Art Review:

Gauguin’s ‘Going Away’

By Ina Cole
ART TIMES Nov/ Dec 2010

PAUL GAUGUIN  self portraitSelf-Portrait with Manao tu Papau (1893), oil on canvas, 460 x 380 mm, (Courtesy Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France)

PAUL GAUGUIN (1848-1903) perfectly appropriates the mythologised image of artist as solitary figure, fleeing convention and misunderstood by his contemporaries, only to be appreciated decades later when generations reach the stage he once occupied. A plethora of articles exist with regards to Gauguin’s personal and artistic intentions, some highly critical, but interest in the artist refuses to wane. In 1988 the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC debuted a touring exhibition of Gauguin’s work — which attracted over 6,000 visitors a day — and it will be telling, in light of continuing discourse, to witness comparative interest in the current UK and US presentations of the artist’s work.

Gauguin’s intention to represent an idealised culture became evident during the years he spent in Brittany in the mid 1880s, where he believed he had discovered a context for artistic endeavour that was satisfactorily opposed to the ethos of metropolitan Paris. He had lost his position as a stockbroker in the financial crisis of 1882-3, a factor that helped propel him towards a career as a full-time artist. By 1890 he became preoccupied with removing himself more permanently from civilised society. However, Gauguin did not speak any language other than French, which restricted his location to the French colonies. He considered Panama, Martinique, Madagascar, and the Ile de la Réunion, before receiving a government subvention to go to Tahiti in 1891, leaving behind a wife and five children.

His well-documented travels were not atypical for the time, as the alleged ‘going away’ was perceived as the ultimate modern experience, entrenched in nineteenth and twentieth-century assumptions about the avant-garde artists’ role as a pioneer of new modes of representation. The ‘going away’ provided a separation from the norm and the specific social ties associated with that, launching the individual out of time and space in an alien location, often involving an intensive bonding with the new place. No doubt Gauguin viewed his newfound location as a profoundly symbolic site, where he could perform a kind of ritual from which to emerge with a feeling of enlightenment. In a sense, his chosen site affirmed a goal of communication with immortal spirits of long ago, and the desire for contact with an idealised past became a pervasive and sustaining impetus.

Faa Iheihe oil on canvas by Paul GauguinFaa Iheihe (1898), oil on canvas, 540 x 1695 mm, (Courtesy Tate)

Faa Iheihe perfectly illustrates Gauguin’s hope in a culture that, for him, presented an alternative way of life. It was painted in 1898, a few months after Where Do We Come From?  What Are We? Where Are We Going?, an allegory of life and death, which Gauguin had created immediately prior to his failed suicide attempt as an intended magnum opus. The mood in Faa Iheihe is strikingly different to Where Do We Come From?, suggesting a remarkably altered state of mind. It is an important example of the artist’s mature style, presenting a vision of archetypal figures residing in harmony with each other and with their organic environment. Its frieze-like format and central ceremonial figure take their inspiration from Javanese culture, and the title of the work, which has been the subject of much scholarly debate, is thought to mean ‘to beautify’. Faa Iheihe emanates a strong sense of expectation, as though its characters are in preparation for a significant event. It embodies Gauguin’s search for an idealised world — a frozen moment in time where all seems bearable - and in that sense the work also acts as a calming respite from his earlier tormented thoughts.

The inherent difficulty associated with the ‘going away’ is that the history of a place is often viewed from the position of pre-conceived expectations, which arise from the way it has been packaged by society. It is difficult to know what understanding of history Gauguin actually had, as indigenous cultures are often presented in a relatively superficial way in order to be understood, and Gauguin’s view of Tahiti was apparently coloured by information gleaned from colonial pamphlets. It is therefore questionable whether the sentimentality about Tahitian life is based on little more than an illusion, providing the basis of a mythology that functions to sustain comfortable visions of the past. Indeed, by the time Gauguin arrived on the island, local culture had already been largely destroyed by disease and by the work of the Calvinist, Mormon and Catholic missionaries. Virtually nothing remained of ancient Tahitian religion and mythology, and the distinction between Polynesian reality and Gauguin’s reconstruction of it is tinged with irony. In a letter to the Swedish playwright, August Strindberg, Gauguin had claimed that ‘civilisation is what you are suffering from; to me barbarism is a rejuvenation’. However, Gauguin never learnt to speak the language, apparently maintained a largely European diet of biscuits, macaroni and tinned beef, and existed on the charity of Tahitian villagers and other resident Europeans.

This kind of identification with a specific place can result in a constructed community, bound together through the creation of an imagined utopia. Although it can be argued that this was the case with Tahiti, for Gauguin the place did become an adopted site for the projection and identification of the self, where he created some of his finest work. His fascination with a culture whose existence was so different from his own resulted in an immediately recognisable art form that attempted to alter the spectator’s way of viewing the world. In Faa Iheihe the isolation of characters induce the observer to fix their attention onto objects that seemingly exist in some other realm, a sensation heightened by the artist’s palette of intoxicating golden hues. Gauguin became something of a semiotician, and his images were constructed through a collection of preordained signs associated with the idiosyncrasies of Tahiti, to produce a pictorial equivalent for his emotions. He had previously summed this up particularly well in relation to the direction taken by himself and his contemporaries, when he said that instead of ‘working outwards from the eye, we explored the mysterious centre of thought’ (L’Occident, May 1909).

As human beings eventually discover, often to their peril, the reality of a pre-conceived idyll comes with its own set of incumbent problems, and the flight from civilisation can become a dissatisfying and destabilising act. Gauguin eventually died of an overdose of morphine on another island, Hiva Oa, also part of the French colonial administration. Here, dossiers were compiled claiming the artist had a responsibility for indigenous resistance to colonial rule. Officials, inflamed by Gauguin’s actions and speech, placed him under almost constant surveillance, plotting ways to expel him from the Marquesas. Gauguin’s actions became increasingly contradictory, even irrational, towards the end of his life. As he accumulated enemies in the Marquesas and became forgotten by his contemporaries in Europe, his desire for inclusion resulted only in estrangement. Commenting on Gauguin’s inimitable passage through life, the art critic Maurice Denis wrote that, ‘For all the incoherent mess he made of his life, Gauguin would not tolerate any in his paintings. He loved order, a sign of intelligence’ (L’Occident). A dichotomy thereby exists between Gauguin’s need to encapsulate a culture he strongly identified with, and the difficulties forced upon him by the day-to-day realities of his situation. His ‘going away’ was certainly induced by a need to flee a tainted world, but disquiet often comes from within, not without, and the principal obstacle to Gauguin’s escape was ultimately himself.

*Gauguin’s Paradise Remembered: The Noa Noa Prints, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ (to 2 January 2011); Gauguin: Maker of Myth, Tate Modern, London (to 16 January 2011); touring to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (27 February – 5 June 2011).