Old Vagabond: Paul Gauguin at Tate Modern
The Italian conceptual artist Alighiero Boetti, as his onetime protégé Francesco Clemente recalled, "considered that there was a big difference between people who moved north towards power, order, and control, and people who moved south, away from them." Boetti himself had moved from Turin, in Italy's industrial north, down to Rome, and then, for a while, to Kabul, Afghanistan. But historically, this southward vector has rarely been the one chosen by artists, whose profession magnetically draws them toward courts and capitals, patrons and potentates. Paul Gauguin was one of the first to take the opposite route, and he remains the most emblematic and radical of those who've tried to flee the world's metropolitan centers, submitting without resistance to what Charles Baudelaire had once diagnosed in his poem "Le Voyage" as the "Singulière fortune où le but se déplace, Et n'étant nulle part, peut être n'importe où," or, to turn French verse into English prose, the "singular fate of having a goal that keeps shifting, and being nowhere, might be anywhere."
The story is well enough known: Gauguin, grandson of a pioneer of socialist feminism, Flora Tristan, was born in Paris in the revolutionary year of 1848; he spent part of his childhood in Peru (where his grandmother had roots) and part in France, before spending much of his young manhood at sea as a merchant marine and then a naval sailor. He liked to think of his Peruvian forebears as Indians. "As you can see," he would later explain, "my life has always been very restless and uneven. In me, a great many mixtures. Coarse sailor. So be it. But there is also blue blood, or, to put it better, two kinds of blood, two races." Eventually, back in Paris, he became a stockbroker—and a successful one—but also a Sunday painter who was soon accomplished enough for his works to be accepted by the Salon; during this period he also began buying works by the most advanced painters of the time, among them Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne and Edgar Degas.
The crash of 1882 brought matters to a head. Gauguin abandoned the world of finance, now in tatters, for the full-time pursuit of art. His Danish wife, Mette, who hadn't bargained on having an artist for a husband, collected their five children and returned to Copenhagen. After a few months Gauguin followed her there, attempting to re-establish himself in business; but it took less than a year of that life to persuade him to return to France without Mette, though he kept in touch with her as a confidante for many years thereafter, addressing her, as he admitted, with "an adoration often full of bitterness." Finding Paris too expensive, he moved to Pont-Aven in Brittany, where his magnetic personality and pursuit of artistic independence helped make him chef-d'école to a group of young experimental painters. He became enamored of the landscape, saying, "I find a certain wildness and primitiveness here. When my clogs resound on this granite soil, I hear the dull, matte, powerful tone I am looking for in my painting." Likewise in the people of rural Brittany he found a primitive quality that appealed to him. "I try to put into these desolate figures the savageness I see in them," he wrote, "and that is also in me." But further travels were in the offing: wanting to reinvigorate himself "far from the company of men," he set off for Martinique and Panama. When his funds were depleted, he went to work on the digging of the new canal.
Returning to France, Gauguin was invited by Vincent van Gogh to Arles for the purpose of establishing a "Studio of the South." Their intense but intensely conflicted friendship brought them to the verge of violence; Gauguin fled to Paris, whereupon van Gogh severed his own ear. Increasingly seeing himself as a "savage" discontented with the civilization that had formed him, Gauguin began dreaming up new travels and a "Studio of the Tropics," still in collaboration with van Gogh: the Far East? Madagascar? Eventually, after the Dutchman's suicide, Gauguin settled on Tahiti, where from 1891 to 1893 and again from 1895 to 1901 he made many of his most famous works but found himself even more at odds with the French colonial authorities than he had ever been with the customs of bourgeois life in Europe. Feeling that "there are landscapes still to be discovered—in short, completely new and wilder elements," he set sail for an even more isolated spot, Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands, where he remained until his death in 1903.
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If Gauguin's fate was, in Baudelaire's word, singulière, all the more so is the tension between the incessant, restless movement of his life and the steadiness characteristic of his art. Yes, of course, as you move from painting to painting, from sculpture to woodcut, in the exhibition "Gauguin: Maker of Myth" (at the Tate Modern in London through January 16; then at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, February 27–June 5), you see his travels reflected in his imagery; you'll find depictions of Brittany, Martinique, Tahiti and the Marquesas in turn. But look at the paintings one by one and search out depictions of motion: you'll find few. More typical is a kind of uncanny stasis—not necessarily an equilibrium but a suspension of time, a caesura.
Consider even an early, still residually naturalistic painting whose subject would have lent itself to a sense of inner dynamism, Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven (1888). What gives this work its atmosphere is the way the three girls embody an inexplicable stillness, like children playing at statues rather than enjoying "a Breton gavotte at haymaking time," as Gauguin explained the picture to Theo van Gogh, his dealer at the time. Or it's as if they were not taking the next step in the dance but waiting for it to happen to them. What seems strange—though for all I know this may be typical of Breton folk dancing—is that as they form a semicircle, hand in hand, the girls face not toward the center of the circle, and therefore toward one another, but outward, away from one another and, as it were, away from the dance. The choreography contributes powerfully to the painting's paradoxical feeling of stillness. Even as the girls engage in their joint recreation, each seems caught up in herself, almost unaware of the others, and therefore unmoved by the common rhythm that the dance, we imagine, ought to signify.
Actually, though, Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven does not entirely freeze the motion it pretends to depict. There's one small detail that contradicts this suspension of movement. Look at the little dog to the right of the three girls; it's not scampering or chasing anything but just sniffing around, as dogs do, and yet the peculiar twist to its body lends it an air of carefree liveliness, of impulsive energy, that counterpoints the girls' calm solemnity. Once you've noticed this, you can't help seeing how often in his paintings Gauguin has invited the animals to wander in—deliciously observed dogs, chickens, horses, goats and pigs, not to mention the sly-faced symbolic fox of The Loss of Virginity (1890–91). They liven up the scenes in which human protagonists strike their hieratic poses. Even when the animals are shown as still, you feel they could move at any minute; even when the humans are shown in motion, they seem fixed in place. In the upper-left corner of the masterpiece of Gauguin's time in Brittany, The Vision After the Sermon (1888), there's a bull whose form so curiously echoes that of the fused wrestlers in the upper-right corner, Jacob and his angel, whom the peasant women of the painting see in their collective mind's eye. Here again, the two wrestlers locked in their struggle seem caught at a standstill, while the unconscious beast ambles by with an unaccountable vivacity. The reality/unreality of the women's vision of Jacob and the angel is like that of Degas's ballerinas in those paintings of his where we see the dancers over the heads of the audience or even the orchestra musicians. Gauguin had collected the elder artist's work when he was a successful stockbroker rather than a penniless painter—later Degas would return the compliment—and it was from him that Gauguin learned how to create off-angle compositions with seemingly arbitrary juxtapositions that nevertheless allow for a sense of classical solidity and poise.
Gauguin's propensity for compositional stasis, even when his subject matter seems to lend itself to the evocation of change and movement, reflects his urge to perceive something eternal within the momentary. If you want a more direct glimpse of the inner tumult that impelled him ceaselessly to seek ever more distant shores—"le cerveau plein de flamme, Le coeur gros de rancune et de désirs amers," in Baudelaire's words; that is, the brain aflame, the heart fat with rancor and bitter desires—you must look for his comparatively rare paintings of the sea, such as Ondine/In the Waves (1889) and The Bark (La Barque), from 1896. Not only the swirling waters themselves but the off-balance figure, neither standing nor reclining, and the boat seen at an angle that makes it seem to be spinning in the storm—all declare the disequilibrium that drove Gauguin on, seeking primeval sources of grave and joyous harmonies. Unlike the wandering protagonists of Baudelaire's poem, Gauguin never truly traveled "pour trouver du nouveau," to find something new, but rather in search of the traces of something ancient and perhaps close to vanishing. His incessant journeying was finally not in search of a more pristine, remote, incompletely colonized corner of the earth; rather, as he'd already told his fellow painter Émile Bernard in 1889, well before his first visit to Tahiti, "What I desire is a corner of myself that is still unknown."