Home | Introduction | Gauguin: Maker of Myth | Interior Exile | A Writer's Zone | Archive | Links | Contact | Editions


Paul Gauguin, Embellished Frame of Frame with Two Interlaced "G's", 1881-1883. Carved walnut containing photograph of the artist. Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Gift of Mme Corinne Peterson in memory of Frederick Peterson and Lucy Peterson.

Gauguin: Maker of Myth

Tate Modern, London, 30 September, 2010 - 16 January, 2011
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., 27 February - 5 June, 2011

by Anna Leung

It is appropriate that an exhibition which has as its stated aim to demythologise Gauguin and yet present him as a maker of myths should begin with a series of self-portraits in which the artist assumes different personae. Starting with the Sunday painter equipped with his mandatory bohemian fez it ends with a disconcerting image of Gauguin, invalided and bespectacled, shortly before his death in 1903 from syphilitic heart failure while in self-imposed exile in the Marquesas Islands. He was, one is tempted to say, the self-sacrificial victim of his own ambitions, for he could have chosen to return to France for treatment and survive a few more years. It was a risky wager and he won, for by 1906 he was being posthumously honoured with a major exhibition at the Salon d’Automne. He knew that for the myth of the ground breaking anarchic and visionary artist to become a reality he had to forfeit the comfort of family, friends and, from a more opportunist point of view, Paris. As Daniel de Montfreid, the friend, to whom was entrusted the business of selling his canvases in Paris, reminded him, he was ‘that extraordinary, legendary artist who sends from the depths of Oceania his disconcerting, inimitable works, the definitive works of a great man who has disappeared, as it were, off the face of the earth.’ To retain this status Gauguin made his own life an integral part of his narrative strategy and in so doing set a precedent for many modern and postmodern artists whose lives as celebrities risk cannibalising their lives as artists.

Myth suggests something inexplicable and impenetrable but contrary to these connotations there is much cause and effect in Gauguin’s life. Gauguin was a late developer. From the age of 17 he spent several years traversing the globe as a merchant seaman and then improbably was transformed into a bourgeois gentleman and family man working at the Bourse as a ‘coulissier’ (an accountant or bookkeeper rather than a stock broker) where he was in a good position to speculate on stocks and commodities and provide his Danish wife, Mette, with the luxuries she craved. It was during this period that he became a Sunday painter and began to collect Impressionist paintings including canvases by Cezanne - he came to own six - and Pissarro. But in 1882 he lost his job due to an international financial crash, and it must have seemed logical to him to abandon his financial career and attempt to pursue an artistic one. He was already aware that the Impressionists had challenged the dominance of the Salon, describing their independent exhibition as a ‘battle against a fearsome power made up of Officialdom, the Press and Money.’ Gauguin was astute enough to recognise in painting a commodity that could gain in value and to appreciate the increasing importance of the critic’s role of validating innovation in a market no longer automatically certified by the prestige of the Salon. Despite his frequent diatribes against critics and literary men poking their noses into the visual arts he fully realised the importance of marshalling fashionable young critics such as Felix Feneon, Albert Aurier who framed the first definition of Symbolist art as the subjective expression of an idea in terms of form, and Octave Mirabeau, who enlisted Mallarme's help when Gauguin was trying to drum up the necessary funds to return to Tahiti. This resulted in a Symbolist Banquet where Gauguin was acclaimed as the new leader of the Symbolist school of painting, an accolade indeed for an ambitious young artist who knew in more senses than one where he was going and the price he would have to pay. These were career moves conducted in the artificial light of publicity motivated by an acute awareness of the market that was never far from Gauguin’s thoughts, even when in Tahiti’s earthly paradise.  

Offstage, the figure holding together all these life-changing events was the Franco-Spanish businessman Gustave Arosa, who had become Gauguin’s guardian when he befriended Gauguin’s mother, Aline, who had been forced by circumstances to take up a trade as a seamstress. It was through Arosa that Gauguin obtained his position at the Bourse, through him that he was introduced to his future wife, Mette Gad, and through him that he met Camille Pissarro, who tutored Gauguin and handed down his then advanced views on painting. Since Gustave Arosa was a collector of advanced art, Gauguin would have been exposed from his teens to avant-garde painting, initially the Barbizon School, but later paintings by Pissarro and other independent minded artists. In this way his eyes had already been tutored to Impressionism’s plein air vision with its informal rendering of contemporary life and its transmission of the faster pace of urban society through asymmetrical compositions, figures spied from awkward angles, its vibrant colour field and its emphasis on the materiality of the medium that revealed the process through which the painting had come into being. He had no need to shake off the shackles of academic conventions, no need to relearn a new pictorial syntax that jettisoned chiaroscuro and dramatic gesture. To this extent he was not a late developer but already ahead of the game.


Paul Gauguin, Manao tupapau (L'Esprit vielle/The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch), 1892. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 
A. Conger Goodyear Collection, 1965.

Moving away from Impressionism

By the beginning of the 1880’s Gauguin was beginning to be recognised as part of ‘la nouvelle peinture’ as the Impressionists were first known. Though still a Sunday painter working at the Bourse, from 1879 to 1886 he contributed to the annual Impressionists’ Independent exhibitions, first with a sculpture of his wife, Mette, but later, as he came under the tutelage of Pissarro, with portraits, still-lifes, and landscapes featuring the loose brush work characteristic of the Impressionist style.  His eventual turning away from Impressionism’s emphasis on optical realism and its insistence of the particularity of things (Zola’s corner of nature) caused the breakup of his friendship with Pissarro, who never quite forgave him for his defection from the humanistic and progressive values of the Impressionists for what he deemed to be no more than decorative primitivism. Gauguin came to regard Impressionism as an error that only he and Cezanne stood out against. Neither was content to capture the mundane contingencies of everyday life and both scorned a literary or literal account of experience. But whereas Cezanne was intent on capturing the ever shifting interstices that make up our perception of reality within a shimmering tapestry of brush strokes and was essentially a classic painter, Gauguin cast a far wider net and began to see himself as a ‘savage’ able to sense unseen primal forces and to move beyond the limits of the real. This is what really interested him, the liminality and interconnectedness of dream and reality, and he accorded equal if not more importance to the realm of the imagination and to the way it reconstructs what we construe as reality than to the actuality of our daily lives.  This is already evident in the two portraits of his children, Aline in The Little One is Dreaming (1881)] and Clovis (Clovis Asleep, 1884) whose schematic dream journeyings we seem to see projected against the walls of their bedrooms. For Gauguin, art was not about what you can see with the external eye; it was not about visual data, but was essentially cerebral, philosophical and poetic.

This may all sound abstruse but Gauguin was well aware of the need for a new pictorial language to clothe these ideas and his motifs were drawn from a wide variety of sources, Japanese prints, childrens’ book illustrations, especially by English illustrators, and the images d’Epinal, the peasant broad sheets that had already inspired Courbet, all visual material denied access to the realm of the Fine Arts. But it would be mistaken to think that Gauguin had turned his back on Western art.  It was always with him, for wherever he went he carried a portable library of photographs and drawings which he described in a letter to Redon as ‘a whole little world of comrades that bring me pleasure.’ These includedm], among others, reproductions of the Parthenon horsemen, Delacroix’s Women of Algiers, Manet’s Olympia, Puvis de Chavannes’s L’Esperance as well as the Buddhist reliefs from Borabadur in Java, a nude by Cranach and a series of pornographic photos from Port Said. Photography gave him access to a world of images, which meant he could immerse himself in the confluence of art’s histories. Originality may have been the leitmotif of the avant-garde artist, but many borrowed, some would say plundered, from past masters. Though down the ages artists have succumbed to various influences, photography ushered in a new phenomenon, which we tend mistakenly to associate with postmodernism,  by which the study of nature becomes subordinate to that of culture in terms of pictorial material previously not readily available to past artists  This reusing of already existing figures, gestures and poses constitutes part and parcel of Gauguin’s primitivism; his fusing of elements coming from different pictorial sources which then take on an independent emotional and sensual register can be paralleled with his fusing of syncretic elements from different belief systems and religions to recreate what was lost of an indigenous Tahitian culture. This vision spoke of a renewal, outside of old Europe, that was internationalist and globalist in tone and which marks him as unusual in his empathetic attitude to non-western culture but which also provided him the maverick status he sought as an avant-garde artist.

It is therefore not Gauguin’s subject matter that placed him apart from the Impressionists but a synthesist interplay between image and idea, or vision and visionary, that allied him to the Symbolists. Symbolism depends on the creation of a sense of mystery, and works through suggestion rather than through literal or direct representation. It permits the artist to journey inwards into a dream world but in Gauguin’s case and that of many other artists, such as Ensor and Munch, they did so to highlight the pain and alienation felt by the artist excluded by society. This feeling of ostracism is conveyed in his picture Bonjour M. Gauguin (1889), inspired by Courbet, in which the solitary artist is seen as a kind of refugee forever fated to eke out an existence on the margins of society. When faced with his outsider status Gauguin may have brought to mind Gustave Arosa’s collection of Peruvian pottery, reawakening memories of his own childhood spent in Lima whose culture was therefore a part of his own, and perhaps Gustave’s brother Achilles Antoine Arosa’s mementoes, water colours and sketches, of a voyage taken to Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands in 1844. The lure of the tropics would have been more than compelling


Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Faces, c. 1899. Charcoal on paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, 
The Annenberg Foundation Gift, 1996.

Fuire La Bas

The cultivation of the exotic and of the occult was not new in French artistic and philosophical circles. It was an important vein of French nineteenth century Romantic literature that figures in the poetry of Gerard de Nerval and Baudelaire. Both were seekers of solace in some oriental idyll which took them to a frontier between reality and dream, their poetry opening doors to invisible worlds. Nerval actually travelled to the Levant, Baudelaire only as far as the horizons of his own imaginings. Like Gauguin, who followed in their footsteps, they were fascinated by the religious concepts of non-western peoples as a spiritual treasure that had been lost. Implicit too in their writings was the idea of the accursed poet, ‘le poete maudit’, a forerunner of Gauguin’s pro-active ‘savage’ at odds with contemporary urban society with its instrumental values and its positivistic faith in  technological progress. Modern philosophical ideas about primitivism go back even further to Rousseau and Diderot who contrasted the freedom of savage men living in harmony within a state of nature with the concupiscence and depravity of the sophisticated European. Diderot was the first to fasten on to the sexual freedom of the Tahitians, contrasting it with the prurience and depravity of their European counterparts whose sexual mores were based on double standards. Such insights were proffered as a means of creating a better society based on primitive virtues, but did not advocate a literal return to a state of nature.

Equally important artistically, especially in view of Gauguin’s subsequent experiments in ceramics and wood carving, were his visits to two ethnographical museums in Paris that specialised in non-Western artefacts, masks and figures as well as highly decorated everyday objects. Then in 1889 there was the vast International Fair where Gauguin was entranced by the Javanese village and began to toy with the idea of emigrating to Vietnam, Cambodia or the recently annexed Tahiti. But the most accessible source for Gauguin’s exotic imaginings was a popular novel, The Marriage of Loti by Julien Viaud, the pseudonym of an ex- merchant seaman, Pierre Loti, which had been recommended by an enthusiastic van Gogh. It’s from this time that escape from Europe became an idée fixe in Gauguin’s mind, though the actual shift from a practice based in Paris to one premised on some exotic otherness probably predated this and originally took effect during his stay in Martinique in 1887. The novel described in diary form the romance between a fourteen year-old Tahitian girl and Loti, a British midshipman, which was doomed to failure because of insurmountable racial differences, the dangers of miscegenation to children being especially high on the list.  Gauguin may have started out with racist opinions close to those of Loti but his ten year stay in Tahiti changed them and in the end he came to believe in communality and cultural kinship conjoining all races. Consequently, though it was not till his exile to the Marquesas Islands that he made friends with his native neighbours, he stood his ground against a tide of openly racist publications that had as their objective to provide an ideological support for imperialism and colonialization. Bringing French civilisation to the colonies was not Gauguin’s aim. On the contrary he described his own geographical displacement as a desperate flight from civilisation in order to ‘cultivate’ his own ‘primitiveness and savagery.’ Placing himself under the aegis of Rousseau, Gauguin undertook a quest that was both a search for origins and an inner journey where reality and dream became fused. But in actual fact Gauguin’s residence in the tropics was dependent on the good offices of the French bureaucracy and its monthly postal service.

Not that he was alone in this search. By the end of the nineteenth century the cult of going away was fairly widespread. It was certainly not restricted to France. All over Europe artistic communities or colonies were springing up, made possible by the opening out of the railways and motivated to a large part by the need for an economically feasible way of life. Equally important was the idealised image of the rustic peasant as yet uncorrupted by the sophistication and gross materialism of urban society. Long before Gauguin discovered Brittany as an area that had escaped the modifications of modernity and therefore retained a hold on its age old archaic beliefs it was already a popular centre for artists and tourists alike. But Gauguin was no topographical artist and what he was attempting to depict was an inner vision that revealed the determining role of the imagination in perception. In a letter to van Gogh he described his ground breaking painting The Vision after the Sermon (1888) as ‘a struggle (that) only exists in the imagination of the people praying.’ Animals, too, often stood for external signifiers of inner mental states the most noticeable being the fox, possibly an alter ego, in The Loss of Virginity 1890-91 and again in his 1889 self mocking wood relief Soyez amoureuses, vous serez heureuses  (Be in love and you shall be happy). This carving completely breaks with the conventional unities of renaissance perspective and represents such a complete breach with conventional assumptions based on good taste that it seems to have as its expressive goal the creation of something ugly and in this way to insist on the artist’s own barbarity, a move which was to become a typical avant-gardist stratagem. 

Twice Gauguin attempted to create an artists’ commune, once in Brittany and then with van Gogh in Arles; neither met with success. He told a journalist that his Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889) refers to this ‘crushing of an ideal and a pain that is both divine and human.’ His extraordinary Self Portrait, Vase in the Form of a Severed Head which may allude to van Gogh’s severing of his own ear lobe, made in the same year, carries a similar message. It functions as a self-portrait as victim and saviour. It is this ambiguity, this plurality of experience that mingled myth with reality that would in future provide Gauguin with his subject matter whether in Brittany or in Tahiti, and for which primitivism would provide an artistic template.  


Gauguin’s primitivism was forged in Brittany not in Tahiti. His retreat to Brittany was forced upon him partly by his failure to fend for his family. After a number of years constantly beset with worries about money and unsuccessful attempts to provide for Mette and the five children (who had returned to Copenhagen in 1884) by taking jobs as unlikely as a tarpaulin representative and a billposter, in 1886 Gauguin travelled to Pont Avon. This was a picturesque village already frequented by artists and tourists. Moreover several academic artists had made their names in the Salon by depicting the Breton peasantry as representative of an archaic past steeped in an esoteric religiosity so what Gauguin and his acolytes chose to highlight was not new. What was new was the pictorial language they made use of, its absence of perspective and of tonal modelling, i.e. its musical, decorative and anti-naturalistic aspects that looked back to earlier so called ‘primitive’ art forms: to Cimabue, for instance, as against the illusionistic accuracy of the High Renaissance masters. 

It was here, working alongside such younger artists such as Emile Bernard, who later disputed Gauguin’s right to spearhead the new Synthesist movement, that he began to distance himself from the Impressionists by insisting on the artist’s right to simplify and distort reality in order to create an expressive image, colour especially functioning as an imaginative equivalent of nature rather than a literal likeness. What Gauguin represented inhabits an ambiguous space that belongs neither to the historical nor the contemporary, but to an in-between reality situated beyond objective or empirical knowledge. However, though remote from political issues and seemingly at variance with a secular and materialist society, his Synthesist vision was acknowledged by the critic Albert Aurier as betokening a new social order and, therefore, avant-garde by definition. Gauguin’s paintings were interpreted by contemporary critics as politically progressive and, therefore, cutting edge despite his neo-traditional treatment of colour and form and the regressive and escapist tendencies that led him to resurrect a nostalgic dream of a fast-disappearing society. This was an analysis that mirrored the ambiguities of Gauguin’s own character, which leaned towards the aristocrat as well as towards the savage.


Paul Gauguin, Soyez amoureuses vous serez heureuses (Be in Love and You will be Happy),1889. Carved and painted linden wood. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Arthur Tracy Cabot Fund.

Earthly Paradise

Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti fit into a similar schema; escapist and nostalgic for a lost paradise yet libertarian in their sensuality, while at the same time critical of colonialism’s exploitation of the natives, and supportive of their resistance to assimilation and to the colonial suppression of their indigenous culture. Gauguin’s capacity to understand empathetically rather than moralistically demean the crucial role that the spirits continued to play in Tahitian society stemmed from his Enlightenment belief that all religions share a common spirituality. This syncretic view of ancient religions was to have a profound impact on artists such as Kandinsky and Mondrian, modernism’s chief early exponents of  abstraction, who were members of Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. But despite declaring that ‘art is an abstraction’ Gauguin was not into abstraction defined as the polar opposite of narrative. He was drawn to subjectivity and expressive gesture not to objectivity and the sort of abstraction belonging to a world of platonic ideas. Meaning and narrative were far too important for him. That this is the case is demonstrated by the cryptic titles that he added to his paintings and chiselled into his wood carvings. These add to the overall sense of mystery he wanted to communicate, highlighting a contradiction between word and image that creates a fissure in our common sense perception of the world that would eventually filter through into Surrealism.

It was, however, the knowledge that he was too late that gives an inescapable intimation of melancholy and sadness to Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings. He must have known from first stepping foot on Tahitian soil, or probably even earlier, that the golden age was no longer. Why then go back a second time? There is no doubt that he was fascinated by Polynesian cultural practices and especially by their cosmology with its emphasis on a reconciliation between spirit and matter. Faced with the reality of a society deprived of its own spiritual centre he attempted to resurrect a lost culture. Much like Munch he created archetypal figures that embody birth, death, jealousy or anger. Ondine the woman in the waves and the Exotic Eve whose swaying figure has its origins in the Borobudur relief reappear in many guises as the Tahitian Eve, Gauguin describing her as ‘Eve after the Fall still able to go about unclothed without being immodest, still with as much animal beauty as on the first day.’ But as in all aspects of Gauguin’s life ambiguity reigns and there are surprisingly few carefree depictions of love, and despite being statuesque and powerful Gauguin’s female figures often appear disturbed or fearful. Yet his portraits of Tahitian women dressed in their unflattering missionary garb retain a distinct enigmatic dignity and convey a feeling of inner strength and stoicism.  Neither passive nor weak they present an alternative to the western stereotype of the female totally subservient to the male. Oviri is the strangest of Gauguin’s female creations. He considered it his masterpiece in ceramic sculpture and wished it to be placed on his tomb. It caused a scandal at the XX exhibition in Brussels in 1891 and was rejected by the Independent Salon in Paris in 1895 despite its normally liberal stance. There is no doubt that the ugliness of this female figure was deliberately provocative. The ceramic sculpture depicts a naked female deity with hyper-thyroid eyes standing over a dying wolf whose cub she holds close to her body. She seems to embody destructive as well as creative energies and may well have stood for Gauguin’s alter ego, a savage identity linked in his mind to his Inca blood that he was safeguarding for posterity not only through his paintings but in his written words.

While part of Gauguin’s agenda was to demonstrate that he was living the life of the romantic artist at one with nature the sad fact is that he was living off canned food and increasingly dependent on alcohol and morphine. Much of the exhibition with its collection of documentary materials pertaining to his life and times is premised on his need to mythologise himself. Especially revealing are his writings, notably his partly autobiographical text Noa Noa, a composite of texts and images drawn from his woodcuts which weaves together legends of Oceanic deities, other recits de voyages, and his own experiences which deliberately suggested his assimilation to native life. There is no doubt that Gauguin was a free thinker and prided himself on being an intellectual with an ability to detect the fin de siècle shift that promoted an interest in the occult and in the exotic. He would have known that his work would satisfy contradictory escapist and libertarian needs, and therefore have a wide appeal. But like many artists at the end of the nineteenth century he believed above all in the mysterious ability of Art to transcend the pain of the present by creating a hinterland of dreams. It was therefore Art that, functioning as a fiction, enabled him to hold on to reality for as long as he had to.

Anna Leung ©   October 2010


Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.

<Previous           Next>