Paul Gauguin was the most paradoxical of painters: a restless, footloose man who produced paintings of “uncanny stasis,” writes The Nation’s art critic, Barry Schwabsky.
Born in Paris in 1848, Gauguin spent his childhood in France and in Peru, where his grandmother had roots that he liked to believe were Indian. As a stockbroker in Paris he was quite successful, and collected works by Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Edgar Degas. In his own right, he was successful as a “Sunday painter.” When the markets crashed in 1882, he decided to pursue painting full time. Leaving his Danish wife with their five children in Copenhagen, he set sail for Martinique and Panama, seeking to refresh himself “far from the company of men.”
In the late 1880s Gauguin returned to France and was invited to Arles by Vincent van Gogh to help establish a “Studio of the South.” After an intense and dramatic collaboration (which some historians now believe ended when Gauguin accidentally severed Van Gogh’s ear, though most people place Gauguin in Paris when the incident occurred), Gauguin left for Tahiti, where he produced many of his most famous paintings. In 1901 he took to the seas again, settling in the Marquesas Islands, where he died in 1903.
At the heart of Gauguin’s legacy is “the tension between the incessant, restless movement of his life, and the steadiness characteristic of his art,” Schwabsky observes. Consider an early painting, Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven (1888). “What gives this work its atmosphere is the way the three girls embody an inexplicable stillness,” he says. The children look more like they are playing at being statues than enjoying a dance. The one exception to motionlessness is animals. “Even when the animals are shown as still, you feel they could move at any minute; even when the humans are shown in motion, they seem fixed in place.”
This stillness in Gauguin’s work “reflects his urge to perceive something eternal within the momentary,” Schwabsky notes. Unlike many wanderers, Gauguin was not searching for something new, but “something ancient and perhaps close to vanishing.”
Many art historians have not known what to make of Gauguin, often treating him with disdain. Judged through the lens of feminism and anti-colonialism in the 1980s, he was deemed “just one more adventurer” with a “passion for exotica . . . and a sleazy thirst for sex with dark-skinned underage women.”
More recently, the critical tide has turned in Gauguin’s favor. A new show at the Tate Modern in London attempts to make sense of Gauguin’s legacy “under the rubric of ‘narrative.’ ” It’s a misbegotten effort, in Schwabsky’s view. Gauguin was not a storyteller. “The bodies and faces of the Polynesian women Gauguin incessantly painted were not simply offered up for delectation and the projection of fantasies. They possess their own intelligence and keep their own counsel; their slyness and self-possession make them resistant to interpretation, almost indecipherable. Gauguin identified with them precisely because he could not entirely ‘read’ them.”
What matters most about Gauguin is his use of color. His “rich cadences of dissonance and harmony [made] out of color and line, the likes of which had no more been seen before in painting than had his Polynesian subjects,” capture a moment and a mood, but their stories are hidden.