Paul Gauguin did not lack for confidence. “I am a great artist, and I know it,” he boasted in a letter in 1892 to his wife. He said much the same thing to friends, his dealers and the public, often describing his work as even better than what had come before. In light of the history of modern art, his confidence was justified.
From This Story
A painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramist and writer, Gauguin stands today as one of the giants of Post-Impressionism and a pioneer of Modernism. He was also a great storyteller, creating narratives in every medium he touched. Some of his tales were true, others near-fabrications. Even the lush Tahitian masterpieces for which he is best known reflect an exotic paradise more imaginary than real. The fables Gauguin spun were meant to promote himself and his art, an intention that was more successful with the man than his work; he was well known during his lifetime, but his paintings sold poorly.
“Gauguin created his own persona and established his own myth as to what kind of a man he was,” says Nicholas Serota, the director of London’s Tate, whose exhibition, “Gauguin: Maker of Myth,” traveled last month to Washington’s National Gallery of Art (until June 5). “Gauguin had the genuine sense that he had artistic greatness,” says Belinda Thomson, curator of the Tate Modern’s exhibition. “But he also plays games, so you are not sure whether you can take him literally.”
Of the nearly 120 works on display in Washington, several tantalizing self-portraits depict Gauguin in various guises: struggling painter in a garret studio; persecuted victim; even as Christ in the Garden of Olives. An 1889 self-portrait shows him with a saintly halo and a devilish snake (with Garden of Eden apples for good measure), suggesting just how contradictory he could be.
Certainly the artist would have been pleased by the renewed attention; his goal, after all, was to be famous. He dressed bizarrely, wrote self-serving critiques of his work, courted the press and even handed out photographs of himself to his fans. He was often drunk, belligerent and promiscuous—and possibly suicidal. He removed himself from Paris society to increasingly exotic places—Brittany, Martinique, Tahiti and finally to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia—to escape a world he felt was modernizing too quickly.
His vivid colors, flattening of perspective, simplified forms and discovery of so-called primitive art led scholars to credit him with influencing Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism. His powerful personality also helped establish the convention of artist as iconoclast (think Andy Warhol or Julian Schnabel). “He drew from French symbolism and poetry, from English philosophy, the Bible and the South Seas legends,” says Mary G. Morton, the curator of French paintings at the National Gallery. “He took a multicultural approach to his work.”
Soyez mystérieuses (Be mysterious) is the title Gauguin gave to a wood bas-relief carving of a female bather. It was a precept by which he lived. As if his paintings were not sufficiently full of ambiguity, he gave them deliberately confusing titles. Some were in the form of questions, such as Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, a tropical scene as puzzling as its title. Others were written in Tahitian, a language some potential buyers found off-putting. Even in his earliest pictures Gauguin would insert some odd object: an outsize tankard, for example, in the otherwise charming portrait of his sleeping young son, Clovis. In The Loss of Virginity, the strange element is a fox, whose paw casually rests on the breast of a naked woman lying in a Brittany landscape. (The model, a Paris seamstress, would soon bear Gauguin’s child, a daughter named Germaine.)
The artist himself was likely the fox in the picture, an animal he claimed was the “Indian Symbol of perversity.” One-eighth Peruvian, this son of bourgeois Parisians often referred to himself as part savage. His first dealer, Theo van Gogh (brother of Vincent), suggested that Gauguin’s work was hard to sell because he was “half Inca, half European, superstitious like the former and advanced in ideas like certain of the latter.”