The ancestry of Paul Gauguin, who was born on June 7, 1848, in Paris, was, to say the least of it, peculiar; indeed on comic opera lines. There figured in it the stock characters of such entertainments: a King of Peru, a lady of letters, a jealous lover who shoots her and is sentenced to penal servitude, a wine-merchant from Bordeaux--and the inevitable Spanish Colonel.
Gauguin had an early taste of the Latin-American scene, being taken there at the age of three (he was, however, brought back to France some years later). When he was nine he ran away from home, with a tramp's wallet and staff for his sole equipment. In his sixteenth year he took to the sea, as an apprentice in the merchant service, and saw many remote corners of the world. On his return to France he married a Danish lady, by whom he had five children. He became a successful stockbroker, and did well on the Bourse, but threw up a good post, and lost all his money; then he was, successively, a commercial traveller, a navvy employed on the Panama Canal (for he had a herculean frame), secretary to a company, a bill-sticker, and finally--after some other avatars--a painter.
He had now found a vocation, unforeseen but fated to be permanent. Still it would not have been like Gauguin not to complicate his new existence. On the usual pretext --that of a craving for evasion, "to escape, far, far away, where Nature is at her most exotic," as Mallarmé, the poet, put it--he took sail for the South Sea Islands, on which his choice had fallen, presumably because it would be hard to find a place remoter from France. And after a series of misadventures due to his cantankerous disposition, after creating masterpieces for which almost none of his contemporaries had any use, he died miserably poor and broken in health, neglected and alone.
Such was the picturesque life-story of this singular man. A versatile romancer, a dreamer of exotic dreams, a Bohemian born, with a loathing for every sort of control and an itch for travel, Gauguin had something in him of the knight-errant in quest of an earthly paradise. He held strong ideas of his own and was always ready to indulge in the most scatterbrain exploits; in short, he was an enfant terrible who indulged his natural "contrariness" even on the aesthetic plane, but, above all, and though we cannot imagine how this came about, a painter of genius.
In painting Gauguin found something he had hardly dared to hope for, a means of synthesizing (to use a word he greatly favoured at one period) the multitude of cross-purposes that had hitherto embarrassed him, and welding them together into an harmonious whole. His work, whether the scene be Brittany or the South Seas, is pervaded by colour rhythms whose tone and form alike are imbued with melancholy, deep but never desperate. His happily inspired, wholly unique palette is remarkable for its rich, pervasive harmonies; though the tones are brilliant, they are muted, recalling--a legitimate analogy since Gauguin himself often associated painting with music--the effect of muted trumpets in jazz bands.
Gauguin became aware of his vocation when in 1871 he made the acquaintance of Schuffenecker, a business colleague, who devoted himself to painting in his leisure hours. It is noteworthy that Gauguin was not a born artist; he became an artist deliberately. At first he painted as an amateur, and perhaps he would never have gone farther, had he not met Pissarro in 1876. Until now Gauguin had, like all beginners, aimed at realism. He even exhibited in the 1876 Salon, securing admission easily enough. Then came the great slump of 1883. He abandoned his financial career, in which he had done very well for himself, and told his friends, "Now at last I shall paint every day."
He now tried his hand at Impressionism, but soon found that the detailed analysis its juxtaposed touches of colour necessitated cramped his style. He blamed Impressionism for centering its research-work on the eye instead of on the secret places of the heart. Indeed he vigorously combated most of the theories of his impressionist friends; for he required broad surfaces to work on, without lingering over details, much as he needed complete personal freedom and opportunities of travel in far lands. It was perhaps this craving for the remote that made him so keenly interested in Japanese colourprints. Then a new idea waylaid him--he was always having new ideas. Living was cheaper in Brittany, and he now was short of money; so he migrated (in 1886) to Pont-Aven. Here he met Schuffenecker again, and made Emile Bernard's acquaintance.
They spent much time discussing art, and that burning topic of the day, the Symbolist Manifesto, which had just been published and declared that the whole duty of the artist was "to clothe the idea in a perceptible form." Here was a theory after Gauguin's heart; it justified his replacing the prevailing semi-anecdotal art by the ideology that meant so much to him. Needless to say, he affected to disdain Symbolism, but he stood by its principles none the less. Thus in his South Seas compositions we see him trying "to clothe in a perceptible form" the ideas behind his Tahitian Eve and The Enigma Lurking in the Depths of her Eyes. Luckily Gauguin's "perceptible forms" were of greater value than his "ideas." However misty, even muddled, were the latter, his methods of expressing them were admirably lucid and precise.
Likewise he championed Synthesis, as a counterblast to impressionist analytics; though this did not prevent him from ridiculing it when he saw fellow-artists making a fetish of its theories. His taste for Japanese art, for stained-glass windows, and even for the gaudy picture-sheets so popular in the last century--all which seemed to fit in with his ideas of Synthesism--led him on to what was known as Cloisonnism, which means binding surfaces with heavy contour-lines. It was during this phase that he painted that amazing Vision after the Sermon. By now his true personality was asserting itself. "There are noble lines," he said, "and deceptive lines; the straight line gives us infinity, the curve limits creation." Japanese art had taught him much; he now wished to eliminate, to strip his canvas of all but essentials. Form was to be suggested by pure colour; this was now the "Synthesis" he aimed at, and he preconized it with all the zeal of the neophyte, though, as we have already said, his sense of humour came to the fore when he saw it mechanically exploited by disciples who failed to grasp it emotionally. This was Gauguin's most rewarding discovery, the key to his telling simplifications and the fine integrity of his close-knit forms. "Art is an abstraction." He no longer gazes on nature with a view to interpreting it by means of an equivalent; as he tells us, he "thinks" his picture first. (We are reminded of Raphael In ipsius mente).
Of his Christ in the Garden of Olives he once said: "It is imbued with an abstract sadness, and sadness is my forte." Another of his remarks was: "What wonderful thoughts one can evoke by form and colour!" For his obsession with "thought" never left him. It was his cult of the Idea that led him to give such titles to his canvases as: "When are you getting married?" "Why are you angry?" "The Spirit of the Dead keeps Vigil" and his famous "Whence come we? What are we? Whither go we?" He had always had a weakness for the "legends" of those cheap picture-sheets--of the "tuppence-coloured" variety--which we have already mentioned; for the captions of illustrated newspapers, the inscriptions that punctuate the Stations of the Cross, ribbon stained-glass windows, and entwine Japanese prints. Fortunately this propensity for "ideas" did not interfere with his discoveries in the field of pure painting, whose great value lies precisely in the fact that they derive from the Unconscious--to which, as it so happened, Odilon Redon was now proclaiming his indebtedness. Much has been made of his cult of the exotic, but this was due above all to his constant desire to be on the move, seeking--he knew not what.
The dreams he dreamt in Brittany became realities in the South Seas, indeed his Tahitian technique conformed to that fine remark he made in earlier days: "Whenever my clogs strike this iron soil of Brittany, I hear that dull, muffled yet mighty resonance which I seek for in my painting."
Packed with suggestion, his art constantly aspired towards a pictorial equivalent of emotional experience. The influence he was to have on the "Nabis" group, on Sérusier (who was to act as spokesman of Gauguin's aesthetic theories), on Bonnard, Vuillard, Vallotton and Maurice Denis, was due to his feeling for the decorative--which they proceeded to stylize--and for the part that colour could be made to play, keyed up to its highest intensity. "How do you see this tree?" he once asked a friend. "It's green, you say? Well then put down green--the richest green on your palette." On the other hand Gauguin had much affection for Ingres and Delacroix, and indeed declared that there was nothing that drawing could not do. But "line is colour," he explained, and added: "Beware of complementary colours; you'll never get a harmony out of them, only a clash of tones." Two decades later Fauvism and Cubism took over his technique of using planes of flat colour set within dark outlines and his expressive contours--but only after purging his aesthetic theories of all ideological considerations.
Gauguin's boldness served as an example. "I wished," he wrote to his friend de Monfreid, "to vindicate the artist's right to dare everything." For that "right" he personally paid dear. His strange, adventurous career came to a melancholy end in the Marquesas Islands, where he died on April 1903 his limbs covered with eczema, under somewhat mysterious conditions. Suspicions were aroused by an empty medicine-bottle found beside him. He had made many enemies, some of them influential, by his denunciations of civilization and its hypocrisies, which had caused him so much suffering.