Gauguin's Stillness

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Gauguin's Stillness


THE SOURCE: "Old Vagabond" by Barry Schwabsky, in The Nation, Nov. 1, 2010.

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 Cezanne, 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, PontAvert (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.

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