Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (Paris 1848–Hiva Oa 1903) emigrated to Peru in 1849, returned to France in 1855. Became a cabin boy in 1865, and was later a second lieutenant in the merchant marine. Served in the navy from 1868 to 1870. Employed as an investment consultant at the Bertin Bank in Paris, 1871. Attended the private Académie Colarossi in Paris in 1872. In 1873 married a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad, with whom he had five children. In 1876 Gauguin was admitted to the Paris Salon and rented his own studio on Montparnasse. Participated in the fourth Impressionist exhibition in 1879. In 1883 gave up his job as an insurance broker and moved to Rouen in 1884, then to Copenhagen, and finally back to Paris in 1885, where he worked putting up posters. Moved to Brittany in 1886, lived in the Pont-Aven art colony. Traveled to Panama and Martinique in 1887. Gauguin exhibited his work at the Paris Exposition of 1889. In 1891 he took ship for Tahiti, and returned to France in 1893. Journeyed to Tahiti a second time in 1895; while there, he lived with Pau’ura, who bore him a son in 1899. In 1901 he moved to Hiva Oa, one of the Marquesa Islands.
The Lost Paradise
"There in the silence of the beautiful tropical nights of Tahiti, I shall be able to listen to the sweet murmuring music of my heart’s beating, in amorous harmony with the mysterious beings of my environment. Free at last . . . I’ll be able to love, to sing and to die.” (Paul Gauguin, before his first trip to Tahiti in 1891)
Thanks to his inventiveness, Gauguin became an authority on art for the most prominent painters: artists from Pont-Aven, such as the Nabis, considered him the prophet of a new kind of art. Pablo Picasso always referred to Gauguin’s work; for instance, he signed his drawing Female Nude in Profile (1902), a hommage à Gauguin, with the name Paul Picasso. In Germany Paula Modersohn-Becker was one of the first to discover Gauguin’s oeuvre, and Die Brücke art group adopted the visionary Gauguin as a role model. In their work, artists such as Max Ernst and Henri Matisse acknowledged Gauguin as a father figure for modern art. Gauguin became popular shortly after his death in 1903, and has remained so to this day—even contemporary artists, such as Peter Doig, refer to this colorful artist and his work.
Over the course of his career as an artist, though, Gauguin struggled in vain for commercial success. He served as a sailor, then later worked as an investment consultant for a bank, and after that, as an insurance broker. After learning how to paint at Camille Pissarro’s side, he finally decided to devote himself exclusively to art in 1883. This marked the beginning of his social descent. A brief, financially lucky phase came about at last in 1900, when he signed a contract with the Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard. This was the first time he was able to make a living with his art. Buffeted by personal tragedies, such as the death of his daughter Alice, Gauguin died alone, a victim of alcoholism, only three years later in his cottage in Atuona on Hiva Oa, one of the Marquesa Islands.
Even though Gauguin was unable to find the paradise he yearned for, he nevertheless succeeded in bringing his idealistic notions of an untouched world to canvas in brilliant colors and elementary forms that revolutionized art. He strove to create a primitive kind of art, untouched by modern civilization. To do so, he sought inspiration in rural landscapes, in people who had retreated from modern life, and in the traditions of ancient cultures. In the process, he drew closer to Symbolism and developed an innovative, bold visual vocabulary, which allowed him to discover new freedom with color, while his formal language approached abstraction. Thus, Gauguin quite rightly became a father figure for Modern art, along with his colleagues Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh.
On his search for a more natural life, one of Gauguin’s early refuges was in Brittany, far from Paris. In the summer of 1886 the artist arrived in Pont-Aven, a village in the Finistère Département, joining the circle of international artists there. Quickly, Gauguin adapted to the simple living conditions. He thought of the underdeveloped region on the Atlantic coast, with its wealth of traditions and cultural monuments, as an inspirational place: “I love Brittany,” he wrote in early 1888, “I find the wild and primitive here. When my clogs resonate on this granite ground, I hear the muffled and powerful thud I am seeking in painting . . .” This “return to the source,” as he put it, resulted in paintings that rejected Impressionism, and soon attracted attention in the artistic metropolis of Paris. La vision du sermon (1988) was celebrated as a masterpiece of Symbolism: the painting of Jacob’s struggle with the angel moved away from a realistic depiction of external reality toward an ambiguous image of an inner vision. To reinforce the fantastical impression, Gauguin used nearly pure, brilliant colors that contrast with reality. Inspired by colored Japanese woodcuts, he also emphasized outlines, and dispensed with shadows that mold shape, as well as the rules of perspective—an innovative, newly developed style of painting that Gauguin called Synthetism. Through this, the artist overcame the limitations of academic, Realist, and Impressionist painting created by artists who believed that a painting had to represent the visible world.
In the spring of 1891 Gauguin sailed for Tahiti. Like the works he created in Brittany, his South Seas pictures of graceful Tahitians living the simple life in a tropical landscape painted in strong colors show places of power, which Gauguin, always critical of society, considered the antithesis of decadent Modernism. Despite colonization and conversion to Christianity, Gauguin at first hoped to find traces of local religious faith, myths, legends, and culture. His initial euphoria soon soured, and he took on a sober, even disillusioned view of Tahitian society, for the indigenous population had essentially already been robbed of their religious and cultural identity. For his paintings, therefore, the artist sought help from publications, photographs, and other sources that showed the Maohi in a pre-colonial, even paradisiacal primeval state. In the paintings he produced—such as the monumental, major work D’où venons-nous? Qui sommes nous? Où allons nous? (Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going 1897)—Gauguin did not exercise any kind of archeological precision, but combined elements of Maohi culture with motifs from other cultures, both Christian and non-Christian, along with art from previous epochs. Even his contemporaries recognized the syncretism in his oeuvre: “In this work is a disquieting, precious mixture of barbarian splendor, Catholic liturgy, Hindu reverie, Gothic art workshop, dark and subtle Symbolism; it is harsh reality and glowing flights of poetry, out of which Monsieur Gauguin creates an absolutely personal and entirely new kind of art . . .” wrote Octave Mirbeau.
In 1901 Gauguin moved to Hiva Oa, one of the Marquesa Islands, fourteen hundred kilometers away from Tahiti—once again, with the hope of discovering a more natural life of a kind that he himself could lead: “I think the savage element there, together with complete solitude, will revive the fire of my enthusiasm before I die, give new life to my imagination and bring my talents to a fitting conclusion.”
As much as Gauguin strove to rejuvenate art and find inspiration from his foray into terra incognita, he also pursued commercial goals “. . . [T]he future belongs to the painter of tropics which have not yet been painted, and we need something new as a subject for the stupid buying public,” said Gauguin six months before the Parisian Exposition in 1889. Besides opening a “studio of the tropics,” Gauguin engaged in a successful public relations campaign on his own behalf: over a period of twenty-five years, he produced around forty self-portraits, firmly convinced that his depictions of himself as a sufferer, a savage, a sensitive man and an Indian would guarantee the public’s lasting interest. Even his self-illustrated autobiography, Noa Noa (1897), in which Gauguin described his life on Tahiti, nurtured the “Gauguin myth.” In 1902 Daniel de Monfreid a letter to the artist, who was living on Hiva Oa: “Right now you are this outrageous, legendary artist who sends his disturbing, inimitable works from far-distant Oceania . . . You dare not return! . . . In short, you enjoy the sanctity of the great dead, you have gone down in the history of art.”
July 7, 2015 Stefanie Gommel