Gauguin, Paul - by Laurel Gasque
Gauguin. Sight and Insight
by Laurel Gasque
An unlikely candidate among artists for sainthood is Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Seldom is his work considered essentially religious. Yet. over the course of his entire career he expressly identified himself with a suffering Christ and evoked what amounts to a religious perception around almost everything he created. What is the meaning of this man's art? How should we assess the significance and legacy of his work?
Although not structured specifically to deal with questions of a religious nature, The Art of Paul Gauguin - until 20 April at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris - offers ample opportunity, and the rare luxury, to ask such questions, in the company of the most extensive gathering of Gauguin's art ever and the first major retrospective of it in almost a generation. Not since the memorial show of 1906 (also at the Grand Palais) has the spectrum of media Gauguin used been so well represented, or the chronology of Gauguin's work covered so completely. From the far flung ends of the earth Polynesia, Asia, Australia, North and South America, and Europe, including the Soviet Union -comes a unique array and as extraordinary an amount of Gauguin's art as one is likely to see again in a lifetime.
Last year this exhibition appeared in two slightly different formats, first at The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and then at The Art Institute of Chicago. The basic principle of arranging the work has remained the same. In each case series of individual works by Gauguin have been selected to explore single motifs in several media in order to enable the viewer to trace the artist's thoughts as he translated them from one work to another. On the whole this is a commendable approach to structuring the output of Gauguin's brief, but prodigious .working life, because it shows the dynamic transformation of his ideas and yet their essential unity.
Still, there are omissions for a show of this magnitude that will disappoint many viewers. Foremost is the absence of the famous canvas, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where are We Going? (1897). Balancing the absence of certain works, however, is the presence in Paris of key works that North American audiences did not see, such as: The Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) (1888) and Be Mysterious (1890) plus a richer range of Gauguin's ceramic work. The Paris exhibit admirably covers Gauguin's extensive graphic art and shows important examples of his carving as well.
The opportunity this exhibition gives to steep the viewer in a wide variety of Gauguin's work goes a long way to redress the tendency to see his art in a highly selective and partial manner, thus missing the complexity and ongoing significance of his achievement. So many of us are accustomed to associating his work almost solely with sensuous scenes of the South Seas. A painting such as Two Women on the Beach (1891) coming from the time of Gauguin's first sojourn in Tahiti, shows how this is easy to do. It assaults the senses in such a luminous way that you actually feel like blinking when viewing it. Only afterwards does the reflection occur that part of the reason why these women sit on the beach averting their gaze from the beholder is not due strictly to shyness, but to keep from losing their eyesight in the blazing sunlight that is pictorially implied. Furthermore, an almost one-sided appreciation of the man and his work has been shaped by the zealous art reproduction of the Tahitian paintings, clearly inspired by their compelling sensual quality, and the image of Gauguin as an adventuresome libertine perpetuated in popular films, novels, and biographies.
The late H R Rookmaaker of the Free University of Amsterdam, in his pioneering study, Synthetist Art Theories: Genesis and Nature of the Ideas on Art of Gauguin and his Circle (1959), and subsequently in his book, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (1970), saw a more complex view of the artist which is worth taking up in considering Gauguin's art in relation to the issues raised above. Rookmaaker felt Gauguin left a legacy in three areas, all deeply linked with one another. First, Gauguin fought for the artist's freedom to find new forms apart from any previously held established tradition. Second, he clearly conceived an understanding of the iconic character of the visual arts (that is, by colour and lines and representation of the visible world, expression of an invisible, but equally real, world can be rendered). And, third, he created a new value and appreciation for the decorative aspects of the arts.
In recognizing the importance of Gauguin's methods and the greatness of his achievement in transcending the reductive ness of late nineteenth century positivistic thought and art, Rookmaaker had keen insight into what was, and still is, at stake for the preservation of our true humanity from a tyrannical attention fixed exclusively on visible things. Gauguin could potently represent physical reality. But beyond that, by the way he handled pictorial space and themes, he could evoke more than the eye could see. For Professor Rookmaaker, Gauguin's ability to suggest burgeoning meaning in his art was more like a recovery than a real discovery. That reality was rich, filled with mystery and hidden meaning as well as sensuous beauty, was second nature to the pictorial representation of great seventeenth-century and Baroque masters like Jan van Goyen and Peter Paul Rubens. That is why Rookmaaker liked his students to immerse themselves in this past glory of an unfragmented age.
Fight against materialism
Gauguin fought furiously and fiercely against the atomization of understanding that has followed in the wake of the materialistic mind-set in which the West has gradually schooled itself and of which Impressionism was a stylistic embodiment in his day. A small, but striking work in the exhibition, Cup in the Form of the Head (1889) reflects the extraordinary unifying power of Gauguin's thinking in facing his own affliction and emotional perplexity as well as what amounts to the spiritual dismemberment of a culture and its people.
No photographic reproduction can convey the startling experience of viewing this work first hand. Out of olive green, grey and red glazed stoneware suggesting relationship in form and technique to a traditional toby jug, Peruvian pot, and Japanese Takatori vessel, emerges Gauguin's own self-portrait as a severed head dripping with blood, eyes closed and ear-less. This macabre image, fired at a very high temperature literally and figuratively, fuses life, myth, and history into an unforgettable emblem of ravaged man.
In a little over a month after finding van Gogh lying unconscious and covered with his own blood in Arles on the morning of 24 December 1888, Gauguin created this work. We can only surmise that it was from horror and pity mingled with grief that he turned to the primal medium of clay, the dust of the earth, to make this piece with its moving residual memory that 'we have this treasure in earthen vessels' (2 Corinthians 4:7). It inaugurates a period of special preoccupation with death and life along with continued focus on his own self-portrait (from this point onward frequently associated with Christ), prior to his first departure to Tahiti in April of 1891.
The predilection, in Gérard de Nerval's phrase, for 'the bloody reveries of severed heads,' is evidenced in the work of a whole host of 19th century artists and poets, ranging from Gericault and Goya through Baudelaire and Mallarmé to Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon. But viewed within the web of an alienating culture incapable of nurturing inward meaning, the imagery is not as extreme or self-indulgently exotic as we may fancy. Despite their extremely emotional intellectual disagreements as to the content and method of expressing meaning visually and their own fragmented personal lives, Gauguin and van Gogh were deeply united spiritually as fellow travellers on the arduous journey of finding a way out of the morass of modern materialistic thought. Their compelling need to retreat from the rapidly industrializing city to a more rural or 'primitive' environment and their captivation by Gustave Courbet's bold representation of the artist as pilgrim and wanderer in his famous painting, Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1854) only serve to underscore the intensity of their mutual striving. The Cup in the Form of the Head seems to unite the pain and passion which arises from their struggle with a greater heroic reality than their own. Gauguin is expressing a participation in suffering that ranges in his mind from Orpheus' disememberment for his art and John the Baptist's beheading for his truthfulness to even 'the Sacred Head, sore wounded for all humanity. In a letter to Vincent he wrote: 'There is a Road to Calvary that all we artists must tread and it is this, perhaps, that keeps us going. It is that which keeps us alive and we die when there is nothing more to feed it'.
Gauguin's profoundly complex sentiments, however, did not make him sentimental or prevent him from having a sense of humour. Mockingly he saw in his hollow head a humble and useful object. Soon after the Cup in the Form of the Head had been fired and sent to him in Brittany, it appeared in profile as a vase in a painting of late 1889, Still Life with Japanese Print. In his wit and skill to transform material drawn from his own art, Gauguin is much like a visual JS Bach endlessly borrowing and reinventing from his own sources. Comically, yet cogently the image of a bunch of flowers bursting from the painter's brain compresses Rookmaaker's observations of Gauguin's colossal quest for freedom to invent new forms and his capacity to combine and integrate iconic meaning with fresh decorative style.
Prior to Cup in the Form of the Head Gauguin's only work of art with an explicitly biblical theme was The Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), completed in the previous September of 1888. In the foreground of this painting are a ring of prayerful Breton women wearing sombre dark dresses and big white bonnets, standing with their curé. Above and beyond them is a vermilion coloured ground divided by a tree trunk slanting strongly to the left. Beneath the tree a cow, tiny by comparison to the women in the foreground, looks up; beyond on the other side of the tree, is an angel bending his combatant, the fateful Jacob, over double (Genesis 32:23-31). By means of a dynamic and decorative layering of compositional devices, Gauguin manages to bring together extremes of human spiritual experience into a whole. This is not a literal slavish rendering of outward appearances, but an interpretive representation of an actual inner continuum between the contemporary piety and belief of the Breton women and biblical persons and events.
Again, the intertwining of van Gogh and Gauguin's lives has bearing on the creation of this major work. All through the summer of 1888 the painter, Emile Bernard, a younger associate of Gauguin with considerable influence on him, corresponded with van Gogh about the history and nature of Christian art. Clearly, Bernard discussed similar issues with Gauguin as they worked virtually side by side at Pont-Aven in Brittany during that same summer. And, in fact, after the completion of the famous Jacob painting in the autumn, Gauguin set off to Arles for his equally famous stay with van Gogh which culminated in the tormented Vincent cutting off a part of his ear.
Deeply rooted in a northern protestant tradition of implying biblical content from the handling of the naturally observed, van Gogh felt disturbed before Gauguin's Jacob with its explicit subject matter and complete liberty in depicting time and space. But he also immensely admired the intellect that conceived it. Gauguin he knew was 'a very great artist' (Letter 562) and he could learn from him: 'Gauguin, in spite of himself and in spite of me, has more or less proved to me that it is time I was varying my work a little ... it ... does me good to have such intelligent company ... and to see him work' (Letter 563). Shortly afterwards van Gogh painted his most powerful version of The Sower with its clear compositional tribute to Gauguin of a gnarled and bent tree slanting across the canvas, directly translated from his Jacob painting, but it also suggested a rebuke in that its biblical allusion (Mark 4:3-8; Matthew 13:37-43) was submerged into the representation of the ordinary experience of sowing seed in the earth.
A religious artist
Despite illness and institutionalization, van Gogh's work, while adumbrating death, surprisingly showed renewed vigour in the nineteen months of life that remained to him after Gauguin's departure from Arles. Gauguin, for his part, regarding van Gogh tenderly, nevertheless continued on his essentially more inclusive way of thinking. And, as such he is the more religious of the two artists - not of course, by virtue of personal piety, of which he was totally devoid, but which nevertheless he respected in van Gogh.
Gauguin is religious in the root sense of re-ligare, binding together parts of a whole that are separated. This is the essential key to his art and the ranging of his vast intellect. Whether by means of Christian or Tahitian theology, he brings together and unifies a world of the senses with a suggestion of what is powerful beyond them. To Bernard, he wrote in September 1889: 'You know how much I admire what Degas does and yet I sometimes feel that he lacks a sense of the "beyond" a feeling heart'. Yet he was no mystic, nor did his art ever become mystical in a way that the art of Maurice Denis and artists surrounding him did.
Yellow Christ, finished in September 1889, exactly a year after Jacob, shows Gauguin again expressing an inner reality by outward means. Three Breton women kneel around the foot of a cross in the autumnal countryside, a cross with a yellow, sun-like, eternal Christ uniting heaven and earth. Here, observation is united with the imagination to call forth a 'fiction that tells the truth'. That Gauguin goes beyond Wilhelm Leibl's formal and external approach of observing piety as depicted in his well-known painting, Three Women in Church (1882) is quite clear when we see that Gauguin removes the figures of the Breton women and places himself in proximity to the yellow Christ in his self-portrait of early 1890. No saintly image of the artist is projected, however, because the other half of Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ is overshadowed by the image of the artist as a grotesque head taken from one of his ceramics.
By the late 1890s it becomes clear that Gauguin detested the Roman Catholic Church. He abhorred the bourgeois morality of the clerics that he felt harmed people and had little to do with genuine Christianity. His vehemence toward the Church as expressed in his unpublished text, L' Esprit moderne et le catholicisme (1896-1897) is genuinely savage! This text also shows that Gauguin was biblically very literate, very positive toward Christ, and confused by the incongruities of his own life. He admitted it was like 'a Chinese puzzle'. The cri de coeur is clear. How can the Bible be reconciled with the methods of modern science? Nearly 100 years later the problems and issues have not gone away. The tensions and questions that Gauguin (and van Gogh) faced must still be squarely faced today by anyone with a religious perspective seriously interested in art.
The central influence of Gauguin, the great primitive, on modern art has long been acknowledged. Major figures as different as Picasso and Matisse are almost unthinkable without the force of this great personality. But take another look, especially if you see The Art of Paul Gauguin in Paris. The great Post-impressionist you are viewing may very well be the first great Post-modernist!
Published in Third Way, April 1989