Gauguin: The Self-Professed Savage

By Gabre, Fanna | The World and I, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Gauguin: The Self-Professed Savage


Gabre, Fanna, The World and I


The first thing visitors see at the entrance of the National Gallery of Art's current exhibition, Gauguin: Maker of Myth, is a quote from Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) stating, "I am a savage, and civilized people suspect this." Underneath this, perhaps, should have been the explanation, "Gauguin imagined himself a savage, and his peers suspected this."

The exhibition revolves around Gauguin's need to believe he belonged in another time, a far off place unrelated to the harshness of industrial Paris. The fact that he spent five years in Peru as a child (which he barley remembered) did not help; Gauguin imagined Inca blood running through his veins and meditated around Andean ceramics brought back to France. Gauguin would brag to whoever would listen about his inexistent ancestry, no doubt to make himself appear more exotic than he actually was.

What makes Gauguin's story so admirable is that he did not start out as an artist but a businessman who, unable to deal with the constraints of society, abandoned his job to pursue art and finding paradise on earth. (It is only fair to mention this included abandoning his family and taking on multiple young mistresses.) The earliest work of art in the exhibition is a 1876 self-portrait, in the vein of Manet, which portrays a sad, uncomfortable Gauguin. No doubt the artist felt uneasy painting in the accepted style of the time as he did living amongst its proponents.

Gauguin set out to find a "truer" way of life, or, as he may put it, a primitive lifestyle away from the impurities of industrialization. He sought a place where simple people live harmoniously with nature and have an innate connection with the spiritual world. Gauguin found all this in the captivating chronicles of French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who described Tahiti as the second Eden, motivating the artist to set sail for French Polynesia.

However, before that, Gaugin would visit rustic Brittany in northern France, inspiring him to paint arguably his most important piece Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888. The painting, with its flat, fiery background, on loan from the National Gallery of Scotland, is one of the delightful gems scattered throughout the exhibition. Devote female worshipers, eyes closed, and wearing customary white caps, appear serene and unaware of the miraculous apparition before them. A tree branch cuts awkwardly through the composition, influenced by Japanese prints flooding Parisian art circles at the time.

Eventually, after many delays, Gauguin makes it to Tahiti, where he sorrowfully finds to be nothing like the pages of Bougainville records. Keep in mind the political happenings of the time: France's colonial presence was felt from Africa to the Pacific Islands. Gauguin did not find a paradise but a land infected with colonialism, from his own country no less. One cannot help but to feel for Gauguin, to share in his disappointment.

Out of stubbornness, or perhaps sheer desperation, Gauguin began creating the paradise he had hoped to find, a land of half naked women and roaming spirits. From quick sketches to lush paintings, nearly all Gauguin's art from this point on feature bare-breasted Tahitian women lounging in his personal paradise. A striking example is Two Tahitian Women, 1899, depicting two scantly clad women, neither looking at the viewer, against an abstracted forest background. The women wear passive, even submissive, expressions: one holds a tray of fruit, an offering of sorts, perhaps promises of earthly pleasures, perhaps spiritual awakening.

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