A pretty village in a wooded valley in southern Brittany, Pont-Aven is about the last place you’d expect anything revolutionary to have taken place. But on a riverbank just outside the village, in a spot believed sacred by the local people, Paul Gauguin can be said to have invented modern art.
The fact that such a claim may feel surprising is an indication of how far the French painter’s standing has slipped in the 55 years since his last major London exhibition. In those days, when modern art had only recently been allowed into the Tate, it went without saying that Gauguin was one of the seminal figures in the Modernist revolution – at least on a par with his friend, rival and sometime disciple Vincent van Gogh.
Since then, while van Gogh’s star has inexorably risen, Gauguin’s has declined. He is now seen as perhaps the slightest of the great Post-Impressionists, his brightly coloured scenes of Brittany and the South Seas lacking the rigour of Degas or Cézanne, the painful honesty of Lautrec or the quasi-scientific meticulousness of Seurat.
Even his passion, apparently so central to his art, has come to feel contrived beside van Gogh’s intuitive fervour. His tumultuous life story, with its abandoning of wife, children and bourgeois respectability, now seems faintly ridiculous, feminism having left us less admiring of overbearing, phallocratic alpha males. His embracing of the primitive – which once seemed so liberating – feels equally discredited, based on a wilful romanticisation of Polynesian culture.
This month, however, a blockbuster show at Tate Modern will aim to re‑establish Gauguin’s reputation with a spectacular gathering of images, many of them little seen. Gauguin, Maker of Myth reveals his art as hugely complex, reflecting his roles as intellectual and art world operator as well as self-proclaimed “savage”, a man who imposed himself on the art of the following century not only through the radicalism of his ideas, but through sheer force of personality.
Born in Paris in 1848, of part-Peruvian ancestry, son of a journalist, grandson of the early feminist leader Flora Tristan, Gauguin had a disrupted childhood, moving between France and South America. He was short, but with a striking appearance and formidable manner that made him appear, in the words of one associate, “buffoon, troubadour and pirate all at once”. He had the ability to compel those around him, to polarise every situation he entered – for better or worse. If he had gone into politics or religion, he might have a become a really dangerous character.
Having come to art relatively late, only deciding to become a full-time artist when in his mid-thirties, Gauguin set about constructing a persona to fit the new role he had assigned himself – artistic genius – using the elements of his own life story. A former merchant seaman who had circumnavigated the globe several times, Gauguin abandoned a lucrative career in the financial world, leaving his Danish wife and five children with her parents in Copenhagen – conventional family life being incompatible with the pursuit of artistic vision.
While still unknown to the world at large, he became a kind of guru to a coterie of younger artists, who functioned for him as disciples and alter egos. Relatively poorly read himself, he had an ability to fasten on to what was valuable in other people’s knowledge and ideas, generally making better use of them than they did themselves, before falling out with them in spectacular terms. The painter Emile Bernard accused Gauguin of stealing his ideas; another, Emile Schuffenecker, accused him of stealing his wife. Van Gogh ended up going for Gauguin with a razor.
Although he started out as an Impressionist, Gauguin grew impatient with the purely optical approach of his first mentor, Camille Pisarro. After a stay amid the brilliant tropical light of the French Caribbean, he went searching for a new path that would reveal the inner essence of things. In Brittany he found it, “the wild and the primitive… resonating in this granite ground”, though he had gone there initially because living was cheap and credit easy to obtain.
Before Gauguin’s arrival in Pont-Aven in 1886, the Breton village was just one of a number of artistic colonies dotted around northern France, a cosy haven for academic landscape painters. Afterwards, life in the little art scene became, as one observer put it, “every man for himself”. One evening in autumn 1888, a young student named Paul Sérusier came looking for Gauguin at the Pension Gloanec, Pont-Aven’s principal artists’ hang-out, begging the older artist to give him a lesson before he caught the train to Paris at noon the following day.
Shortly before his departure, Gauguin took Sérusier to the Bois d’Amour, a popular trysting place, where a stream slid past a wooded slope littered with boulders, the dwelling place, according to local lore, of woodland spirits. In what was to prove perhaps the most influential painting lesson in the history of art, Gauguin asked Sérusier what colour the trees appeared to him. “Yellow? Well then, put down the most beautiful yellow on your palette. And that shadow is blue, so render it with pure ultramarine. For those red leaves, use vermilion.”
Gauguin told Sérusier to cut out the muddy intermediary colours, to render every colour in its purest and most intense form, straight from the tube – to create what one of Sérusier’s fellow students later described as “a passionate equivalent to every sensation received”.
In the space of a few minutes, Gauguin set in train one of the principal trajectories in the art of the next hundred years, from the Fauvism of Matisse and Derain to the colour fields of Rothko and Barnett Newman – to which might be added the notion that it is the idea behind the work rather than the person who created it that is significant.
When Sérusier’s fellow students saw the tiny painting that Gauguin had “dictated” to Sérusier on the back of a cigar box – which looked like something Matisse might create 30 years later – they formed a new movement, the Nabis (Hebrew for “prophets”), which included such luminaries as Bonnard and Vuillard. They called the painting The Talisman, venerating it as an icon of the art that was to come.
Yet Gauguin was never a joiner himself; in fact he seemed to avoid agreeing with anyone on anything. When van Gogh spoke of his “poetic ideas”, Gauguin professed not to understand the concept, while later claiming to see poetry in everything. He veered close to Symbolism’s morbid, Romantic preoccupation with the artist’s inner world, yet recoiled from the movement’s literary bias – and, I dare say, the fact that Symbolism engendered so much bad art.
In 1891, Gauguin headed to the south Pacific to escape “everything that is artificial and conventional”, though his impression of Tahiti as an endless, guilt-free erotic idyll was gleaned principally from the works of the then massively popular Romantic novelist Pierre Loti. And throughout his time there he maintained a close watch on the Paris art world. Railing against the baleful effects of “civilisation” in all its forms, he was dependent on the daily postal service to maintain vital contact with friends and colleagues. Had Tahiti had an internet café, Gauguin would have been continually in and out of it.
Yet for all his apparent perversity, his artistic vision has a deep inner coherence. If visitors to Gauguin’s last major London exhibition in 1955 were most struck by the formal aspects of his art – the way his use of the light and colour of the tropics broke through the academic doors to make way for abstraction – what matters most to us in 2010 is what lies behind all this visual sumptuousness.
The prototype for a whole string of 20th-century bad-boy artists, Gauguin died facing a prison sentence for a series of offences against the French colonial authorities, including encouraging native children not to go to school. Yet his art was in essence profoundly religious.
While Gauguin set himself against the missionaries whom he accused of destroying Polynesian culture, elements of Christian imagery appear throughout his Tahitian paintings, just as they did in his works in Brittany. While he made attempts to study the islands’ already near-extinct traditional religion, his use of its motifs was never literal, let alone anthropological.
Indeed, all those heavy- limbed, heat-satiated Polynesian girls aren’t there merely to be pretty or tell us about the artist’s sex life in the islands – which was considerably less roisterous, certainly in his last years, than he intimated – but to resonate with a more universal sense of the mysterious and the divine.
Gauguin’s paintings touch on archetypal themes of maternity, desire, death, fear. Yet they remain enigmatic. If he saw every picture as imbued with meaning, it wasn’t necessary for him to understand precisely what those meanings were. In that sense, he remained true to the injunction he carved on the doorway of his final dwelling place in the Marquesas Islands: Soyez mystérieuses – Be mysterious.
In 1903, after the better part of 12 years in Polynesia, Gauguin faced death at the age of 54, his body weakened by alcohol, general dissipation (the effects of syphilis) and the tropical climate. Yet even then he was still observing and manipulating his image. While he longed to return to France, where he would have received better medical treatment, he feared that going back would damage the myth he had worked so hard to create of, as his friend Daniel de Monfreid put it, “the legendary artist who sends from the depths of Oceania his disconcerting, inimitable works”. Gauguin died a victim of another of his great legacies to art, an idea found endlessly in the work of subsequent artists from Picasso to Tracey Emin: “I am my art.”
- Gauguin: Maker of Myth is at Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888) from Sept 30 to Jan 16