Gauguin: a prophet of modern art

IN March, 1891, just before Paul Gauguin left Paris on his first trip to Tahiti, a farewell dinner was held in his honor at the Caf'e Voltaire. At this dinner the symbolist poet Mallarm'e offered a toast: ``To the return of Paul Gauguin, but not without admiring his superb conscience which drives him into exile, at the peak of his talent, to seek new strength in a far country and in his own nature.'' In some contrast to such adulatory, idealistic phrases, Gauguin's one-time friend and mentor, the painter Camille Pissarro, suggested ironically that this dinner, as well as various other eve-of-departure events, had been more or less engineered by Gauguin (who could be an energetic self-publicist) in order to ``get himself elected a man of genius.''

Gauguin himself recognized two diametrically opposite sides to his character, which he described as the ``sensitive'' and the ``savage.'' The savage side was what he progressively took to be his persona in the 20 years of his career as an artist. He flouted convention and abandoned social responsibilities with a ruthless self-regard that might possibly be justified if posterity were to conclude that he was indeed ``a man of genius.''

Not that he was alone as an artist in putting his art above everything - though he certainly went further than many. But his conviction was that only by a fierce renunciation of the ordinary could he be the artist he felt he was. He justified his relinquishment of his wife and children, his quarrelsomeness with friends, his escapism, his self-deceptions, his promiscuity, even presumably the lies and half-truths he printed about his life in Tahiti, in his book ``Noa-Noa'' - all because he believed it to be the only way in which his art could be liberated.

What he wanted to establish, he said, was the artist's ``right to dare everything.'' In such a pronouncement (and with most of the 20th century now lying between us and him), it is possible to see that he was instinctively prophesying the modern art that came after him.

In his art and attitudes can be found seeds for the coming century: the art of the primitive and naive; the art of symbol, dream, and imagination; the escape from merely observant naturalism; the ascendancy of the abstract elements of color and form as conveyers of feeling; the necessity of the artist to be forever avant-garde. All these were vigorously embodied in Gauguin.

He saw himself the figure at the very center of his art, as a martyr, a victim. He compared himself to the hero of Victor Hugo's ``Les Mis'erables.'' He said in 1898 (with unusual self-effacement): ``...the martyr is often necessary for a revolution. My work has little importance compared to its consequences: the freeing of painting from all restrictions.''

The two contrasting pictures shown here, painted with only a little more than four years between them, show something of the revolution he wrought in his own work.

``Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven'' was painted in mid-June 1888 during his second stay in Brittany. He liked Brittany because it was an escape from Paris. In February that year he had written to a friend, `` I find a savage, primitive quality. When my wooden shoes echo on this granite ground, I hear the dull, muted, powerful sound I am looking for in painting.''

Brittany was for him something of a dry run for his eventual escape to the South Seas. In fact this part of France was already immensely popular as a haven for artists, drawn there like Gauguin because of its primitiveness - and its cheapness. But in mid-1888 it hadn't really become apparent yet, even to Gauguin, what ``primitiveness'' could mean. The ring of little girls, in clogs and heavy, traditional peasant costume, was a delightful folk subject enjoyed by other artists who came to the area.

The conventional popularity of its theme was reflected in the fact that Gauguin's Paris dealer, Theo van Gogh (Vincent's brother), managed to sell it - though not before a client had requested that the artist make a small alteration to the way he had painted the hand of the little girl on the left: It had seemed too prominent. It is interesting that the budding genius (in need of money) apparently complied without demur.

There is a fresh charm to the way these small dancers define the space through which they revolve. But the landscape (which has been identified as a particular field) is very much in line with the luminous, on-the-spot naturalism of the Impressionists.

It might almost have been painted by Pissarro - who also, incidentally, favored peasant subjects. There isn't much of Gauguin's future in this painting; perhaps some small hint of the decorativeness that was later to become so important in his work.

That decorativeness is, however, certainly evident in ``Tahitian Pastorals,'' which was painted near the end of Gauguin's first stay in Tahiti, in December 1892 (though he dated it 1893).

This is one of the less well-known paintings to be included in the current mammoth Gauguin exhibition in Washington. It belongs to the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. It shows how by that date the artist had carried his art deep into the realms of myth and dream. Gone is any kind of realistically observed landscape setting. The dominant colors are a viridian (he called it ``Veronese'') green, pure vermilion, and yellow.

Gauguin likened this work to an old tapestry. Its forms are flattened shapes, simply outlined and boldly placed. Richard S. Field has described the space in it as follows: ``After the rich scumbles and broken tones of the foreground plane, Gauguin stuns the viewer with extremely simple and bright tones that are contained within the tightest of boundaries. Only in the foliage and on the horizon do bits of yellow-green fuse with their surrounding tones to convey a sense of distant and glowing light. Otherwise the space is limitless, sterile, and intangible.''

The Tahitian girls are part of this arrangement without being obtrusive. In fact these rather stiff and distant figures, strangely like mannequins, are upstaged by the red sniffing dog (which might have lurched out of a painting by Piero di Cosimo). Scent and music are both suggested in this intensely romantic painting.

Difficulties encountered by art historians in discovering any conclusive explanation for the symbolism that hangs heavy in its night air would have only pleased Gauguin. Although he sometimes felt the need to explain his paintings to an uncomprehending and aggressive public, he was still in favor of mystery and enigma as essential to art.

He was concerned, by this time, with the South Seas' past, with its religious beliefs and superstitions.

If he had wanted to approach the Tahitian culture naturalistically in his art he would not have been able to do so without losing the basic primitivism of his vision. Tahiti had already been thoroughly Westernized for a century by missionaries and colonials. It wasn't at all the idyllic escape he had dreamed of.

In the event, this acted as a profound stimulus to his fantasy. His Tahitian paintings are a remarkable and vibrant evocation of the primeval paradise of his imagination. Perhaps Mallarm'e had been right: This ``far country'' forced him to find new things in the recesses of his own nature.

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