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3rd October 2003 to 19th January 2004
Following the itinerary of Gauguin's stay in the Pacific, the exhibition illustrates this period's historical significance to XXth century art with photos and objects alongside over 200 of Gauguin's own creations, comprising paintings, drawings, sculpture and writings, to commemorate the centennial of his death.
I cannot forget seeing the long line forming at the entrance to the Grand Palais in Paris: so many people, all patiently waiting in the cold for hours to get a glimpse of Gauguin’s paintings of his Tahitian paradise. The sharp contrast with what we know of his lack of success during his lifetime was stunning. Perhaps it is because we have only now understood that beyond the exotic appeal of his work, his was not only a physical journey but an intellectual and spiritual one as well.
And the sense of injustice continues when you see the first panel, showing how far he exiled himself; it is a contemporary map on which his trip from France to Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands was traced. You wonder what made him run away so far from home. It was not a traditional 19th century artist’s trip to Italy, Provence or Brittany, but a 'periplus' to the opposite side of the globe, the remotest place in the world, the Pacific, to try to disconnect from what he considered as the 'disease' of western culture. It’s true that he felt condemned and misunderstood, but he was in France, a country that was considered a haven for painters at the time home of the century’s Universal Exhibition and famous for its ground-breaking schools of thought and advanced culture.
It seems that it wasn’t just France he was running away from but the entire western civilization. What was it in that culture that condemned living artists and sanctified them after they were dead? And again, what was in this culture of 19th century Europe that the artists rejected? If we had to come up with a word, there was one that echoed in those days in literary works and in artistic circles; it is decadence. Looking back on those days, you notice two diametrically opposed evaluations, like a glass that is seen by some to be half empty, and by others to be half full. For some, the 19th century was decadent and for others it was progressive. For Gauguin, the glass was less than half full; it was almost completely empty.
Decadence, though, was a whole new trend in those days and had a different meaning to what we give it today. In his book ‘A Rebours’ written in 1884, Huysman’s hero Des Esseintes makes a ‘profession of doctrine’ declaring himself as a ‘decadent’. He also considers a few contemporary figures ‘fellow decadents’, including Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, etc. Their philosophy was one of total freedom of imagination, the aesthetic principle defining life rather than the contrary, preferring dreams to reality, the irrational folly to the rational and calculated, the strange and exotic to the customary. It was shared by Breton and later by the Surrealists, and is in part close to Gauguin’s state of mind. Gauguin cannot be classified as a complete 'fellow decadent', although he agreed with ‘decadents’ when he doubted in the ‘naturalist’ movement or rejected the perceived lack of spirituality of the Impressionists. But he didn’t adhere totally to and detached himself from the Symbolists, such as Mallarmé or Maurice Denis, finding them too literary and prosaic. Nevertheless, he did share in the general sentiment of suffocation in the positivist certainties and need for irreverence. In fact, like all 'decadents', he is both the end and the beginning of a new era, that of modernity.
We could never know his deep feelings towards the land and the people he discovered in the Pacific. The deepest feelings are never written or painted. A number of photos of the epoch are exhibited here and depict the inhabitants of Tahiti that were such a strong source of his inspiration and a support for his drawing. His work shows a deliberate beautification of the place and the people on his part, but also a romantic idealization of the purity of their way of life. His inner feelings towards Tahiti were most probably a mixture of attraction for their straightforwardness so exotic for a European and the traditional discriminatory sentiments of superiority so common in those days. His taste for exotic adolescent companions is perhaps the proof of the latter, but it was considered by Tahitians of those days that having a thirteen-year-old companion was not morally shocking. Without judging him as a person one way or the other, it is most probable that his attraction for adolescent women was more through love for their purity and innocence, something that fit perfectly with what he was looking for in life and in art.
Gauguin was above all an exalted artist with an ambition to establish his own school of painting and leave his imprint on the artistic scene. Tahiti, therefore, was to be his ‘Pacific studio’, a parallel to the school of Pont-Aven that he led as chief inspirator. The search for purity in art, whether in the subject matter or with regard to form and color, was the hallmark of 19th century painters. It was the age of discovering other civilizations through excavations and travel that convinced them of the need to sweep away the academic and the established. There were those who, like Cézanne, tended to search for this purity through simplification of forms and colors, tending to abstraction. Gauguin too, was a part of this vast 19th century movement of opening towards the world and also to the universal need to return to basics, the unaltered and the pure.
Before he made his intellectual journey to the land of purity, he must have asked himself many times ‘who are we, where do we come from, where are we going to ?’ a long time before he actually painted the famous picture of that name. The real adventure in his painting is a bringing together of the subject matter with the underlying significance without resorting to sterile symbolism, what he called ‘synthetism’ during his Pont-Aven adventure.
As always though, whatever the intellectual motive of the move, it was the immediate material problems that decided him to move out of Europe to a place where he could live without having to earn a living from his paintings. I remember when a painter friend of mine wanted to obtain a residence permit in France, and this was a century later than Gauguin, just a few years ago, this is what he was told: "Artiste peintre n’est pas un métier" (artist is not a profession), said the official to my friend; you must declare a serious profession to obtain a residence permit. Now, you understand why Gauguin ran away, all the way to Tahiti: in the highly sophisticated, progressive 19th century France, there was no room for a self-appointed painter and a self-proclaimed savage such as he. The 1891 sale of his paintings in ‘Hotel Drouot’ was disappointing and only painter friends with vision, such as Degas, bought his paintings. Degas appreciated Gauguin immensely and bought the controversial ‘La Belle Angèle’.
Gauguin wanted, therefore, to get away and he was looking for an appropriate place to move to when a couple of coincidences decided him in favor of Tahiti (a French colony since 1836). One was the book ‘Le marriage de Loti’ of the orientalist-traveller Pierre Loti (the book is about an unhappy love affair because of cultural differences, that takes place in a romanced Tahiti) that impressed him very much, although he became critical of it later on. The other decisive stimulation was the exhibition of photos by Emile Miot and Georges Spitz that he saw during the 1889 exhibition of ‘Colonial Photos’.
There is also a possible link between Baudelaire’s ‘Les Barbares’ and Gauguin’s decision to expatriate. Baudelaire, who had a non-pyramidal view of cultural diversities, admired the barbarous or the primitives. He saw honor in the pain they endured with silent stoicism when defeated. His main thesis was that the primitive societies are socially perfect from the beginning, especially in their art and spirituality. These societies were governed by religious leaders such as priests, witches, warriors and poets, and not by utilitarian professions such as is the case in the west. For Baudelaire, Primitive is not synonymous to natural and is not a pejorative term.
On the other hand, Gauguin’s attraction to primitive cultures could have had its roots in his childhood in Peru (born in Paris, he was taken to Lima between the ages of two to seven years), which was a subconscious source of great influence that was perhaps revived when he visited Panama and Martinique in 1887.
His state of mind at this moment of his life was a strange oscillation between ‘mystic religiosity’ and ‘savage purity’. A year before going to Tahiti (1889-90), he painted the ‘Self-portrait with yellow Christ’ in which a tobacco pot with a wild-man's head (discovered near Poldou in Brittany) is very telling of this. Gauguin, the savage crucified on the cross of art, decided to go and rescue a dying culture in order to bring it back to life or preserve it’s memory the way the photographers of the epoch had managed to do. There is also an announcement of the dilemma of his existence: torn between his ‘mystic’ self and his ‘primitive’ self before his departure, he would first try and integrate the two cultures in his paintings, but later, especially after his second disappointment with Paris and second trip to Tahiti, the ‘primitive’ in him tended to take over altogether. Only a few visionary artists such as Maurice Denis, who bought the ‘Yellow Christ’ in 1903, understood the value of his work; his were not just beautiful paintings but precious testimony to his assessment of his time and a portent for a whole new era.
Whatever his ambitions of research on the lost Pacific civilization and his efforts to resuscitate it through his paintings, as it often happens with trips towards the unknown, in his first trip he didn’t find immediately what he expected. Papeete was in his eyes too tainted by colonialization. He was disappointed at not finding any authentic idols and this made him all the more decided to research deep into the Tahitian culture. In fact he didn’t initially want to go as far as Tahiti. Martinique, Tonkin or Madagascar would have sufficed had he obtained an authorization by the ministry of culture for his research project on the civilization of the Pacific. But, the authorization was approved for Tahiti, and in the Summer of 1890 he set off for Tahiti. Paradoxically for someone who wanted to forget about his roots, he took with him photos of ancient Egyptian art, Japanese prints and the Olympia of Manet. Being a very cultivated man he naturally wanted to study Polynesia also through comparison with other cultures known to him.
His disappointment with Papeete led him to look for an unaltered place nearby and in September 1891 he moved to Mataiea, 45 km. from Papeete. There he met his first companion Teha’amana, who brought enough joy and serenity for him to start painting again. He also started his writings on Tahiti, in a manuscript called ‘Noa Noa’. Teha’amana appears in many of Gauguin’s paintings and Gauguin described his life with her and their short-lived ‘wedding’ in this manuscript. From Noa Noa emerges a different relationship to that of Loti’s love story. To Loti’s fictional heroine ‘Rarahu’, Gauguin opposed a vivacious portrait of Teha’amana, and through her he portrayed the real Tahiti and its simple rural districts . "In order to introduce myself to the particular characteristic of a Tahitian woman and their charming Maori smile, I wished to make a portrait of one of my vahines, from pure Tahitian origin
She was not very pretty, according the European canons of beauty, but I could see in her the fear of the unknown, the melancholy of adventure mixed with pleasure, and the gift of passivity that surrenders in appearance but is in fact dominant." ‘Vahine No Te Tiare’ (woman with a flower) of 1891 is a beautiful portrait of his young companion. It is thanks to the presence of Teha’amana, his model-lover, mentioned in his manuscript Noa Noa as ‘Tehura’, that he starts his passion for Tahitian culture and language, giving each painting thereafter a poetic name in Tahitian.
"Happiness lived in my house. ‘Tehura’ goes regularly to the temple and practices the official religion with her lips and her fingers, yet she knows by heart the names of all the Maori deity. I don’t know how she associates in her belief Ta’aroa and Jesus. I think she venerates them both."
As the origin of the word culture suggests (‘cult’ meaning ‘religion’) one of the first paintings he painted in Tahiti was ‘Orana Maria’ (Ave Maria) and one of the first sculptures was ‘Idol with a shell’. Orana Maria is a telling picture of the natural acceptance of Christianity by the same people who continued to revere their own Gods without feeling any incompatibility of the two cults. It’s also a very tender and moving painting; it is permeated by faith and portrays Mary’s presence in this land in the form of a Tahitian mother. The Luxembourg Museum refused Orana Maria when Gauguin proposed to donate it to the museum. But the combination of a ‘Maori Madonna’ with the two women in the background borrowed from ‘Borobaur temple’, to whom the angel, inspired by Botticelli, shows the way, was too unusual for the taste of the epoch. ‘Te nave nave fenua’ or ‘Delicious Earth’ of 1892 was again a ‘Maori’ Eve alluding to the Christian myth.
Gauguin painted as if he were a Tahitian himself and mirrored their way of life, their culture and their language. Through his paintings, he became their poet and preacher. From 1892 onwards he became increasingly fascinated by the local legends, leaving behind all mystical allusions to Christianity. ‘The spirit vigils’ or ‘Manao Tupapau’ is from this year. Tupapau is the evil spirit of the mountain that frightened Tehura, and Gauguin found her one night just the way he portrayed her, lying still with wide-open eyes full of fear. ‘Joyfulness’ or ‘Arearea’ and ‘Aha oe fei?’ ‘What, are you jealous?’ are from the same year. Not only was he translating this exotic life and culture into paintings, but he could even capture and understand their feelings, fears, joy or sadness or jealousy, all so similar to what he had known in the West, but expressed without cover-up or shame. His technique though shows best the depth of his feeling about those wonderful people, but also about life and people in general. People are dark masses of matter, absorbing light rather than projecting it. They resemble tree trunks and stand on their feet taking solidly root in the earth. They are often set in contrast with backgrounds of intense saturated color. Their beauty comes from their perfect harmony with the surroundings. The compositions are often a play of dark earth tones with vivid, almost primary colors.
These are apparently serene years, but after the death of Vincent Van Gogh's brother Theo in 1891, he could not manage to sell his work any longer. This had a disastrous effect on his balance of mind to the extent that he even sometimes thought of giving up painting altogether. Yet in the Summer of 1893 he decided to travel once more back to France with 66 of his paintings and numerous sculptures, enough to organize an exhibition. "Farewell, hospitable land, home of freedom and beauty. I go back with two more years, but twenty years younger, a bit more bearded but a lot more knowledgeable."
In Paris, from rue de la Grande Chaumière to Montparnasse, he was increasingly adopting the savage in him, or perhaps he took secret pleasure in scandalizing everyone by showing up in known art circles with a 13-year-old Javanese girl and a monkey. The exhibition of some 40 of his paintings at Durand-Ruel didn’t have the success he expected. Apart from the Symbolists, such as Natanson, or old admirers of his work like Degas who bought ‘The moon and the Earth’, everybody else, including Monet and Renoir, did not appreciate his work. Pissarro went so far as to accuse him of plagiarizing everyone, even the savages of the Pacific.
These hard years in France did not stop him to re-write and organize his notes and make two manuscripts: one he called ‘The Ancient Maori Cult’ and the other Noa Noa, illustrated with his favorite Maori legends with woodcuts or drawings. In 1894 he sculpted ‘Oviri’ in partially enameled ceramic called ‘The killer’ (La Tueuse), of which he later wrote in 1897 to Vollard "no ceramist has ever made a sculpture such as this". ‘La Tueuse’ inspired Picasso (who had seen a retrospective of Gauguin) for his ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’. This is perhaps the beginning of a trend to produce not just what is considered as beautiful, but also the ugly, the shocking and the monstrous. In this same year (1894), he was considering going away again and, with this in mind, he went back to Pouldou in Brittany, hoping to recuperate some of his paintings that he had left there during his Pont-Aven period. But in Concarneau he got into a fight and was hurt to the point of not being able to paint for months. He lost his court case against the owner of the guest house, Marie Henry, who was given the right to keep the paintings to compensate for unpaid rent. At the Drouot auction that year, he sold only 10 paintings and became even more resolved about leaving. "I have taken this firm resolution to go forever to the Pacific. There, I could finish my days in freedom and tranquility, without the never-ending fights with imbeciles."
After a fruitless visit to Copenhagen to see his wife Mette and daughter Aline, he set out for his last voyage in the Spring of 1895. After a stopover in Auckland, New Zealand, to view an important exhibition on Ethnology in ‘Maori’, Gauguin returned forever to Tahiti. Shocked again by the westernization of Tahitian society, depressed to the point of declaring "I am not worth anything, I’m a failure." In bad health from alcoholism, eczema, syphilis and heart problems, he had yet another great pain to bear: the death of Aline, his 20-year-old daughter, from pneumonia. In 1897 he had a heart attack and on 30th December 1898 he attempted suicide with arsenic. Yet he also painted some of his biggest canvases, full of ecstatic joy ('Qui sommes nous, ou sommes nous, ou allons nous', his grand epic poem about life, is from this period).
In a letter to Willumsen he wrote "While in Europe, men and women obtain what they need after long days of non-stop labor, while struggling with hunger and cold gripped by misery, the Tahitians on the contrary, happy inhabitants of a forgotten paradise of the Pacific, know nothing of life except for sweetness. For them, living is singing and loving".
There is a significant darkening of his colors and a marked simplification in this last trip. Nave Nave Mahana or Delicious Day, of 1896, has a Puvis de Chavannes type of funerary aspect. In a letter to his friend Manfried he wrote "My canvases of Brittany have become ‘rose water’ compared to those of Tahiti, but Tahiti will become ‘Cologne water’ because of the Marquesas".
These were the days when the Christian mystic was won over by the savage who claimed ‘the right to dare anything’. In another letter to Manfried he wrote "I am on the ground, beaten by poverty and illness. Will I be given a moment to finish my work?"
He visited Fatu-iva, in the Marquesas Islands and found the inhabitants very primitive, or as he described them "almost in the state of anthropophagy". But he went on to finally stop in Hiva Hova (Dominica) in 1901, and thanks to the sale of his house in Tahiti and an income from the dealer Vollard, he got a warm welcome and a nice comfortable house and studio that he called irreverently ‘Maison à jouir’, or house of joy. ‘Avant’ and ‘Après’, a collection of essays, comes from this period. So are the series of ‘Horsemen on the beach’ with their back to the rosy earth, contemplating already the opposite shore of their next existence.
Like all those who choose the road to the domain of love as opposed to that of dominion on earth, he died having given his life and work away without any real recognition. Yet his work is filled with joy, love and freedom. The more he suffered, the more sublime his work became, and the further he went from home, the nearer he got to real life and beauty. A hundred years after his birth, in 1948 he was proclaimed as the initiator of modern art. With hindsight we see that he did undeniably propose and impose a new taste in beauty, a new way of looking at other forms of spirituality, another way of life, another sky, another vegetation, another humanity too all perfect in their surroundings, like the intellectual and spiritual purity he found in Tahiti.
Art Lovers Paris