Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Dug-out (1896)

The first year of Gauguin’s second visit to Tahiti was probably the happiest of his life. Having given up trying to please a European audience with over-stylised depictions of visionary scenes, Gauguin attempted to provide a genuine insight into Tahitian culture. Living in the jungle amongst natives as yet untouched by modern civilisation, Gauguin – now the proud father of a Tahitian child - had a unique opportunity to record their daily life.

In the “Dug-out” Gauguin depicts the simple life of a Tahitian family. They are contented, self-sufficient and live in harmony with their surroundings. They drink out of wooden bowls while relaxing next to their rudimentary canoe. The axe in the foreground implies that they have just constructed the canoe by hollowing-out timber cut from the forest. They have worked together as a family; even the toddler has contributed, learning to harvest the natural environment at an early age. Their expressions are completely relaxed. Having completed their labours, they are totally at peace with each other and the world. The scene is lit by the golden glow of a glorious sunset. The boat - traditionally a means of escaping danger – has become a symbol of self-sufficiency.

In the “Dug-out” Gauguin celebrates the joys of family life through the depiction of an everyday scene. Gauguin, whose pictures tend to reflect his own state of mind, finally appears to have achieved inner peace.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Not Working (1896)

By the time Gauguin returned to Tahiti, he had accepted that he would never achieve material success. He no longer attempted to adapt his Tahitian pictures to European tastes and increasingly painted monumental canvasses which were virtually unsaleable. Gauguin now abandoned his stereotypical depictions of exotic Tahitian women and embarked on a genuine exploration of Tahitian culture.

Gauguin had previously presented the Tahitians as a primitive people who lived in unity with nature as God had intended. He had described Tahiti as a paradise and compared it to the Garden of Eden. European civilisation, he had argued, was a corruption of man’s true nature and the product of human sin. Now he no longer portrayed the clash of cultures in such a fantastical manner but concentrated instead on genuine differences between European and Tahitian values.

“Not working” contrasts the easy-going Tahitian culture with the European work-ethic. Although Gauguin has accepted that he will never prosper as an artist he remains prolific and can not bear idleness. In this picture he contrasts his own attitudes with those of the two Tahitians lazily smoking a pipe. They are not ashamed of their idleness. There are no tools to prompt them to work. Their hut is empty and they possess only the bare essentials. They take pleasure in inactivity just like the dog sitting in the doorway and the cat snoozing at their feet. They are instinctive free-spirited creatures unlike Gauguin, a restless soul, who is portrayed wearing a white robe and gazing into the hut from a distance.

Gauguin no longer views the Tahitian lifestyle as evidence of man’s unity with nature. He simply accepts that different cultures have different belief systems. The Tahitians are more in tune with their natural instincts because they are less self-conscious than Europeans.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Nativity (1896)

On his return to Tahiti, Gauguin was given a tour of the island by the French colonial governor. The capital Papeete was beginning to resemble a typical European town. A power station had been constructed and there was now electric lighting, paved roads, a sewage system and a telephone exchange. Gauguin retreated to the jungle where he lived in a primitive hut, and took a fourteen year-old lover whom he infected with syphilis.

Gauguin's letters home described the natives as gentle and naive “to the point of stupidity”. Not content with one teenage lover, Gauguin seduced several others and fathered at least one child. He boasted to his friends about the infatuated girls who came to his bed “as if possessed”.

Having been cruelly rejected by the European art establishment, Gauguin found solace in Tahitian hospitality. He never once considered himself as a corrupting influence. Instead he claimed to be living in harmony with nature, arguing that the carefree innocence of his Tahitian hosts reflected the true human condition untainted by the laws and morals of the supposedly civilised world.

In“Nativity” a Tahitian girl lies horizontally on a simple bed in the foreground. Her halo indicates that she is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her crude hut resembles a stable and is shared with the livestock in the background. Her newly born child is held by the nurse who sits at her bedside. The child's halo identifies him as Jesus. Gauguin, the child's father, appears as a shadowy figure in the background. Gauguin is no longer the tormented or martyred Christ but God the Father and compares his artistic creativity with the power of divine creation.

The “Nativity” is an optimistic picture. Gauguin appears to have found contentment in fatherhood and the adoration of his teenage lovers.

Image Source: The Yorck Project

Friday, March 9, 2007

Self-Portrait (1896)

Cushioned by his uncle’s legacy, Gauguin attempted to become a fashionable figure on the Paris art scene. However, he was still very much the rebel and courted controversy by dressing in an outlandish manner and setting up home with Anna, a Javanese prostitute, notorious for dancing naked with a monkey at gentleman’s parties. Gauguin’s own family were scandalised. His estranged wife Mette and their five children did not see a penny of Gauguin’s legacy. Indeed Gauguin’s relations with his family deteriorated even further after he discovered that Mette had intercepted payments due to him.

Gauguin failed to re-establish himself in the Paris art world. Although he still had admirers, the artist’s colony which he had previously dominated at Pont-Aven had long since dispersed. On revisiting the area, Gauguin brawled with some sailors and broke his ankle. While he was hospitalised, Anna stole most of his possessions, and found another lover. Gauguin was later convicted of a public order offence. Shortly afterwards Gauguin lost a legal action for the restitution of several pictures which he claimed had been sold without his permission. In an attempt to revive his flagging fortunes, Gauguin held another auction of his work. One of his closest friends, the dramatist August Strindberg, refused to write an introduction to the catalogue. The event was a complete disaster and Gauguin sold hardly anything.

It was against this background that Gauguin returned to Tahiti. Once again he slipped into a deep depression and found solace in self-pity, claiming the status of a persecuted martyr. In “Self-Portrait”, a gaunt and resigned Gauguin gazes out of the canvass. Once again he accuses the world of unjustly failing to appreciate his talent. However, unlike previous self-portraits Gauguin now appears resigned to his fate. The background is no longer bright and decorative but impenetrably dark and haunted by the vague outlines of two ghostly spectres. Gauguin now accepts that he will never achieve material success and has settled for the role of a visionary martyr.

Image Source: The Yorck Project

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Cellist (1894)

Although Gauguin was an intensely ambitious man who desired material success, he flatly refused to compromise his artistic integrity. Gauguin did not prosper in Tahiti. Indeed he became seriously ill and returned to France in 1893. Although his Paris agent had sold many of the pictures shipped home from Tahiti, Gauguin had difficulty in collecting the money. Fortunately his uncle had left Gauguin a legacy which he promptly invested in a fashionable apartment and a public exhibition of his work.

Gauguin, welcomed as something of a celebrity by his fellow artists, was ridiculed by the critics. They dismissed his paintings as childish and condemned his simplified abstract forms as poorly drawn, sensational and self-indulgent. Gauguin’s art failed to satisfy the public appetite for a distant exotic paradise and his exhibition was a total failure.

It was against this background that Gauguin painted the “Cellist”, a portrait of an unknown musician, Upaupa Sckneklud, who is so similar in appearance to Gauguin that the picture may in fact be a self-portrait. Gauguin captures the alert intensity of an artist in mid-performance and implies a vigorous sense of movement though an ornamental background which emphasises the contrast between the static cello and the musician's tense posture.

In the “Cellist” Gauguin again explores the theory of synaesthesia by attempting to convey the idea of music through visual art. The picture was well received; indeed it was one of Gauguin’s most popular works to date. If Gauguin had stayed in Paris and produced more of the same then he would undoubtedly have prospered.

The “Cellist” is in many ways a typical Gauguin picture. A dominant cropped foreground figure is combined with an abstract background intended to provoke a pyschological reaction. The "Cellist" does not compromise Gauguin's professed artistic principles. It simply substitutes a sophisticated male musician in place of the usual "primitive" Tahitian model.

So why does Gauguin fail to capitalise on this success? It seems that he had a depressive side to his character which even his old "friend" Emile Schuffenecker was unable to understand. Despite having scored a considerable success, Gauguin once again drifts into relative poverty and isolation. Why would such a shrewd man act so foolishly?

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Woman with a Flower (1893)

Gauguin’s female models, whether Breton peasants or Tahitian natives, are generally depicted as instinctive and superstitious creatures. This may have reflected Gauguin’s own attitude to women; however in the case of his Breton models he claimed to be a primitivist probing beneath the veneer of civilisation. Gauguin implied the rustic backwardness of his Breton peasants by dressing them in traditional costume. However, the nakedness of his Tahitian models sufficiently indicates their supposedly primitive natures.

Gauguin has been criticised for racial stereotyping. Indeed most of his models lack subjective characteristics and he rarely attempts to explore their individual personalities, appearing entirely insensitive in this regard. It might even be argued that Gauguin was completely self-obsessed. His relationship with his own family and his"friendships" with Vincent Van Gogh and Emile Schuffenecker seem to support this view.

“Woman with a Flower” is a rare sensitive portrait of a fully-clothed and dignified Tahitian woman holding a flower, the symbol of life and fertility. Gauguin does not contrast his model with a second supernatural motif or incorporate her within a harsh pattern of abstract lines. Instead he captures her melancholy nature through simple direct portraiture.

Although Gauguin demonstrates intuitive sensitivity in “Woman with a Flower”, many critics dismiss the painting as yet further evidence of his own self-obsessive nature. This is because the background has been recycled from Gauguin's own 1889 self-portrait in which he portrayed himself as a melancholy genius. It is therefore possible that the picture reflects his own mood rather than any genuine emotion on the part of his model.

Image Source: The Yorck Project

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Tahitian Landscape (1893)

Gauguin attempted to develop new techniques in Tahiti. His basic style had changed very little during the previous five years. Many of his canvasses combine a looming foreground figure with a deep perspective and an equally significant background figure. The foreground and background figures are skilfully combined and the perspective is occasionally distorted in order to emphasise a certain characteristic (e.g. the timidity of Emile Schuffenecker in the Schuffenecker family).

“Tahitian Landscape” is one of the few pictures in which Gauguin dispenses with a foreground motif and focuses entirely on the background. Having resisted the temptation to follow his normal pattern of composition, he becomes even more reliant on his other trademarks such as the use of intense and unnatural colour to create a rhythmic unity and the combination of abstract and realist forms.

The result is a superbly atmospheric painting with a beautiful pattern of intense colours. The picture retains a certain tension appropriate to the primitive natural world through its combination of realist and abstract forms. Whereas the palm trees, the clouds and the distant peak are clearly recognisable as such, the foothills and the other trees are merely suggested. He also creates a harsh contrast between the various elements of the composition by applying an incorrect perspective to the palm trees. This heightens the tension of the picture and draws the viewer’s eye across the canvass towards the distant mountain peak.

Although Gauguin is experimenting with a different style of composition he remains obsessed with his favourite theme: the unity of man with nature. The barely perceptible traveller, who wearily balances a heavy load on his shoulders, is merged into the vastness of nature. His dog assumes an equal if not greater significance. The clossionist division of the painting into simplified blocks of colour implies a natural order where everything has its place. Man is an insignificant and temporary presence in a monumental landscape.

Image Source: The Yorck Project