Old Vagabond: Paul Gauguin at Tate Modern

Old Vagabond: Paul Gauguin at Tate Modern

Old Vagabond: Paul Gauguin at Tate Modern

In his paintings and travels, Paul Gauguin sought a corner of himself that was still unknown.


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.

* * *

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."

Whatever hidden corners remained obscure to Gauguin by the time he died of syphilitic heart failure in 1903—and there must have been many, for one of his greatest talents had always been for the sort of happy self-deception that allows a man to persist in the hope of a breakthrough just around the corner (or in Gauguin’s case, just on the next island a thousand miles away)—it is possible to feel one knows him too well, and better than he knew himself. He required the greatest possible distance from the civilization to which, after all, his paintings were addressed, but that civilization desired him to maintain his distance even more. A mythic being, he was already posthumous in his lifetime. In 1902, when he wrote to his great friend Daniel de Monfreid of a desire to return to France, he received a sobering but prophetic reply: "It is to be feared that your return would only derange the growing and slowly conceived ideas with which public opinion has surrounded you. Now you are that legendary artist, who, from out of the depths of Polynesia, sends forth his disconcerting and inimitable work—the definitive work of a man who has disappeared from the world…. You must not return. Now you are as the great dead. You have passed into the history of art."

Into the history of art, but also of literature, mass culture and various points in between. Surely I wasn’t the only college student whose dorm room featured a poster of Two Tahitian Women (1899), the perfect pinup for moodily alienated intellectuals in bloom. Little as I knew about painting back then, I was right to have taped the poster up next to one of a work by Mark Rothko, a painter whose sometimes almost implausibly blended hues are direct descendants of Gauguin’s. Still, is there any way to picture Gauguin to oneself except as played by Anthony Quinn? And for that matter, isn’t the artist partly to blame for his rather embarrassing mythologization?

In the past, art historians often treated Gauguin’s legend with disdain, as something essentially irrelevant to the art, suitable for treatment only by popularizers and novelists. Thus, for a long time the crux of historical research was the breakthrough year 1888, and especially the months in which Gauguin worked alongside van Gogh in Arles. Although their time together offers plenty of material for melodrama, one could focus chastely on the all-consuming question of art-historical development and the transition from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism, not to mention the pleasures of disentangling the threads of mutual influence and (on a strictly technical level, please) conflict, in the hope of offering a more solid account of just how Modernism came about. As a bonus, although Gauguin was already at this time explaining his differences with van Gogh as attributable to the fact that "he is romantic, whereas I, I am more inclined to a primitive state," his self-mythologization as a "savage" had not yet entirely solidified.

By the 1980s the focus of attention had shifted to Gauguin’s later career and his two voyages to Oceania. Now, instead of evading the legend, it was time to wrestle it down. Putting formalism aside, historians interrogated Gauguin’s work and character (as the appropriately juridical terminology would have it) from the double perspective of anticolonialism and feminism, and found it deeply wanting. Far from being the critic of European civilization he claimed to be, Gauguin was just one more adventurer who’d abandoned wife and children to indulge his passion for exotica, his illusions of lost paradises where the living would be easy and cheap, and a sleazy thirst for sex with dark-skinned underage women.

The tide began to turn back in Gauguin’s favor, I think, with the publication of Stephen Eisenman’s Gauguin’s Skirt in 1997. Examining the evidence closely, Eisenman presented the artist’s journeys as a gradual process of shedding many of the illusions he’d carried with him from France to the colonies. Moreover, Eisenman concluded, "Gauguin combined European and Polynesian ideas into a hybrid art that mirrored his own liminal stance on the contested border of sexual and colonial identity." In other words, he continually challenged his sense of self in his only very partially successful effort to learn from the people among whom he chose to live—natives and half-caste colonials, as opposed to the officials and gendarmes who were the constituted powers on the islands. The result is an art that fulfills in ways Gauguin could never have imagined the injunction he carved into a lime wood relief of 1890: Soyez Mystérieuses (Be Mysterious).

* * *

In "Gauguin: Maker of Myth," curator Belinda Thomson tries to show the artist’s story, not as a regrettable excrescence on his art, nor as the hidden shame at its core, but simply as the intertwining of life and art through "narrative strategies." She uses the phrase "to encompass not only the deliberate, conscious ways Gauguin had of conveying meaning through picture-making and written commentary, but also the whole apparatus through which he projected himself into public consciousness, engaged with contemporary debates and generated critical discourse around his work." Thomson sees in Gauguin the artist as operator, albeit perhaps a sincere or at least self-convinced one. It’s a fairly standard approach these days, and hardly surprising in the age of Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. Creating a public profile has long been part of an artist’s job description, but there is a real risk of historical distortion in overemphasizing the deliberateness with which such a profile is formed and the artist’s control over its contours.

In the case of Gauguin, the decision to investigate the work under the rubric of "narrative" as a way of articulating the bonds between life and art seems particularly inapt. Like so many artists before him and since, Gauguin liked to rail at the critics; but in his case the reason, over and over again, was precisely their penchant for turning paintings into literature. For him, the limitation of a painter like Gustave Moreau was that "he can speak only a language written by men of letters: the illustration, as it were, of old stories." True, Gauguin had been inspired to choose Tahiti as his destination in part by his reading of a trashy novel of exotic sensuality in the tropics, Pierre Loti’s Le Mariage de Loti. But speaking of the figure in one of the paintings he made there, he insisted, "She is not some pretty little Rarahu, listening to a pretty ballad by Pierre Loti played on the guitar." The bodies and faces of the Polynesian women Gauguin incessantly painted were not simply offered up for delectation and the projection of fantasies. They possess their own intelligence and keep their own counsel; their slyness and self-possession make them resistant to interpretation, almost indecipherable. Gauguin identified with them precisely because he could not entirely "read" them. Something in them remained as mysterious to him as he was to himself.

It’s practically a betrayal of Gauguin’s intentions for Thomson to fixate on the idea of narrative as the key to his art. The paintings are literary only in the most literal sense—the paintings’ titles are written on them, though often in Tahitian, which Gauguin didn’t know as well as he thought and could assume his audience wouldn’t know at all: Aha oe feii? (What! Are You Jealous?, 1892), Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch, 1892), Eu haere ia oe (Where Are You Going?, 1893) and so on. They establish a mood or suggest a situation but never inaugurate a story. Why not listen to the artist himself, who from the beginning insisted that in painting, "color becomes essentially musical": that is, structured and evocative but not specifically discursive. In the paintings I’ve named and others, Gauguin conjures up rich cadences of dissonance and harmony out of color and line, the likes of which had no more been seen before in painting than had his Polynesian subjects. His colors are not often ruthlessly clear and crisp, as those of Henri Matisse would later be; they are suave, smoldering, somewhat distant—colors that don’t declare themselves but slowly unfold in stepwise progressions. It is for the sake of their unprecedented cadences that we still remember his story, which also still has much to teach us.

"I find everything poetic," he once wrote to Vincent van Gogh, "and it is in the deepest recesses of my heart, that are sometimes mysterious, that I glimpse poetry." But despite his aversion to illustration in painting, his life often seems like a series of illustrations to an old poem by Baudelaire. In it, "le vieux vagabond, piétinant dans la boue, Rêve, le nez en l’air, de brillants paradis": the old vagabond, his feet trampling in the mud, his nose in the air, dreams of bright paradises. Toward the end of the 1890s, and especially after his move to the Marquesas in 1901, the character of Gauguin’s painting begins to change. His health was declining. The paintings of his last years have a ragged, unfinished look, with drawing that sometimes seems maladroit even by the standards of an artist who’d always insisted that the greatness of an artist could never be measured by an absence of "mistakes." At times there is a sense of distraction: the stillness and calm Gauguin had always sought seem more beyond his reach than ever. Yet some of the paintings of this period, among them Contes Barbares (Primitive Tales), from 1902, present his art in its most powerfully concentrated form.

In a self-portrait Gauguin painted the year of his death, the proud masculine ego that shone through his many earlier ones has subsided. He betrays no sign of illness but looks far older than his 54 years. Happiness would never have agreed with him. It’s not so much Gauguin’s search for an earthly paradise that proves interesting but his continued inability to convince himself that he’d ever found one. Gauguin died dissatisfied, and in that dissatisfaction lies the aesthetic and political value of his art and his life.

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