Among the artists who in the late nineteenth century proclaimed the value of primitive art Gauguin is the best known. He was a truly seminal figure. Perhaps no other artist had such an extensive role in disseminating the gospel of the primitive, including primitive art. His message, whether conveyed in images or in words, transmitted directly or by his many advocates, reached not only art lovers, but also large sections of the western world with little knowledge of art and perhaps even less use for it. For almost a century, whenever the subject of primitivism in art was discussed, his name came up almost instantly.
Since Gauguin's message and influence are so well known, we may be permitted, I hope, to treat his “doctrine” more briefly than that of less wellknown artists and critics. On the other hand, since his influence encompasses so many fields (and is thus so diverse), it is necessary for us to set out as clearly as possible what we are looking for in the present chapter. Two questions arise: first, what did Gauguin say about primitive art, and about the life of the primitive in general; and second, what was it that gained him not only the eye, but also the ear and mind, of so great an audience in Europe?
I shall not attempt to discuss his artistic work; rather, I shall concentrate on his written legacy. Gauguin, it goes without saying, was not a professional writer, nor was he a systematic and articulate thinker. We cannot expect to find a well-ordered set of ideas in his writings, which consist of fragmentary notes and letters; none of his formulations should be considered a well-thought out, precise articulation of his thought. What is important is their general trend, even the intellectual climate that they reflect. In these utterances, I believe, he reflected the ideas of primitivism current in Europe more fully and more clearly than did most of the artists and critics I have discussed in this section.
It will probably be useful for our purposes to present Gauguin's views under two different headings: first, his ideas about primitive man, society,