Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Dug-out (1896)

The first year of Gauguin’s second visit to Tahiti was probably the happiest of his life. Having given up trying to please a European audience with over-stylised depictions of visionary scenes, Gauguin attempted to provide a genuine insight into Tahitian culture. Living in the jungle amongst natives as yet untouched by modern civilisation, Gauguin – now the proud father of a Tahitian child - had a unique opportunity to record their daily life.

In the “Dug-out” Gauguin depicts the simple life of a Tahitian family. They are contented, self-sufficient and live in harmony with their surroundings. They drink out of wooden bowls while relaxing next to their rudimentary canoe. The axe in the foreground implies that they have just constructed the canoe by hollowing-out timber cut from the forest. They have worked together as a family; even the toddler has contributed, learning to harvest the natural environment at an early age. Their expressions are completely relaxed. Having completed their labours, they are totally at peace with each other and the world. The scene is lit by the golden glow of a glorious sunset. The boat - traditionally a means of escaping danger – has become a symbol of self-sufficiency.

In the “Dug-out” Gauguin celebrates the joys of family life through the depiction of an everyday scene. Gauguin, whose pictures tend to reflect his own state of mind, finally appears to have achieved inner peace.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Not Working (1896)

By the time Gauguin returned to Tahiti, he had accepted that he would never achieve material success. He no longer attempted to adapt his Tahitian pictures to European tastes and increasingly painted monumental canvasses which were virtually unsaleable. Gauguin now abandoned his stereotypical depictions of exotic Tahitian women and embarked on a genuine exploration of Tahitian culture.

Gauguin had previously presented the Tahitians as a primitive people who lived in unity with nature as God had intended. He had described Tahiti as a paradise and compared it to the Garden of Eden. European civilisation, he had argued, was a corruption of man’s true nature and the product of human sin. Now he no longer portrayed the clash of cultures in such a fantastical manner but concentrated instead on genuine differences between European and Tahitian values.

“Not working” contrasts the easy-going Tahitian culture with the European work-ethic. Although Gauguin has accepted that he will never prosper as an artist he remains prolific and can not bear idleness. In this picture he contrasts his own attitudes with those of the two Tahitians lazily smoking a pipe. They are not ashamed of their idleness. There are no tools to prompt them to work. Their hut is empty and they possess only the bare essentials. They take pleasure in inactivity just like the dog sitting in the doorway and the cat snoozing at their feet. They are instinctive free-spirited creatures unlike Gauguin, a restless soul, who is portrayed wearing a white robe and gazing into the hut from a distance.

Gauguin no longer views the Tahitian lifestyle as evidence of man’s unity with nature. He simply accepts that different cultures have different belief systems. The Tahitians are more in tune with their natural instincts because they are less self-conscious than Europeans.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Nativity (1896)

On his return to Tahiti, Gauguin was given a tour of the island by the French colonial governor. The capital Papeete was beginning to resemble a typical European town. A power station had been constructed and there was now electric lighting, paved roads, a sewage system and a telephone exchange. Gauguin retreated to the jungle where he lived in a primitive hut, and took a fourteen year-old lover whom he infected with syphilis.

Gauguin's letters home described the natives as gentle and naive “to the point of stupidity”. Not content with one teenage lover, Gauguin seduced several others and fathered at least one child. He boasted to his friends about the infatuated girls who came to his bed “as if possessed”.

Having been cruelly rejected by the European art establishment, Gauguin found solace in Tahitian hospitality. He never once considered himself as a corrupting influence. Instead he claimed to be living in harmony with nature, arguing that the carefree innocence of his Tahitian hosts reflected the true human condition untainted by the laws and morals of the supposedly civilised world.

In“Nativity” a Tahitian girl lies horizontally on a simple bed in the foreground. Her halo indicates that she is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her crude hut resembles a stable and is shared with the livestock in the background. Her newly born child is held by the nurse who sits at her bedside. The child's halo identifies him as Jesus. Gauguin, the child's father, appears as a shadowy figure in the background. Gauguin is no longer the tormented or martyred Christ but God the Father and compares his artistic creativity with the power of divine creation.

The “Nativity” is an optimistic picture. Gauguin appears to have found contentment in fatherhood and the adoration of his teenage lovers.

Image Source: The Yorck Project

Friday, March 9, 2007

Self-Portrait (1896)

Cushioned by his uncle’s legacy, Gauguin attempted to become a fashionable figure on the Paris art scene. However, he was still very much the rebel and courted controversy by dressing in an outlandish manner and setting up home with Anna, a Javanese prostitute, notorious for dancing naked with a monkey at gentleman’s parties. Gauguin’s own family were scandalised. His estranged wife Mette and their five children did not see a penny of Gauguin’s legacy. Indeed Gauguin’s relations with his family deteriorated even further after he discovered that Mette had intercepted payments due to him.

Gauguin failed to re-establish himself in the Paris art world. Although he still had admirers, the artist’s colony which he had previously dominated at Pont-Aven had long since dispersed. On revisiting the area, Gauguin brawled with some sailors and broke his ankle. While he was hospitalised, Anna stole most of his possessions, and found another lover. Gauguin was later convicted of a public order offence. Shortly afterwards Gauguin lost a legal action for the restitution of several pictures which he claimed had been sold without his permission. In an attempt to revive his flagging fortunes, Gauguin held another auction of his work. One of his closest friends, the dramatist August Strindberg, refused to write an introduction to the catalogue. The event was a complete disaster and Gauguin sold hardly anything.

It was against this background that Gauguin returned to Tahiti. Once again he slipped into a deep depression and found solace in self-pity, claiming the status of a persecuted martyr. In “Self-Portrait”, a gaunt and resigned Gauguin gazes out of the canvass. Once again he accuses the world of unjustly failing to appreciate his talent. However, unlike previous self-portraits Gauguin now appears resigned to his fate. The background is no longer bright and decorative but impenetrably dark and haunted by the vague outlines of two ghostly spectres. Gauguin now accepts that he will never achieve material success and has settled for the role of a visionary martyr.

Image Source: The Yorck Project

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Cellist (1894)

Although Gauguin was an intensely ambitious man who desired material success, he flatly refused to compromise his artistic integrity. Gauguin did not prosper in Tahiti. Indeed he became seriously ill and returned to France in 1893. Although his Paris agent had sold many of the pictures shipped home from Tahiti, Gauguin had difficulty in collecting the money. Fortunately his uncle had left Gauguin a legacy which he promptly invested in a fashionable apartment and a public exhibition of his work.

Gauguin, welcomed as something of a celebrity by his fellow artists, was ridiculed by the critics. They dismissed his paintings as childish and condemned his simplified abstract forms as poorly drawn, sensational and self-indulgent. Gauguin’s art failed to satisfy the public appetite for a distant exotic paradise and his exhibition was a total failure.

It was against this background that Gauguin painted the “Cellist”, a portrait of an unknown musician, Upaupa Sckneklud, who is so similar in appearance to Gauguin that the picture may in fact be a self-portrait. Gauguin captures the alert intensity of an artist in mid-performance and implies a vigorous sense of movement though an ornamental background which emphasises the contrast between the static cello and the musician's tense posture.

In the “Cellist” Gauguin again explores the theory of synaesthesia by attempting to convey the idea of music through visual art. The picture was well received; indeed it was one of Gauguin’s most popular works to date. If Gauguin had stayed in Paris and produced more of the same then he would undoubtedly have prospered.

The “Cellist” is in many ways a typical Gauguin picture. A dominant cropped foreground figure is combined with an abstract background intended to provoke a pyschological reaction. The "Cellist" does not compromise Gauguin's professed artistic principles. It simply substitutes a sophisticated male musician in place of the usual "primitive" Tahitian model.

So why does Gauguin fail to capitalise on this success? It seems that he had a depressive side to his character which even his old "friend" Emile Schuffenecker was unable to understand. Despite having scored a considerable success, Gauguin once again drifts into relative poverty and isolation. Why would such a shrewd man act so foolishly?

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Woman with a Flower (1893)

Gauguin’s female models, whether Breton peasants or Tahitian natives, are generally depicted as instinctive and superstitious creatures. This may have reflected Gauguin’s own attitude to women; however in the case of his Breton models he claimed to be a primitivist probing beneath the veneer of civilisation. Gauguin implied the rustic backwardness of his Breton peasants by dressing them in traditional costume. However, the nakedness of his Tahitian models sufficiently indicates their supposedly primitive natures.

Gauguin has been criticised for racial stereotyping. Indeed most of his models lack subjective characteristics and he rarely attempts to explore their individual personalities, appearing entirely insensitive in this regard. It might even be argued that Gauguin was completely self-obsessed. His relationship with his own family and his"friendships" with Vincent Van Gogh and Emile Schuffenecker seem to support this view.

“Woman with a Flower” is a rare sensitive portrait of a fully-clothed and dignified Tahitian woman holding a flower, the symbol of life and fertility. Gauguin does not contrast his model with a second supernatural motif or incorporate her within a harsh pattern of abstract lines. Instead he captures her melancholy nature through simple direct portraiture.

Although Gauguin demonstrates intuitive sensitivity in “Woman with a Flower”, many critics dismiss the painting as yet further evidence of his own self-obsessive nature. This is because the background has been recycled from Gauguin's own 1889 self-portrait in which he portrayed himself as a melancholy genius. It is therefore possible that the picture reflects his own mood rather than any genuine emotion on the part of his model.

Image Source: The Yorck Project

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Tahitian Landscape (1893)

Gauguin attempted to develop new techniques in Tahiti. His basic style had changed very little during the previous five years. Many of his canvasses combine a looming foreground figure with a deep perspective and an equally significant background figure. The foreground and background figures are skilfully combined and the perspective is occasionally distorted in order to emphasise a certain characteristic (e.g. the timidity of Emile Schuffenecker in the Schuffenecker family).

“Tahitian Landscape” is one of the few pictures in which Gauguin dispenses with a foreground motif and focuses entirely on the background. Having resisted the temptation to follow his normal pattern of composition, he becomes even more reliant on his other trademarks such as the use of intense and unnatural colour to create a rhythmic unity and the combination of abstract and realist forms.

The result is a superbly atmospheric painting with a beautiful pattern of intense colours. The picture retains a certain tension appropriate to the primitive natural world through its combination of realist and abstract forms. Whereas the palm trees, the clouds and the distant peak are clearly recognisable as such, the foothills and the other trees are merely suggested. He also creates a harsh contrast between the various elements of the composition by applying an incorrect perspective to the palm trees. This heightens the tension of the picture and draws the viewer’s eye across the canvass towards the distant mountain peak.

Although Gauguin is experimenting with a different style of composition he remains obsessed with his favourite theme: the unity of man with nature. The barely perceptible traveller, who wearily balances a heavy load on his shoulders, is merged into the vastness of nature. His dog assumes an equal if not greater significance. The clossionist division of the painting into simplified blocks of colour implies a natural order where everything has its place. Man is an insignificant and temporary presence in a monumental landscape.

Image Source: The Yorck Project

Monday, March 5, 2007

We shall not go to market today (1892)

One of Gauguin’s favourite devices was the juxtaposition of two contrasting motifs, one from everyday life and the other from the religious, mystic or supernatural world. The purpose of this device was to suggest a character’s inner personality or to depict a recently experienced vision or state of mind. While he was in Tahiti Gauguin sought other ways to achieve the same effect. He was particularly fascinated by Egyptian imagery and studied photographs of the pharaoh’s tombs.

He believed that an additional psychological dimension could be implied without incorporating a second motif if his figures were placed within Egyptian-style friezes. After all Egyptian art was so alien to European culture that it provoked a sense of the supernatural.

“We shall not go to market today” is Gauguin’s attempt to emphasise the indolence of gossiping Tahitian women through the use of Egyptian imagery. Instead of emphasising their instinctively idle natures by inserting a second mystical motif he uses a style of painting which implies some deeper psychological dimension.

However, Gauguin was uncertain whether he had achieved the desired effect. He was not convinced that his figure’s static poses sufficiently expressed the inner reality of their hopeless lethargy. Although he did not divide his canvass between two distinct motifs he felt the need to provide an additional clue by inserting the contrasting figures of two labourers sweating in the background.

Gauguin disliked this painting. He appreciated that a composition which expressed inaction through a markedly static pose might appear unduly stilted. He was also dissatisfied with the poses of the women who appear entirely divorced from their surroundings. Shortly after he completed this picture Gauguin abandoned his attempt to incorporate Egyptian imagery within his art.

Image Source: The Yorck Project

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Joyeusete (1892)

Gauguin explored the theory of synaesthesia in Tahiti. It fitted his own ideas about man’s unity with nature. Modern civilisation had preached that man possesses a soul belonging to another dimension but Gauguin’s observation of primitive people lead him to believe that human existence is just another aspect of the natural environment.

According to the theory of synaesthesia, a work of art should unite and not divide artistic genres. A visual painting should imply sound and movement as if it were also a dance or a drama. This theory appealed to Gauguin who saw an analogy with his own belief that man and nature should be perceived as a single entity and not as distinct forms of existence. In “Joyeuseté” he makes an ambitious attempt to combine both these ideas.

Two Tahitian girls kneel in a decorative Tahitian landscape. The abstract patterns created by the various planes of glowing colours blend the figures into their natural environment. The girls are as much a part of the forest as the tree which provides them with shade and the dog which forages in the foreground. The girl on the left is playing a flute and three semi-naked figures perform a tribal dance in the background. The graceful lines which delineate the contrasting blocks of colour, the sloping haunch of the dog, and the sensual curves of the plants and branches are intended to provoke a subconscious harmony and rhythm similar to that inspired by music.

Gauguin therefore combines the concept of man’s unity with nature, and the theory that a painting should unite diverse artistic genres.

Image source: The Yorck Project

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Near the Sea (1892)

Even after he had spent several months in Tahiti, Gauguin’s figures still lacked individual characteristics. He seems to have taken the view that one Tahitian girl looked very much like another. In his letters back home he talked of exotic mystical creatures whose very gender is often unclear. He even referred to the “sensuous animal grace of the androgyne”.

Gauguin now believed that human life was an inextricable part of the natural cycle of existence and that a deeper understanding could only be achieved through a complete disregard of gender, class or age. If man was as much a part of nature as the plants and trees it followed that every defining human characteristic was merely a temporary phenomenon of an ever-changing world. If this were the case then human beings did not have a detachable soul capable of surviving in an alternative dimension.

Gauguin explores these theories in “Near the Sea” . He depicts two Tahitian girls in an abstract landscape. The girl in the foreground lowers the towel around her waste as if preparing to submit to some pagan nymph while the second girl raises her hands in a gesture of worship before plunging into the depths.

The figures of the two girls are derived from Gauguin’s personal collection of pagan Celtic symbols. Like most pagan races, the Celts attributed supernatural powers to rivers, forests, mountains and streams. Gauguin uses a rich decorative pattern to incorporate the girls as an integral part of the landscape. The rhythm of the abstract forms is intended to provoke a sub-conscious reaction. Gauguin believed that art should be more than a mere visual experience. The impact of a canvass should inspire all the senses. In the words of Edgar Allen Poe: "A poet should see with his ear".

Image Source: The Yorck Project

Friday, March 2, 2007

Brooding Woman (1891)

After his first few weeks in Tahiti, Gauguin moved to a hut in the jungle approximately 20 miles from the capital Papeete. He took a Tahitian lover, Tahua, and teased her mercilessly. He frequently compared her to a print of Manet’s Olympia, the iconic naked prostitute whose portrait hanged in his studio. It seems that Gauguin preferred the fantasy of a brazan courtesan to the charms of a simple peasant girl.

Gauguin found it difficult to paint during his first few months, claiming that he needed a “gestation period” in order to familiarise himself with his new surroundings. He initially felt overwhelmed by the Tahitian landscape which he described as “capricious” and “incapable of definition”. He also confessed to fits of lethargy and depression.

In his letters back home he portrayed Tahiti as an idyllic paradise. He claimed that idleness was endemic because the Tahitians were too pure and noble to waste their lives in pointless strife. In doing so he hoped to win a new following amongst those who dreamed of a distant paradise while enduring the daily grind of industrial France. However Tahiti, like anywhere else, had its own problems of poverty, alcoholism and disease.

In “Brooding Woman” Gauguin projects his own melancholic mood onto the Tahitian girl who sits cross-legged in the foreground. The girl’s simplified form lacks any distinguishing features. Gauguin is not interested in her individual personality. To him she represents a type. Her hut is empty apart from the half-eaten food which looms large in the foreground. Its open door reveals a glimpse of the landscape beyond. Her apathy is in sharp contrast to the alert dog and mounted peasant in the background. Once again Gauguin combines two contrasting motifs in an unnatural dreamlike setting.

Image Source: The Yorck Project

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Orana Maria (1891)

Gauguin, now a minor celebrity, received an official reception when he arrived in Tahiti. Even the governor turned out to greet him. Gauguin, the artistic rebel, revelled in his role as an ambassador from home. Armed with a letter of recommendation he made the most of his privileges, just like any other European colonist.

Although Gauguin was widely admired as an intrepid adventurer, several of his contemporaries questioned why he felt the need to travel so far. The pointillist Paul Signac considered that Gauguin must be a buffoon if he thought that he could paint black in the north and blue in the south. After all if Gauguin believed in an art of the imagination then surely he had no need to travel half-way around the world.

Despite his professed interest in the native people and their culture, Gauguin ruthlessly exploited them as a novel addition to his old established themes. In “Orana Maria (Hail Mary)” the Breton landscape and peasants of his earlier pictures are replaced by semi-naked Tahitian women in a tropical setting. He imposes Christian motifs like some zealous missionary, placing halos over the Madonna and Child which contribute to the visionary atmosphere created by the unnatural colours and incorrect perspective. The winged angel in the bushes has been recycled from his earlier picture of Jacob wrestling with an angel. On that occasion the pious female figures were Breton peasants.

In “Orana Maria” Gauguin automatically assumes that the native Tahitians have willingly abandoned their own religion for Christianity. In doing so he demonstrates the same arrogance as the colonial officials who imposed their own concepts of civilisation. Far from being a primitivist, Gauguin is merely another colonist.

“Orana Maria” is nonetheless a delightfully colourful and decorative canvass. At this stage Gauguin was more concerned with producing exotic pictures for the European market than with investigating genuine Tahitian culture.

Image Source: The Yorck Project

La Belle Angele (1889)

Gauguin became an enthusiastic member of the symbolist movement while living in Paris. The symbolists were the artistic rebels of their day, challenging conventional beliefs through their dress and behaviour. They naturally attracted attention and thrived on their notoriety. By attaching himself to this movement, Gauguin got himself noticed and received critical acclaim.

A fellow symbolist Albert Aurier, an art journalist for the Mercure de France, stated that Gauguin’s paintings possessed the five principal characteristics required by a work of art since they were ideative, symbolic, synthetic, subjective and decorative. Gauguin felt vindicated. He decided to capitalise on his success by travelling to the French colony of Tahiti. He believed that he could better develop his primitivist style there and win more admirers by despatching exotic canvasses to a fascinated public.

Gauguin was flattered by the praise he received from symbolist writers such as Mallarmé and Verlaine. However, they did not genuinely share his passion for a primitive and visionary style of art. Indeed many symbolists were merely dandies seeking attention. Gauguin later implied that symbolism was an inadequate response to the harshness of life. A few symbolists had promised to accompany Gauguin on his journey of discovery but none actually did.

Shortly before Gauguin departed for Tahiti, he auctioned thirty canvasses and sold all but one. Edgar Degas, the famous impressionist, bought La Belle Angèle. Gauguin’s association with the symbolists had proved extremely profitable. However he was not prepared to compromise his own artistic integrity and by leaving a flourishing career in Paris for the uncertainty of the South Seas, Gauguin demonstrated the sincerity of his own artistic vocation.

In "La Belle Angèle" Gauguin depicts a Breton peasant girl against a decorative background in an unnaturally stiff pose with heavily rouged cheeks and sharp narrow eyes. Her image is juxtaposed with a pagan idol from which she is separated by a heavy circular line.

The painting is a typical Gauguin canvass of the time. He achieves a memorable image by combining two apparently contrasting motifs, thus implying that the respectable peasant girl remains dominated by her primitive instincts.

Image Source: The Yorck Project