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

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