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.