There are few painters who attract more vitriol and controversy than Paul Gauguin. It’s the underage Tahitian girls, who — unlike the wrongs of other artists — are unavoidable due to their presence in his paintings. It’s also the fact he abandoned his family in pursuit of a ‘primitive’ utopia. But his work is constantly exhibited, and prints of his paintings can be seen everywhere: in school corridors and on fridges, in bedrooms and in hotels. One question pervades: why do we still devour his paintings? Why hasn’t he been cancelled?
Paul Gauguin was born in 1848 to a well-connected and intellectual Parisian family. His father wrote the National, a liberal newspaper, and his mother, Alice Chazal, descended from the Peruvian nobility: something which Gauguin would often reference in his desperate pursuit to portray himself as the ‘untamed artist’. After his parents had died, he was taken under the wing of the financier Gustave Arosa and became a stock-broker. Later, after the 1883 Crash, he lost his bank job and pursued a career in painting. Alongside Emile Bernard and Vincent Van Gogh he sought to create an artist’s commune: this never truly came into fruition, despite Van Gogh’s attempts to create ‘the studio in the south’ and Gauguin and Bernard’s extended stay in Brittany. In 1891 he made his first visit to Tahiti: but it was far from utopian when he arrived. Tahiti had already become the place where the likes of Gauguin and various minor imperialists went to fester in their vice and act out a dumb show of all their desires: a place beyond the judgement of the ‘petty bourgeoisie’. He died in the Marquesas Islands on the 8th of May, 1903: either of an overdose, of syphilis, or of a heart attack.
Van Gogh once described him as ‘a virgin creature with savage instincts’. This is a handy starting point for approaching this deeply elusive and complex figure. Such a paradox of innocence and a savage brutality applies to most of his paintings: from the early folkloric ones he produced in Brittany through his final Tahitian pictures. This manifests itself in the virginal naivety of his subjects — often vulnerable girls on the bridge of puberty who seem to be becoming increasingly aware of their sexuality — which is often overshadowed by a brooding darkness: the anxious looks of the girls, and their relation to Gauguin, for example.
This conflict is evident in the 1890 Loss of Virginity which is a disturbing exploration of fertility. As often occurs in his Breton paintings, there are two scenes in one composition. In the background, there is a traditional Breton wedding taking place, whilst in the foreground a fox sits on a young girl who lies naked on a hill. The fox here seems to operate as a symbol of lust; it is a disturbing character with a menacing look. A red-tipped cyclamen in the girl’s hand is, one assumes, a symbol of her recent defloration. The painting juxtaposes Brittany’s pagan past with the Christian present: the wedding seems to ironically reflect on this girl’s unchristian loss of virginity. The model also happens to be Juliette Huet, his 20-year-old mistress, whom he left pregnant in Paris. The virgin/savage paradox best expresses itself in initially naive, folkloric paintings like this, which gradually reveal themselves to have a darker undercurrent. This suggestion of a dark undercurrent makes his paintings striking and memorable.
The viewer gets the sense that the girl in Loss of Virginity knows she is being looked at. This appears in the 1892 Manu Tupapau (Spirit of the Dead Watching) and in Nevermore, an 1897 work. In the former painting, a young Tahitian woman lies on her stomach, glancing sideways. The painting is an attempt to represent the local fear of Tupapau, the spirit of the dead, who appears here as an older woman in a black cloak. She is scared: death, she knows, is watching her. But it is not death she seems to wince from, it is the painter’s eye — the initially ‘virgin’ scene, once again, takes on a sense of darkness.
Gauguin’s style is instantly recognisable: his use of bright, bold colour planes with bold outlines of black and Prussian blue create this effect. You can see it in the last picture: the bold pinks and purples, and the strict borders between colours which tend to make each colour yet more intense. It is no surprise, then, that the art historian Robert Hughes wrote in his seminal book on modern art, The Shock of the New, ‘One may wonder if any painter in the last century put more meaning into his sense of colour than Gauguin’. The communicative power of colour was at the very heart of Cloisonnism: the style Gauguin pioneered.
His most impressive picture, however, is the 1898 D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?). You can see the typically vivid colours and the thick brush strokes. Gauguin was so impoverished that it’s painted on hessian sacking, which was used for transporting foodstuffs such as coffee and grain. The surface ruggedness this provides, alongside the spontaneous and hasty brushstrokes, is unusual amongst Gauguin’s oeuvre. It suggests an urgency of communication. From Gauguin’s letters one can deduce an interpretation. The painting should be read from right to left as if it were a Hebrew Scroll. The viewer starts by looking at the sleeping infant, and moves on through the pregnant women, towards an old woman. It’s about existence and its cyclical nature. One woman plucks fruit from a tree, stretching upwards in the centre. Perhaps this is a reference to Adam and Eve: if so, does it suggest the death of paradise and Gauguin’s disillusionment with his Polynesian utopia. The frantic questioning which the title suggests is reflected in the painting’s disjointed narrative, its occasional chicanes and backtracks. There is a sense that he is attempting to paint existence without any certainty as to what it is. It was initially intended to be his suicide note: he was in debt and his favourite daughter had recently died. I suspect this made him reconsider the meaning of his life thus far.
Gauguin was a thoroughly unattractive man, but there is something unique and timeless in his paintings. That sense of regret and recognition of one’s inner wrongs pervades in his paintings: and perhaps that is why we can still bear exhibitions of his paintings. It would be a tremendous loss if we were to cancel him, to let him slip into history’s vast and forgotten abyss.