About Paul Gauguin

Definitive Exile (1895-1903)

On 18 February 1895, before leaving Europe for good, Gauguin once again put all his current stock of work up for sale. Unhappily, his attempt to repeat his success of four years earlier foundered and most of the items failed to meet the asking price. Degas, who had already bailed Gauguin out on previous occasions, bought several works, including Vahine no te vi and the Olympia (copy after Manet). this continued expression of faith must have reassured Gauguin that he had not completely missed his direction, even though he was bitterly disappointed by the general outcome.

In seeking to publicize his sale, as before Gauguin had enlisted the services of a prominent literary figure, inviting August Strindberg, the Swedish dramatist (whose plays were currently being discovered by Parisian audiences), to write a preface to the sale catalogue. Strindberg wrote back declining the invitation, giving his reasons for feeling unequal to the task and trying to explain what it was h found so disconcerting about Gauguin's barbarous work. this unease of the highly civilized European was, of course, grist to Gauguin's mill and he published the letter as it stood, with his own reply, which sought to answer some of the Strindberg's doubts. 'The Eve of your civilized imagination makes you and almost all of its misogynists, the Eve of primitive times who, in my studio, startles you now, may one day smile on you less bitterly. ... The Eve I have painted - and she alone - can remain naturally naked before us. Yours, in this simple state, could not move without a feeling of shame, and too beautiful, perhaps, would provoke misfortune and suffering.; He extended the argument by drawing a linguistic analogy, comparing the crude, simple language spoken by his Eve with the polished, inflected languages of Europe. 

Gauguin was in no mood to heed the advice or warnings of others, he felt he had nothing to gain by staying any longer in Europe, no hope of a reunion with his family, and no will to continue the struggle for existence in a hostile environment, a struggle that was so much more bearable in the gentle climate and friendly atmosphere of Tahiti. In deciding to return there a second time, he was no longer thinking of a future triumphant return to Paris, nor was he thinking of the important work he still had to do. What he had already achieved would suffice to carry his name into posterity - in any case his name had already been raised to the stars. For the time being, his appetite for painting was sated and he told Daniel de Monfreid that henceforth he would concentrate entirely on sculpture, although this resolve did not last. In effect, Gauguin's motives for leaving a second time wee essentially negative ones: a renunciation of Europe's decadence, an evasion of personal responsibilit4es, as well as an inability to back down from the elaborately constructed image of himself as rebel, outsider and primitive, an image which had ensured him a cult following on the streets of Paris or Brittany, but had effectively closed off the possibility of resuming serious, private working habits in France. Not least among the reasons for his deep disillusionment with the Paris art scene was the fact that on the Meroure de France of June 1895 his own integrity had been called into question by Emile Bernard in a swingeing attack. An acrimonious exchange of correspondence ensured in which the validity of his reputation was the chief bone of contention. For once, rather than entering the fray, Gauguin allowed others to speak for him and took a gentlemanly way not by quitting the scene.   

With Gauguin, calculation only went so far and then impulse took over. He had explained to his wife back in 1889, 'You know me, rather I calculate, (and I calculate well) or I don't calculate at all, heart in hand, eyes front, I take up the fight bare-breasted.' Had he planned things more judiciously, so his first biographer Jean de Rotonchamp was to claim, Gauguin could have ensured himself a regular income for the remaining years of his life. Ambrose Vollard, who was just on Cezanne and the Nabis, had made a few modest purchases from Gauguin's sale and would have been prepared to support Gauguin with a steady retainer in return for a regular submission of work. Instead, when he left Paris Gauguin had struck up only the slimmest of financial deals with a picture dealer named Levy, and agreement that was quickly reneged on, to Gauguin's frustration and furry. he tried subsequently to launch a syndicate of fifteen patrons who would each invest in him to the tune of 150 francs a year, but from a distance and with no precedent to point to, this arrangement failed to get off the ground. Back in Tahiti, extravagant spending soon exhausted Gauguin's savings. On arrival in September 1891 he had set about having a spacious, purpose-built dwelling constructed at Punaauia, sparing no expense on the installation of a studio. Already byh November 1895, the begging letters to De Monfreid had resumed and Gauguin was once more complaining of his health.

The reason the two-year injury of his ankle refused to heal was not just the tropical climate, as Gauguin thought, but the advancement of syphilis, diagnosed in 1895, which contributed, with his existing heart condition, to the breakdown of his health. In his last years, Gauguin's inability was severely restricted and he endured considerable pain and stretches of time in hospital, but his enforced confinement to a studio-based practice merely exaggerated an already established working pattern. Earlier ideas were developed and recycled as Gauguin's imaginative reconstruction of a Tahitian past turned more and more in on itself. However, the revitalizing periods of contact with nature were lacking in these later years. For intellectual stimulus Gauguin relief heavily on the Mercure de France, sent regularly free of charge from Paris. He had taken shares in Mercure shortly before his final departure in 1895, and there is no doubt that he devoured its contents, it was one of his few means of keeping abreast of happenings in the art scene and in the wider world. But the gap left on the Mercure staff by the untimely death of Aurier had been filled by a young and pretentious poet, Camille Mauclair, whose art criticism was decidedly unfriendly towards Gauguin. As a shareholder, Gauguin did not hesitate to voice his grievances about this inconsistency to the Mercure's editor, Alfred Valltte. In truth, by the mid-1890s the Mercure occupied a central establishment position and was no longer the foremost mouthpiece for avant-garde ideas. It had been superseded in that role by La Revue Blanche, an altogether more eclectic, anarchic review which championed the Nabis and the new star of Paris, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It was in La Revue Blanche that Morice published a first edition of Noa Noa without illustrations, in November and December 1897, a move that annoyed Gauguin.

No painting was done during those last few months of 1895, but the wooden cylinder with Christ on the Cross dates from this period. It is a strange combination of the most traditional of Christian symbols with patterns taken from a Marquesan war-club. Its general shape and elaborate surface decoration probably reflect the fact that Gauguin had recently seen an excellent collection of Maori artefacts in the museum in Auckland New Zealand, where he stopped on his journey out. The museum had on show examples of Maori dwellings, with their richly carved lintels and structural posts, as well as free-standing wooden statues of ancestral chiefs, at least one of which turns up in a later painting of Gauguin's. He made sketches of some of the abstract geometric motifs, and in adorning this own huts in Tahiti and later in the Marquesas, he followed some of the decorative precedents of the Maoris. The Wooden cylinder stands half a metre high and was obviously worked on over a long period. In its use of hybrid religious motifs, it possibly indicates Gauguin's familiarity with similarly hybrid symbolic carvings from Brittany, where local craftsmen had incised their own Christian iconography into druidic menhirs. The carving can also be seen as an attempted synthesis of Gauguin's 'primitive' artistic sources. Once again, the symbol of Christ's crucifixion had a probably autobiographical significance; Christopher Gray has pointed out that the carved hand and foot which appear on one side of the cylinder refer to the present source of Gauguin's physical suffering, his infected ankle.

The increasing complexity of idea and elaboration of surface decoration one finds in Gauguin's woodcuts and carvings also characterize the group of major paintings he produced between 1896 and 1898. One witnesses a certain progression in complexity of one compares the two large nudes of 1896 and 1897, Te arii vahine and Nevermore, O Taiiti, and the two mural-like friezes D'Ou venons-uous? Que sommes-nou? Ouallons-nou? and Faa Iheihe of 1897 and 1898 respectively. whereas Gauguin's first single-figure nude, Manao tupapau, had been sparked off by an observed moment of terror, these later nudes were more laboriously and artfully conceived. The fist borrows a pose from one of the numerous Venuses of the German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach, as well as loosely paying homage once again to Manet's Olympia. The idea behind the image seems equally convoluted: Gauguin explained that the reclining nude was a queen, and he had included 'two old men near the big tree, arguing about the tree of knowledge'. this commentary suggests that in painting his primitive nudes, so 'free from shame', Gauguin was nevertheless self-consciously aware of the great tradition of nude painting in the West, and such favourite themes of Renaissance artists at Susannah and the Elders. The motif of the whispering, huddled figures was one of those Gauguin repeatedly recycled, in works of all media. they reappear in the shadowy middle plane of D'Ou venons nous?, and the presence of another, somewhat sinister, brooding couple seem to torment the reclining nude in Nevermore, whose eyes express unease. More generally the idea of two figures conjoined in conversation, which was extensively explored during Gauguin's first stay in Tahiti, crops up everywhere in his late work: one of the last, most beautiful mutations is the traced monotype of 1902, where the figures are reduced to heads and no longer appear sinister or conspiratorial, anxious or brooding, but serene and self-contained.

Gauguin congratulated himself on the rich and sonorous coloration he had achieved in Te arii vahine, which he repeated in D'Ou venon-nous?, the dark blues and greens giving a jewel-like prominence to the clusters of bright reds, oranges and pinks that are so characteristic of Gauguin's Tahitian palette. A more muted, sombre note pervades Nevermore, in keeping with its reference to the lugubrious refrain of the raven in Edgar Allan Poe's poem. Gauguin compensates for the elaborate background, where each decorative detail seems charged with significance, by the simple monumentality of the heavy-limbed nude, whose powerful presence owes much to bold modelling. As a painter, Gauguin never altogether renounced three-dimentionality for flatness, despite Cezanne's complaint that he 'only painted Chinese images'. The colour range of Faa Iheihe departs will further from reality, with its rich yellows and golds harking back to the gilded backgrounds of early Italian paintings, much as its frieze arrangement echoes Botticelli's Primavera, a reproduction of which Gauguin had pinned to the wall of his hut. the progression towards an ever more cluttered surface reaches its extreme here; plants, fruit, foliage and animals seem to sere a purely decorative function. 

Unquestionably the most important canvas of Gauguin's alter career was C'Ou venon-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou allons-mous? which he painted at the end of 1897. That year, financial worries and poor health, as well as the news of his daughter Aline's tragic death, brought him to the point of despair. he determined to commit suicide if nature did not do the job for him. Paradoxically, the personal satisfaction he had gained from his most recent canvases had rekindled his ambitions as a mural painter, and he determined to produce one last masterpiece on a huge scale, a work that would serve as a fitting monument after his death. He ordered a quantity of paints and brushes from De Monfreid in Paris, and when they finally arrived he set to work on a canvas almost four metres wide, the largest he had ever tackled. He worked quickly, so he claimed, by day and night, using large brushes to cover the surface of the broad sacking, not bothering with sketches or a cartoon but painting by instinct in a state of heightened tension. After a month the canvas was completed to his satisfaction. Gauguin then took himself up into the mountains, swallowed a large quantity of arsenic and waited to die. the quantity was perhaps too great because his body rejected it and although he suffered terrible pains and cramps he escaped death once more. Returning to his studio, he remained for many days immobile on his bed, contemplating the great work he had accomplished. It is quite possible that only at this stage did he paint in the portentious inscription; Gauguin later explained that it was intended as a signature, rather than a title, a philosophical reflection prompted by the picture. By July 1898 when he decided to send it to be exhibited and sold in France, curiosity about its future fate had helped to dispel his previous mood of morbid hopelessness.

Gauguin give numerous lengthy accounts of the production and meaning of this painting, firstly to De Monfreid. some of the claims he made about its execution do not stand up to scrutiny, such as his insistence on having produced the whole thing without forethought or preparatory sketches. He wished to distance himself from and avoid comparison with the elaborate preparatory procedures of the academically trained artist. One almost completely resolved, squared-up sketch survives, done in watercolour and sanguine on tracing paper. Moreover, several of the figures had their origin in earlier works. The largest standing central figure, plucking fruit from a tree, was derived from a small sketchbook copy he had made of a drawing in the Louvre then thought to be by Rembrandt. The arrangement of the numerous figures is in a broad frieze, some standing, some wseated. All are self-contained, and apparently unconnected with one another by any coherent narrative though four of them stare out at the spectator interrogatingly. As usual, Gauguin deliberately took liberties with anatomy and perspective, especially in the central seated figure seen from behind. His composition has many similarities, though, with the murals of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, whose large painting for the museum at Rouen, Inter Artes et Naturam, exhibited at the Salon in 1890, would have been familiar to him.

As early as 1891, Aurier had drawn attention to Gauguin's potential as a mural decorator, calling for someone to offer him the chance to paint walls. When Gauguin sought such an official commission in 1894, with Dega's backing, he was rebuffed. Nevertheless, there was a vogue for decorative mural painting in the 1890s, involving artists as diverse as the Nabis Denis and Vuillard, the Neo-Impressionists Cross and Signac and the more conservative Salon painters Henry Lerolle and Albert Bernard. Gauguin cannot have failed to notice the growing importance of decorative schemes at the exhibitions he visited while in Europe, and among his own followers in Brittany; although on a much smaller scale, Seruiser's triptych of 1892-3 has important similarities in subject and coloration to Gauguin's later composition. For all these artists the example of Puvis de Chavannes had been an inspiration, his precedent almost inescapable. Taking their cue from Puvis's work, the themes most artists favoured tended towards the general and allegorical rather than the specific or realistic, in keeping with the anti-naturalistic mood of the times. this did snot prevent a traditional, golden-age theme taking on a modern political significance in the hands of an artist like Signac: Au Temps d'Harmonie (1894-5) was a projection of an idyllic future when anarchy would reign supreme. In so far as Gauguin looked instead to an imagined past, to a primitive idyll where man and nature had existed in harmony, his painting could be said to express a more conservative, reactionary standpoint. thee wee numerous possible literary sources for the questions posed by Gauguin's composition. the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus had not been serialized in the Mercure de France and it gave prominence to very similar metaphysical problems. 

Gauguin was extremely anxious that his great work should be presented to the right people under the most favourable circumstances, an organizing task as usual allotted to De Monfreid. Having travelled half way round the world rolled up, the canvas needed some attention before it was stretched and framed, finally going on view at Vollard's gallery from November to December 1898, with a dozen or so smaller Tahitian works, among them Faa Iheihe and Varaoumati. Gauguin suggested the names of various influential people who he felt should be invited to see themk in cluding previously supportive critics such as Roger marx and Octave Mirbeau. perhaps in deference to Gauguin's bitter complaints about Camille Mauclair, instead Anmdre Fontainas was sent along to review the show for the Mercure.

*     *     *

In his last years, Gauguin's output of paintings dwindled, especially between 1899 and 1901 when he resorted to taking a desk job for the Office of Public Works and Surveys in Papeete to make ends meet, and also became involved in journalism for local satirical newspapers. He edited his own satirical journal Le Sourire and contributed lengthy polemical articles to another, Les Guepes. He entered the fray of colonial politics with no particularly consistent axe to grind and at various times one finds him attacking the Protestant missionaries, pointing out the ineptitudes and corruption of the bureaucracy and legal system (he was incensed at the governor's refusal to investigate fully his own grievances about petty thefts committed by natives), or defending the interests of the French settlers against the increasing economic influence of the Chinese immigrants. he fulminated against war-mongering moves on the world stage, commanding an example of judicious French diplomatic policy in the Sudan, for instance, because it had averted bloodshed. None of these later writings suggests he held the native Tahitian population in particularly high esteem, or that he had any misgivings about the morality or usefulness of colonization. Much as a tone of brooding pessimism underlies the superficially paradisical world he conjured up through his art, Gauguin's journalistic writings are pervaded by a world-weary irony which was evidently appreciated by a small, select audience among Tahiti's colonial population.

After 1901 a new arrangement with Vollard ensured Gauguin a steadier income, and at last he was able to move to the Marquesas islands, still further, so he hoped, from civilization. There is a loss of focus and vitality in much of the later painting, due in part, no doubt, to Gauguin's failing eyesight and general health. However, the move to Hiva-Oa produced something of a renewal in his creative energies and in some paintings he equalled the ambition and stylistic force of his previous work. Contes barbares, for example, is a major achievement in which the metamorphosed features of Meyer de Haan reappear from the past, a sinister presence overlooking the two figures of Tahitian women, one in the pose of Buddha. Gauguin even embraced some entirely new subjects at this time: Cavaliers sur la plage, for example, with its undisguised debt to Degas; and he returned to painting landscapes and still-lives, some inspired by the exotic flora and fauna of Polynesia, others, such as Nature morte avec 'L'Esperance de Puvis, nostalgic evocations of the European culture he had supposedly left behind. Gauguin's last letters to France by no means lack optimism, nor had he lost interest in the progress of his works on the art markets of Europe. Moreover, he continued to experiment at the technical level, concentrating once again on the medium of monotype in which, with no false modesty, he felt himself to have made such revolutionary strides that his achievements would have to be noticed in Europe. the greatest advantage of monotype for Gauguin was that it avoided the need for a printing press. Perhaps in deference to the warnings of Fontainas and Natanson, he henceforth steered clear of deep metaphysical problems in his art, confining them instead to his copious writings. The imagery he explored in such prints as Femme Tahitienne accroupie vue de dos, another version of which the sculptor Maillol owned, was simpler, more archetypal and monumental, based round single figures and family groups.

One gets the feeling that in his last, lonely years Gauguin resorted to writing as a substitute for the companionship, conversation and exchange of ideas he lacked. Much of the autobiographical material had a propaganda purpose, a setting straight of the record, a getting back at the critics, a covering over of the tracks. He hoped to see his various writings collected together and published before his death, but it was probably just as well for his reputation that no such publication appeared. His recollections of his contemporaries are not always fair, affectionate or illuminating, but it is interesting to find his admission of indebtedness to Pissarro, whose importance, Gauguin argued, had been unjustly forgotten by so many of his followers. More often than not, Gauguin's ideas seem to have been sparked off by an article read in the Mercure de France, and the diversity of topics he touched on, from art and education to religion and politics, as well as the specific questions he discussed, correspond closely to matters dealt with in the relevant monthly issue of the journal. His pieces ear witness to a restless, energetic, intellect but they lack organization, coherence and consistency.

Gauguin died in 1903, in ignominious circumstances. In France three were often false reports that he had been stricken by leprosy. having fallen out with the local bishop, he was denied a Christian burial, and because some of his works were deemed indecent they were burned. the inventory of his remaining effects which were sold at auction reveals his colonial life to have been by no means as impoverished or primitive as he liked to maintain. De Monfreid arranged a small exhibition of Gauguin's work in late 1903 in Paris, but the major retrospective was held in 1906 at the Salon d'Automne. Although Morice feared that the retrospective was held too soon for people to view Gauguin's work objectively, unclouded by the legends and rumours associated with his name, he need not have worried. for a whole new generation of young artists in Paris, such as Henri Matisse, Andre Derain and Raoul Dufy, the comprehensive survey of Gauguin's achievements could not have been better time. Their enthusiasm for his bold, unnaturalistic use of colour and decorative, simplicity fully justified Gauguin's confident prediction that his work in itself was less important than its consequences would be: the liberation of the next generation from the trammels of naturalism. Gauguin's special contribution to the history of art was inseparable from his biography: the introduction of exotic, 'primitive' elements into the stylistic and iconographic repertoire. This has proved to be unequally enduring aspect of his legacy to the artists of the twentieth century. did Gauguin but know it, even before his death a copy of the newly published, illustrated edition of Noa Noa had come into the hands of a young Spaniard exiled in Paris, Pablo Picasso, and was being carefully and productively annotated.


The extraordinary events of Gauguin's life made him a legend in his own time. Far from seeking oblivion in his island retreat, he lived out his last years as a focus of attention, albeit at a great distance from his native land. though he died in unenviable circumstances, he congratulated himself on having lived his life in the way he had chosen rather than according to the dictates of society. for this he was condemned by Pissarro and others; in their view, not only had Gauguin evaded his responsibilities, he had failed to produce a social art that could be understood by ordinary people. We have seen that Gauguin by no means escaped the conditioning of the historical times in which he lived, indeed, his decision to exploit the tropics in the way that he did would have been virtually unthinkable at any other point in history. hen again, the problems he set himself as an artist, how to abstract from nature, how to get at the intangible idea through material form, how to convey meanings mysteriously, by means of parables, can only be understood in the light of his involvement with literary symbolism. Gauguin owed an enormous debt to the support and endeavours of others, and the only reason he could make his claim on posterity with such certainty was because he had undertaken in union with others the enterprise of freeing art from obedience to natural appearances. If at the formal level his example was of crucial importance to the coming generation of Fauves and Expressionists, so too were the examples of Van Gogh, Signac and Cezanne.

It was undoubtedly Gauguin's belief in the ultimate triumph of his supreme acts of individualism that sustained him through the bad times. This belief came about by degrees, by repeated failures to make a success of group ventures. it manifested itself in a suspicion of all joint enterprises, and eventually in scorn and rejection of democratic society as a whole. However much Gauguin tried to play down the literary aspects of his worked, it was no coincidence that his appeal was always felt as keenly by writers as by painters. the romance of his life and the way it carried over into his art intrigued and inspired literary men from Huysmans to Mirbeau and to Maugham. Not for nothing did he enact the idle daydream of the Western businessman, an escapist dream that is still potent in the 1980 even though Gauguin's Tahiti, the Tahiti of legend, has been irretrievably sacrificed to the exigencies of a nuclear age.

Tahiti - The Final Years Of Paul Gauguin

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