Friday, March 2, 2007

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

Self-Portrait, 1893-4

I first discovered Gauguin's work in college and he became a favorite. A post-Impressionist, Gauguin's use of curving, distinct lines with bold colors (Cloisonnism) creates a strong visual impact, as does his use of exaggerated proportions. And because I have to bring everything back to ballet, Gauguin became a proponent of primitivism in art, with the ballet "Le Sacre du printemps" being a primary work of this artistic movement. If one ever gets to see the original 1913 choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky with recreations of the sets and costumes of Nicholas Roerich (The Joffrey Ballet has a revival every decade or so), to the famous pounding Stravinsky score, one can see how the shapes of the bodies, the movements (strong lines, turned in, bent arms and legs) and the earthy colors used on the costumes contrasting with the post-impressionist pastoral scenes of the sets reflects this artistic period.


Vision After the Sermon, 1888

(From two letters to Vincent Van Gogh, Pont-Aven, September 1888)
...Yes, you are right to want painting to have a coloring evocative of poetic ideas, and in that sense I agree with you, although with one difference. I am not acquainted with any poetic ideas - I'm probably missing a sense. I find everything poetic, and it is in the deepest recesses of my heart, that are sometimes mysterious, that I glimpse poetry. Forms and color brought into harmony produce poetry by themselves. Without allowing myself to be distracted by the subject, contemplation of a painting by another artist induces in me a feeling, a poetical state that becomes more intense the more the painter's intellectual powers emanate from it....

...I have just painted a religious picture, very badly done but it interested me and I like it. I wanted to give it to the church of Pont-Aven. Naturally they don't want it.

A group of Breton women are praying, their costumes very intense black. The coifs very luminous yellowy-white. The two coifs to the right are like monstrous helmets. An apple tree cuts across the canvas, dark purple with its foliage drawn in masses like emerald green clouds with patches of green and sun yellow. The ground (pure vermilion). In the church it darkens and becomes a browny red.

The angel is dressed in ultramarine blue and Jacob in bottle green. The angel's wings pure chrome yellow 1. The angel's hair chrome 2 and the feet flesh orange. I think I have achieved in the figures a great simplicity, rustic and superstitious. The whole thing very severe....

The Green Christ/Breton Calvary, 1889

(From a letter to Vincent Van Gogh, Le Pouldu, October 1889)
...Seeing this every day fills me with a sensation of struggle for survival, of melancholy and acquiesence in implacable laws. I am attempting to put this sensation down on canvas, not by chance, but quite deliberately, perhaps by exaggerating certain rigidities of posture, certain dark colors, etc...All this is perhaps mannered but what is natural in art? Ever since the most distant times, everything in art has been completely deliberate, a product of convention...in art, truth is what a person feels in the state of mind he happens to be in. Those who wish to or are able to can dream. Let those who wish to or are able to abandon themselves to their dreams. And dreams always come from the reality of nature. A savage will never see in his dreams a man dressed like a Parisian - etc....

(From a letter to Theo Van Gogh, Le Pouldu, November 1889)
...I'm seeking to express a general state rather than a single thought, and at the same time to make another person's eye experience an indefinite, never-ending impression. To suggest suffering does not mean to specify what sort of suffering; purity in general is what I am seeking to express, not a particular kind of purity. Literature is one (and painting another). In consequence, the thought is suggested but not explained...

It's the same with the painting of the 3 stone women holding Christ. Brittany, simple superstition and desolation. The hill is guarded by a line of cows arranged in the form of the calvary. I've tried to make everything in this picture express belief and passive suffering in the traditional religious style, as well as the power of nature with its great scream. I am wrong not to be good enough to express it better - but I am not wrong to conceive it...

You know that I have Indian blood, Inca blood in me, and it's reflected in everything I do. It's the basis of my personality; I try to confront rotten civilization with something more natural, based on savagery...


D'où venons nous? Que sommes nous? Où allons nous?/Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897-98

(From a letter to Andre Fontainas, Tahiti, March 1899)
Color, which is vibration just as music is, is able to attain what is most universal yet at the same time most elusive in nature: its inner force.

Here near my cabin, in complete silence, amid the intoxicating perfumes of nature, I dream of violent harmonies. A delight enhanced by I know not what sacred horror I divine in the infinite. An aroma of long-vanquished joy that I breathe in the present. Animal figures rigid as statues, with something indescribably solemn and religious in the rhythm of their pose, in their strange immobility. In eyes that dream, the troubled surface of an unfathomable enigma.
...In praise of certain pictures that I considered unimportant you exclaim, 'If only Gauguin were always like that!' But I don't want to be always like that.
...To go back to the panel [Where do we come from]: the idol is there not as a literary symbol, but as a statue, yet perhaps less of a statue than the animal figures, less animal also, an integral part, in my dream before my cabin, of the whole of nature, dominating our primitive soul, the unearthly consolation of our sufferings to the extent that they are vague and incomprehensible before the mystery of our origin and of our future.

And all this sings with sadness in my soul and in my design while I paint and dream at the same time with no tangible allegory within my reach - due perhaps to a lack of literary education.

Awakening with my work finished, I ask myself 'Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?' A thought which no longer has anything to do with the canvas, expressed in words quite apart on the wall that surround it. Not a title but a signature.

Mahana No Atua/ The Day of the God, 1894

(From a letter to Charles Morice, Atuona, Hiva-Oa, 1903)
...You were mistaken one day when you said I was wrong to say that I am a savage. For it is true: I am a savage. And civilized people suspect this, for in my works there is nothing so surprising and baffling as this 'savage in spite of myself' aspect. That is why it is initimable....In art we have just undergone a very long period of aberration due to physics, mechanical chemistry, and the study of nature. Artists have lost all their savagery, all their instincts, one might say their imagination, and so they have wandered down every kind of path in order to find the undisciplined crowds and feel frightened, lost as it were, when they are alone. That is why solitude is not to be recommended to everyone, for you have to be strong in order to bear it and act alone. Everything I learned from other people merely stood in my way. Thus I can say: no one taught me anything. On the other hand, it is true that I know so little! But I prefer that little, which is of my own creation. And who knows whether that little, when put to use by others, will not become something big?...

(Letters in "Gauguin by Himself" edited by Belinda Thomson, 2001)

1 comment:

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

"And dreams always come from the reality of nature. A savage will never see in his dreams a man dressed like a Parisian - etc...."

Pause. Mmmmmm.....

This is yet another reason I think many artists have come much closer to God than most "religious" people have, maybe even some saints, at least some of the time.