In painting Gauguin found something he had hardly dared to hope for, a means of synthesizing (to use a word he greatly favoured at one period) the multitude of cross-purposes that had hitherto embarrassed him, and welding them together into an harmonious whole. His work, whether the scene be Brittany or the South Seas, is pervaded by colour rhythms whose tone and form alike are imbued with melancholy, deep but never desperate. His happily inspired, wholly unique palette is remarkable for its rich, pervasive harmonies; though the tones are brilliant, they are muted, recalling--a legitimate analogy since Gauguin himself often associated painting with music--the effect of muted trumpets in jazz bands.
French painter born in Paris in 1848; died in Fatu-Iwa, one of the Marquesas Islands, in 1903. A knowledge of the circumstances of his birth, marriage and belated career as a painter is indispensable to a proper understanding of Gauguin and his work. Paul Gauguin was born in the Rue Notre-Damede-Lorette in Paris, the son of Clovis Gauguin, a republican journalist from Orléans, and Aline Chazal, daughter of the painter and lithographer André Chazal, and Floral Tristan Moscoso, an eccentric writer and militant socialist. Through his maternal grandmother Flora Tristan, Paul was related to the Borgias of Aragon, who had given several viceroys to Peru. I was therefore quite natural for Clovis Gauguin to think of Peru as a refuge when Louis Napoleon's coup d'état force him to leave France in 1851. He died on the journey. The family continued on its way and went to live in Lima. Aline Gauguin was a loving mother, simple and sweet. (In 1892 Gauguin painted a portrait of her from a photograph and his recollections of her.) After four years in Peru she decided to return to France with her children. Paul was then seven years old. Aline was made welcome in Orléans by Isidore Gauguin, her brother-in-law. Little Paul was sent to a religious school in the town. At the age of seventeen he joined the Navy, and visited Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Sweden and Denmark. After the death of his mother, he gave up the sea and went to work for a Paris Exchange broker. He remained there fore twelve years. An intelligent, punctual and methodical clerk, he soon attained an enviable position in the firm. He made money, spent it wisely, and lived in comfort. Eventually he married a young, beautiful Danish girl, Mette Sophie Gad. Evidently Mette, a healthy, practical, steady and not unintelligent woman, thought she was marrying a distinguished man with a brilliant future, capable of brining her happiness and security. What she wanted, above all, was the peace and pleasure she derived from running her home and supervising the upbringing of her five children. It was not to work out that way. Gauguin struck up a friendship with Schuffenecker, also in the brokerage business, who introduced Gauguin to painting. He soon recognized that Gauguin had exceptional gifts which he himself lacked. Answering the irresistible call of his vocation, Gauguin gave up his work in 1883 in order to devote himself entirely to painting. Mette was thunderstruck and frightened. From then on, incapable of understanding her husband, or really loving him, she never ceased to give vent to her resentment and deep humiliation, and heap endless acrimonious reproaches, grievances and complaints on his head. Paul Gauguin was free to paint, but he was to suffer till the end of his life. His first efforts were encouraging, but his financial resources ran out. Sick of her husband's 'foolishness', feeling insecure and fearful for the future, Mette decided to take the children and go to live with her parents in Copenhagen. Gauguin went with them. He felt as much a stranger among the Danes as he was to feel at home, later on, among the Polynesians. He took his favourite son, Clovis, and went back to Paris, promising to send for the others as soon as he could. Then began one of the most unhappy periods of his life. Without money, without any hope of making any, he could not even provide for his son. But his passion for painting sustained and stimulated him. He was convinced of his power, his mission, and his genius.
In 1886 he went to live in Pont-Aven, a charming village in Brittany, but stayed for only a few months. Brittany did not give him the stimulus he had hoped for. Old visions, long dormant, re-awakened in him. A year later he embarked for Panama with his fried Charles Laval. A typhus epidemic drove them away. They left for Martinique, where the revelation that Gauguin had so long awaited came to him: lush vegetation, ever-clear skies, lavish Nature, and a simple, happy existence. For lack of funds he had to drag himself away from this tropical paradise and return to France.
Gauguin was then a man of forty, vigorous, domineering, with a noble and haughty bearing. His features are well known, thanks to his numerous, the blue, deep-set eyes, the hooked nose and determined chin, the thick neck that suggests heaviness and arrogant power. However difficult his character, however uncompromising his opinions, he could be extremely charming and friendly when he was not contradicted or when those he talked with inspired his confidence.
His was a strong personality, irritating and engaging, in which the rustic was mixed with the aristocratic, at heart generous and good, despite the legend to the contrary, built up and maintained by the spiteful letters his wife wrote to friends she had left in France. For this husband whom she angrily accused of 'monstrous egotism', this 'unnatural father', never ceased to love his wife and to suffer because he was separated from his children. To get some idea of his real feelings, his humility, tenderness and shyness, one must read his letters. But he was an artist, a man apart, resolved to pursue his destined course regardless of what it might cost him. His social duty counted for nothing in the face of his artistic duty. And, as a result, he made himself suffer as cruelly as those he loved.
Why these various stays in Brittany, Panama and Martinique? As his friend Daniel de Monfreid put it: 'He went to find, in what he believed to be a country of ancient customs, an environment, an atmosphere different from our overcivilized one'. In the Antilles he found the answer to his quest: a paradise setting with clearcut lines and hard, strong colour contrasts. Gauguin broke with Impressionism, which had hitherto influenced his painting ( 1887). On his return to France he expressed his disapproval of Monet's and Pissaro's naturalist fiction. He formulated and preached 'Synthesism'. It may well be that the aesthetic principles designated under this name were inspired by Émile Bernard, as Bernard claimed. But that does not matter, for it was Gauguin who first enunciated this new theory and practiced it with supreme mastery. Massive, simplified forms, flat colours, cloisonnism, shadowless drawing, abstraction of design and colour, free treatment of Nature -- such were the principal articles of the credo that Gauguin formulated in 1888 during his stay at Pont-Aven, and completed in the same year at Arles (where Van Gogh revealed Japanese art to him), and at Pont-Aven and Le Pouldu (from April 1889 to November 1890). It was at this time that he painted The Yellow Christ, The Swineherd and the Young Breton Girls. He also tried mural painting, sculpture, engraving and ceramics.
His ancestry, his childhood memories, the impressions he brought back from Martinique, his three stays in Brittany -- all these gave him the incentive to renew an art that had been corrupted by the Impressionists. Eight painters grouped themselves around him, and constituted the School of Pont-Aven, Led by Sérusier, the Nabis came and joined them. Fêted in Paris by the independent critics, by writers such as Stéphane Mallarmé the poet and Octave Mirbeau the novelist, Gauguin might well have been content with such a strong position. But in the midst of his court he began to feel more and more alone. Brittany had nothing more to offer him, and France was to small for him and his dream. On the 23rd of February, 1891, he put thirty of his paintings up at auction, and with the proceeds embarked for Tahiti on the 4th of April.
At Papeete he found Europe again, with its vices, is stupidity and its frivolity. He went to live in Mataiéa, in a straw hut, among the peaceful, ingenuous population. He joined in all their rites and games, determined to destroy whatever trace of 'civilization' still remained in him. When his money ran out, and his debtors in Paris ignored his requests for payment, he was left with. out food, without clothes, and completely debilitated by a year of fierce, feverish work. He decided to return to France. Women on the Beach, Vahini with Gardenia, Otahi, I raro te oviri ( Minneapolis), When will you marry?, Arearea, are a few of the many canvases he painted during this period. When he returned to France, sick, and at the end of his resources, he found a small legacy awaiting him, left by his uncle, Isidore Gauguin. He had several months of happiness. Dividing his time between Pont-Aven, Le Pouldu and Paris, he soon disposed of all his money. In his studio in the Rue Vercingétorix he gave a number of noisy parties, presided over by Annah, the Javanese girl, a monkey and a parrot. The free-spending, easy-going days soon came to an end. An exhibition of his Tahitian works at the Durand-Ruel Gallery on the 4th of November, 1893, was a fiasco from the financial point of view. But his new painting, mysterious and barbaric, aroused the enthusiasm of Bonnard, Vuillard and all the Nabis. After a series of misfortunes (including a last, painful interview with his wife in Copenhagen, and the flight of Annah, who ransacked his studio), Gauguin decided to return to the South Seas. A second auction to finance him was a complete failure. He set out nevertheless, for Tahiti, and arrived there in July, 1896. He settled in the north of the island, and set to work immediately. And that is how the legend began, so common today, so unusual then: the legend of the European casting off civilization, alone and naked before the splendour of Nature. In October Gauguin began to have severe physical suffering. Whenever it abated, he applied himself to his work with renewed ardour and frenzy. The year 1897 was one of great sorrow for him: his beloved daughter Aline died; his correspondence with Mette came to an end; he was in hospital for a time. But it was also the year of his masterpieces Whence Come We? What Are We? Whither Do We Go? ( Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Nevermore (Tate Gallery, London). His manuscript Noa Noa appeared in the Revue Blanche. The following year, after an attempt to commit suicide, he went to work as clerk and draughtsman in the Department of Public Works. Sick at heart, suffering from the effects of syphilis, he nevertheless had the courage to paint, draw, sculpt, engrave and write. He got himself into trouble defending natives from rough handling by the whites. He was even sentenced to three months' imprisonment and a fine of a thousand francs. Finally, worn out by privations, almost unable to move, he died on the 6th of May, 1903, after executing some of his finest canvases: Barbaric Bodies, Horsemen on the Beach and The Gold of their Bodies (Louvre). The last thing he painted was a Brittany snow scene.
What Gauguin went to find in the South Seas was original purity, innocence, a way of forgetting oneself, natural man saved from the artificialities of civilization, and the universality and permanence of art. In his desire to reach the source of inspiration he reached the very sources of communication. He attained the solemn grandeur of ancient and primitive art through the immobility of his figures, the impassivity of their features, the serene gravity of their attitudes. That is why he is as close to Cretan and Egyptian art as he is to that of his contemporaries.
A creator who wanted to dominate his aesthetic adventure by the intellect, he succeeded in finding the appropriate means for realizing his conceptions. It was in order to give his compositions a monumental and, consequently, decorative character that he deliberately rejected modelling, form values, linear perspective, recession of planes, and secondary details, and neglected movement, relief, and the sensuality of expression. His South Sea canvases inspire a feeling of awe toward life, bitter regret for lost love and liberty, and a fear of the unknown, through the quiet cadence of their lines, their broad, flat areas of colour, and their grave, transfixed sumptuousness. Gauguin excelled in the art of composition. More than that, he invented a composition as different from that of the classical masters as theirs was from the composition characteristic of the Middle Ages. It is true that other precursors have, like him, felt the need to go back to the beginnings of the world, and find again purity of style. But no one was more courageously resolved to do it than Gauguin. 'Barbarism', he said, 'is for me a rejuvenation.' In his search he renewed pictorial art, and gave modern painting a meaning. His companions at Pont-Aven and the Nabis submitted to his leadership, and the Fauves were his direct heirs. Gauguin was also the one who inspired the present interest in ancient civilizations. His sculptures prepared the ground for the acceptance of Negro and Melanesian fetishes. It was he who made possible many of the gains and discoveries of contemporary art. Of all the great innovators of the nineteenth century, it is Gauguin whom many non-representational artists of today regard as their precursor.
Like Cézanne, Gauguin lived a spiritual adventure; but, like Van Gogh, he lived a searingly temporal one too.