Gauguin identified his grandmother’s ancestors as the noble Spanish Viceroy of Peru who ordered the first European voyage to the Marquesas Islands (the artist’s own final home) and, before that, a high-born Inca, a legacy that he “proved” with his own craggy “Inca” profile. In 1849 his parents fled France for Peru with their two young children, fearing repercussions from the candidate his father’s paper had not supported for president of the republic, Louis-Napoléon, later Napoleon III. His father died on shipboard. Gauguin spent his childhood in colonial Lima and his adolescence in his father’s native city of Orléans. Though his widowed mother had few means beyond a modest salary as a seamstress in Orléans, the boy was surrounded in both cities by prosperity and culture, thanks to family and friends.
Scene from Tahitian Life
In the late 1860s Gauguin traveled the world with the merchant marine, and then the eastern Mediterranean as a third-class military seaman. He started painting and building an art collection when he settled in Paris as a stockbroker in 1872. Having inherited trust funds from his grandparents and now earning good money in his new career, he lived well, married a middle-class Danish woman in 1873, and had five children with her. His artistic training was informal and limited. After learning to paint and model on his own, Gauguin was tutored by the active professionals among his landlords and neighbors. Intellectually restless and independent, Gauguin sought and absorbed information from myriad sources, synthesizing them into his own aesthetic. He apparently began to show his work before he sought any training. His Salon debut in 1876, with Under the Tree Canopy at Viroflay (Seine et Oise)–possibly the landscape of that area, dated 1875, that belonged to his sister’s descendants, Hernando Uribe Holguin, Bogotá–occurred four years before he met his only acknowledged painting master, his landlord Félix Jobbé-Duval, in 1880. In 1877, Gauguin modeled a clay bust of his wife and observed as another landlord, sculptor-praticien Jules Bouillot, carved a marble rendition (Courtauld Institute of Art, London), in order to execute the entire process himself immediately afterwards; he did so in a bust of his son Emil (1877, marble; MMA). His fellow tenant at Bouillot’s, sculptor Paul Aubé, may have guided Gauguin as well, and may have encouraged his interest in clay sculpture. Gauguin studied ceramics much later, in 1886 with Ernest Chaplet, whose studio was nearby. In 1879 he joined the “Independents” (Impressionists), thanks in part to Camille Pissarro, another New World transplant (from Danish Saint-Thomas) who became a special mentor. Gauguin showed regularly with them until they disbanded in 1886, entering a variety of works, including sculpture, that earned modest critical attention. Various dealers bought his work. Gauguin lost his final job in the brokerage world after the financial crash of 1882. He moved his family to the less expensive town of Rouen and became a sales representative for a canvas manufacturer. However, his focus intensified on art and political activism. He undertook missions to the Spanish border to promote the Spanish republican cause. Alarmed at the dramatic change their life was taking, his wife took the children to her native Copenhagen. Gauguin followed, but soon declared the city to be uncongenial. He left to pursue an independent life, though he remained in regular contact with his wife and children, largely by correspondence, for the rest of his life.
Breton Girls Dancing
Surviving on odd jobs and often without cash, Gauguin began his lifelong peripatetic migration between exotic regions and Paris in 1886. In the process he grew in stature as a colorful and controversial avant-garde artist, primarily through works sent from those remote sites for sale and exhibition in Europe. After an ill-fated move to Panama and Martinique, in 1888 he began spending extended time in the French provinces. He went first to Pont Aven, Brittany, where Emile Bernard’s (1868-1941) cloisonnisme profoundly affected his work. Yet Bernard and his circle of friends–notably Paul Sérusier (1863-1927), Maurice Denis (1870-1943), and Charles Laval (1862-1892)–regarded Gauguin as their own mentor. His art and stated views in Brittany shaped their aesthetic definingly for years, producing first what is known as the School of Pont Aven, and then the more varied work of their later years, as the self-styled Nabis. Gauguin then went to Arles to join Van Gogh, which proved to be a seminal encounter artistically, if tumultuous emotionally, for both. He then returned to Brittany, to the village of Le Pouldu. By 1890, Gauguin’s work was shown at avant-garde exhibitions in Paris and Brussels and had earned the admiration of Symbolist writers in Paris, particularly that of its current leader Stéphane Mallarmé. Gauguin was invited to attend regular gatherings when in the capital, and was often the honored guest. His final move to the Pacific Islands, with sporadic returns to Paris, began in 1891 with his transfer to Tahiti, as head of a government-funded artistic mission. He found his dream of an earthly paradise there severely compromised. As in Europe, he saw discord and a native culture overcome by Western values–including the need for capital to live. Nonetheless he produced prolifically, amidst quarrels with authorities, scandals, and relations with local women that yielded yet more children. Various illnesses, including syphilis, left Gauguin increasingly immobilized during his last years. He died in 1903 and remains buried on Atuona (Marquesas Islands).
Gauguin’s complex art has long been divided into the Impressionism of his early years, and the Synthetism and exotic Symbolism of his mature years in Brittany and Oceania. It is broadly defined as an incremental rejection of naturalist modernity, the tenets of high art, and Western illusionism, in favor of a syncretism that drew upon a broad range of artistic and literary sources. His course is frequently charted with landmarks: the landscapes, figure paintings, and interiors that particularly suggest the work of Pissarro and Degas, from his years as a leisure-time Impressionist painter; the brilliantly colored cloisonné paintings of Brittany (The Vision After the Sermon [Jacob Wrestling with the Angel], 1888, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh); and his enigmatic monumental testament from the Pacific, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897, BMFA). The formal qualities and meaning of that work, however, continue to be debated. His paintings in the Impressionist exhibitions of the early 1880s emerge, under renewed scrutiny, as more anti-naturalist and anti-conventional than previously thought. As is well established, the anti-illusionism of his mature work and the variety of media, especially functional objects, convey his advocacy of craft and the decorative, and of the artist as the physical, as well as conceptual, source of art. Gauguin was no pure formalist however. His support for the decorative encompassed, even demanded, the conveyance of meaning by a close alliance of form, content, and technique, a strategy–so dear to Symbolist poets–that was central to Gauguin’s disciples in Brittany, whether in a church fresco or a decorative screen. That sense of charged meaning, however, owed little to traditional Western symbolism and narrative strategies, which demanded coherent legibility. Gauguin’s later works from Brittany and beyond remain ambiguous, perhaps unresolvable, as provocative expressions of mysterious truths, at once personal and cosmic.
Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
The artist produced two- and three-dimensional sculpture and functional objects throughout his career. Typologically, they range from conventional portrait busts and architectural reliefs to functional objects–among them vases, knife handles, and wine casks. Many were intended for public exhibition and sale like his paintings, prints, and drawings. Throughout his career, Gauguin both modeled and carved; at some point, however, his choice of materials changed. Whether for practical or ideological reasons, Gauguin eschewed the “noble” marble of his first sculptural efforts (the family busts) for “humbler” materials, mostly wood and clay. His advocacy of direct handiwork caused him to reject methods that involved indirect mechanical processes, such as throwing ceramics on a wheel. Only one work produced by such techniques can be documented, a cast plaster of the so-called Self-Portrait, Oviri (1894-1895), known today through posthumous serial bronze casts. Famous for their “savage” subject matter and format, non-Western polychromy, and sense of slapdash formation, these works deliberately vary in character. Throughout his career, Gauguin’s carved surfaces could be smoothly undulating, like any traditional Western sculpture, as well as emphatically planar and “crude,” in the more familiar primitivizing mode. He did not completely reject commercial reproduction of his sculpture. While in Tahiti, the artist planned to serialize Mask of a Savage (1894-1895, terracotta; Musée Léon-Dierx, Saint-Denis, Réunion [Mascarene Islands]) and what he called his best sculpture, Oviri (1894, stoneware; Musée d’Orsay, Paris), in bronze. Oviri and several other figures were, in fact, cast by several commercial founders as lost-wax serial bronzes from the years before World War I to the late 1950s.Gauguin also published his extensive writings, beginning with a very revealing critical commentary on ceramics in the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889, and ending with autobiographical tracts such as Noa-Noa. After his death, as with Rousseau, his literary production shaped views of his work and persona as profoundly as the physical objects. His artistic influence in France took many forms before and after his demise; one of the most evident examples is the work of Odilon Redon, who revered the artist as much as his aesthetic.
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