by Peter Byrne
"[T]o pay five hundred thousand francs for a painting, whatever the work may be, is monstrous...a barbaric insult to the [picture's] resignation to labor and poverty, an outrage against the beauty of the artist's mission..."
—Paul Gauguin in a letter, Gauguin Maker of Myth, page 41.
"I am a wolf in the forest, a wolf without a collar."
Attributed to Paul Gauguin by Mario Vargas Llosa, page 417.
"Great artists are not transcribers of the world; they are its rivals."
—André Malraux, The Voices of Silence, passim.
(Swans - November 29, 2010) André Malraux reminded us that works of art have a life of their own. (1) They never stop growing and changing. Although J.M.W. Turner died in 1851, his seascapes became another kind of painting after we saw the work of Mark Rothko, who died in 1970. The sculpted figures of the twentieth century's Alberto Giacometti put Michelangelo's David of 1504 in a completely different light. And what is true of the works of the artist is true of the artist. Time changes our perception of the man.
No painter has had such an unstable afterlife as Paul Gauguin, whose first death took place with romantic trappings in Atuona, on the Marquesas Islands, in 1903. Like Zelig, Gauguin has now morphed the umpteenth time in the London Tate Modern's exhibition, Gauguin Maker of Myth. (The show, after closing in London mid-January, will go to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., from February 27 to June 5, 2011.)
Has Gauguin finally been put in his place by this blockbuster and by the analysis in depth and erudite tidbits that accompany it? (2) Not at all. Gauguin has certainly been put impressively in another place, but we can be sure that his volatile posthumous life is far from over.
The title, Gauguin Maker of Myth, is of course loaded. It counters conventional wisdom that saw the painter as limning the traditional beliefs of a "savage" people. The title implies, in a word, that the myths he wove were strictly about himself and about an Eden where the persona he made of himself would have liked to live. There were, for example, no traces of older times -- statuary or other -- left in washed-out, colonized Tahiti. The carved and painted depictions Gauguin made of "sacred" objects came from his imagination aided by his scrapbook of photographs picturing artifacts of various world cultures.
This is not to say that Paul Gauguin didn't deplore the disappearance of non-European ways of life. It doesn't mean, moreover, that he wasn't a great artist. It means only that he was a great modern artist -- i.e., individualistic to his marrow, passionate for innovation, and as clued-in to the art market as any Charles Saatchi.
Gauguin was a pivotal figure. After the usual apprentice groping in the dark, he'd decided that Impressionism bored him. He wanted to use color, pure bright color, in patches, as a prod to wake the bourgeoisie from its afternoon nap. The teasing delights of Monet and Pissarro weren't for this late-bloomer and refugee from the stock exchange. Manet's Olympia was his inspiration.
Gauguin's nudes, which hardly perturb us, upset his contemporaries no end. Provided the perspective was right and the background biblical or Greco-Roman, the Renaissance tradition allowed the human body to be displayed on the fault line of obscenity. But Post-Impressionists couldn't get away with it. The flat surfaces prized by Gauguin pooh-poohed perspective. His juggling with ersatz mythology was perhaps also an attempt to pacify his contemporaries by putting his work in a "sacred" frame.
While he broke new ground, Gauguin nevertheless, in one respect, stepped aside from the evolution of modern painting. He told stories, and that they were often tall stories is beside the point. (The Tate show is original in bringing out the continual narrative impulse in his work.) If there's one taboo that haunts the artist of today it's a horror of anecdote. Fighting that trend, which had begun in his time, has also served Gauguin in his later incarnations. No other 19th century artist has managed to keep his personal history so much alive in the third millennium.
Gauguin's drama gathered steam soon after his death (as his prices soared). In 1906, two hundred and twenty seven of his works were shown at the Salon d'Automne. European colonialism had passed into a reflective stage. Victor Segalen, who visited the artist's last Polynesian dwelling three months after his death, would use the artist's life to illustrate his thesis that as Europeans grappled with non-European cultures, these in turn were defining European culture. In other words the West was only another version of the countless versions of humanity. Though it seems self-evident, the idea still hadn't been generally accepted when Edward Said reformulated it with some acrimony in the 1970s. It still sticks in the craw of the rednecks of the West, whichever nation's stone they crawl out from under.
Embroideries on Gauguin's life followed hard and fast. One of the most substantial was Somerset Maugham's 1919 novel, The Moon and Sixpence. (3) It's easy to understand Maugham's curiosity. He too traveled the world after a childhood in France. He knew art, at his death leaving a priceless collection of paintings for his heirs to fight over. Maugham, himself a closeted homosexual, had a feeling for characters on the margins.
The novelist, born in 1874, never completely cast off the carapace of a middle class Edwardian gentleman. This served him well in creating his narrator, an ostentatiously fair-minded, class sensitive, sexless, suavely misogynic, socially adept Englishman. The way the narrator holds the story together, feigning incomplete information, is a tribute to Maugham's solid métier. The reader can almost forgive him for going on afterwards to milk his talent for millions.
Apart from Paris and London gossip and a perusal of some of the pictures, Maugham had at his disposal only the first batch of Gauguin's letters, published in 1918. These show Gauguin absorbed in his quarrels, ailments, and money matters. Strickland, Maugham's stand-in for the artist, will be an enigma to the narrator because of the abruptness of his change of lifestyle. One day Strickland is an undistinguished London stockbroker with two young children and a snobbish wife. The next, in the time it takes to cross the channel in a ferry, he's a cold and ruthless art bum in Montmartre who refuses categorically to have anything to do with his family or past. (The 1942 movie of the book astutely cast George Sanders in the role.)
Maugham's novel, or long novella, will trace the narrator's enquiry into just why Strickland made his decision. He concludes, after peripeties no end, that Strickland is possessed by a vision of untamed beauty that he must pursue regardless of any other consideration, including decency to women, personal comfort, and hygiene. The narrator's growing toleration for Strickland's motives is an important part of the story. Maugham lands some fine satiric blows on the Edwardian middle classes, but one joke is on him. He himself remains sniffily Edwardian enough to have Strickland die of leprosy, not of the syphilis that killed Gauguin. There were still some things of which it was not good form to die.
Maugham offsets his idealized picture of him by emphasizing Strickland's cruelty (George Sanders!). At the same time he bolsters Strickland's idealism by showing him absolutely indifferent to having his work seen or rewarded. From what we now know, and might have guessed then, neither was true to Gauguin's life. But it was a view that made for a cogent and sharply focused tale. Maugham knew that nuance and ambiguity can weigh a good story down.
Romancing Gauguin's life did not let up between The Moon and Sixpence of 1919 and the year 2003. But it was then that the winner of this year's Nobel Prize for literature entered the competition. The Way to Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa could rely on a century of digging into Gauguin's real life. (4) But that didn't make his task easier for the Peruvian novelist. We can imagine him envying Maugham who not only was short of facts but made his ignorance into one of his book's structural strengths. Vargas Llosa, given the factual and descriptive bent of his talent, was almost pre-determined to write a novel smothered in information.
As a Peruvian he can't ignore Flora Tristan, Gauguin's part Peruvian grandmother. (5) Tristan, a poor man's George Sand, has always been seen as a colorful and heroic figure of French utopian socialism. But she has never been treated till now as a running mate of her more famous grandson. The alternating of a chapter of her life with one of Gauguin's from beginning to end of the novel seems arbitrary. The two never met, she had no sympathy for artists, and on the rare occasion Gauguin spoke of her it was usually in mockery. Moreover, a half century separated Tristan's social militancy and her grandson's active years as an artist. So when Vargas Llosa feels he has to justify putting the two of them side by side in the same novel he is definitely leading us into "What-if?" territory. In Chapter Eight he saddles Gauguin with a thoughtful meditation on his grandmother that is very much out of character. He's no longer the scoundrel George Sanders played so well in the 1942 biopic.
Vargas Llosa plunges below the known facts and lets his novelist's imagination conjure up what went on in the minds of the illustrious pair. This is romancing in the grand manner. He uses flashbacks with skill to let his characters tell us about their total life experience while each plods on in his and her current activity. While she's traveling the French provinces organizing a workers' movement, we learn all about Tristan's venomous Parisian marriage and her epic time in Peru. The whole story of his association with Van Gogh comes out while Gauguin muses under the weather in Polynesia. We can pardon the author's repetitions and his annoying tic of addressing his characters as "you." We can forget the feeling we sometimes have of being force fed from an encyclopedia. His vigorous storytelling and the two fascinating individuals he has under observation make for excitement, a moving, meaty read.
Gauguin's sex life, as well as his grandmother's, seems to be an open book for Vargas Llosa and he pages through it with a 21st century relish. But, alas, we are again in the realm of juicy surmise. At times, when the steam begins to singe, we think of Maugham's laconic Edwardian narrator with nostalgia. We wonder if the historical Gauguin hasn't been eclipsed by all the grunt and grind. It's the moment to consult the writers of Gauguin Maker of Myth.
Their overall aim is to have "a new, dispassionate look at what one might call the Gauguin phenomenon." The newness resides in considering his tireless legend-spinning, not as an afterthought added to his work, but an essential part of its creation. As such it ought not to be dismissed simply as fantasy and mythomania. It was a vital part of the process that resulted in the pictures, sculptures, graphics, and writings we admire. They were the product of the artist's "narrative strategies." It's not reasonable to discount them and adore what they produced.
Now the very mention of strategy means seeing Gauguin in a new perspective. The conventional picture of him has to go. He was not a modern master despite himself; he was not an uncouth, unschooled genius by instinct who ran away to the isles and went native. The truth is that though the ex-stockbroker did "go idealist," he never stopped calculating his moves in view of presenting the right image to the Paris art market. Common sense should have told us so a long time ago. Artists without connections, entombed in the backwoods, do not become universal names. The writers of Gauguin Maker of Myth now confirm it for us. Only seven years after his death, there was an exhibition in London that included thirty-seven of his paintings. In the same year an exhibition entitled Cézanne and Gauguin opened at another London gallery casting the two artists as equals. Gauguin's narrative strategy had succeeded in a big way.
Ironically, it was the French Colonial system with its transport and communication network that allowed Gauguin to maintain his presence in Paris from distant Polynesia. This was the same system that he decried for denaturing indigenous culture. But Gauguin's politics are full of contradictions. While he violently attacked capitalism in Europe and in the colonies, social criticism doesn't appear in his work. Rather he yearns for the aristocratic past in Europe and for pre-colonial archaic culture in the non-European world. An anti-clerical of the Latin stripe, he nevertheless used Christian imagery. In Tahiti he never stopped taunting the local Catholic bishop. But at one point he worked hard producing a periodical that attacked the anti-Catholic party.
Gauguin's idea of Polynesia as a Garden of Eden did not survive his living there. But the myth of an Earthly Paradise never stopped informing the art he made in the islands. Whatever we think of his personal mythmaking ("narrative strategies"), there can be no doubt it lead to masterpieces.
Vargas Llosa's attempt to describe the lives of Paul Gauguin and his grandmother Flora Tristan as they lived them, together with Maugham's elliptic character study and the corrections and precisions of the researchers for the Tate exhibition -- all that makes for a formidable heap of words. But can words really enhance the experience of viewing Gauguin's art? Doubts are permitted, but it's surprising what the insight of an old-fashioned man-of-letters can add to our viewing. This is how Maugham's narrator reacts to a late canvas by Strickland-Gauguin that simply depicts fruit: (Page 209-10)
The colors were so strange that words can hardly tell what a troubling emotion they gave. [...] Who can tell what anguished fancy made these fruits? They belonged to a Polynesian garden of the Hesperides. There was something strangely alive in them, as if they were created in a stage of the earth's dark history when things were not irrevocably fixed to their forms. They were extravagantly luxurious with tropical odors. They seemed to possess a somber passion of their own. It was enchanted fruit, to taste which might open the gateway to God knows what secrets of the soul and to mysterious palaces of the imagination. They were sullen with unawaited dangers and to eat them might turn a man to beast or god. All that was healthy and natural, all that clung to happy relationships and the simple joys of simple men, shrunk from them in dismay; and yet a fearful attraction was in them, and, like the fruit on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were terrible with the possibilities of the Unknown.
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