Contes Barbares

Gauguin had a "terrible itching for the unknown -- which makes me commit follies," and which drove him on, both in his life and in his painting. He also had a strange kind of faithfulness (or nostalgia), to his earlier self, and to the origins of his art. However far he left Paris behind, however much he loved the tropics, he was still an exile from France, and a conscious exile from the European tradition.

The elements of this picture bear witness to the diversity of its sources, and how the painter has joined his own past and present -- part of that present an imaginary one. The face of the storyteller in blue, crouched, and cramped by the frame, with deformed features and clawed feet, repeats a portrait of his dwarfed Dutch painter friend Meyer de Haan with whom he had worked in Brittany in 1889. The central figure is in an idol-like position, often used by Gauguin to suggest a legendary theme. And the girl on the right, more delicate-featured, with flowers in her hair, and seated in a field of flowers, reminded the critic Charles Morice (one can see why) of Botticelli. The composition, with its sharp diagonal of the ground rising to the right, and the people rising to the left, recalls the flattened symbolic arrangements of his Brittany pictures of the eighties, influenced by Japanese prints. From these varied, and still evident sources the painter has created a painting which holds together because of a pictorial unity -- yet is strange because of the strangeness of its many origins.

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