PAUL GAUGIN (1848-1903) SYMBOLISTS ARTS DIALECTICAL RETREAT INTO MYSTICISM IN BRITTANY AND TAHITI. BY LAURENCE HUMPHRIES

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Paul Gaugin , a contemporary of Van Gogh was a completely different painter from Van Gogh. They were briefly friends. Paul Gaugin , a Banker for a period of time , discovered painting studied the great masters and decided to devote himself to primitivism , the same degenerate art practice that Delacroix had engaged on with his trip to Morocco. Gaugin would leave his family and spend the rest of his life painting in Brittany and finally in Tahiti.

Many commentators have suggested that Gaugin has painted the going away and his primitivism was bound up with his belief in mysticism and religion. ” Gaugin’s primitivism- that is his tendency to seek to represent and to idealise a supposedly uncivilised culture was already clear in evidence during the years he spent living and working in Brittany in the mid 1880’s”. [1].

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” The contemporary European obsession with the myth of the rural peasant as a figure of great moral worth uncorrupted by the sophistication and materialism of the modern world was a crucial shared interest”. [2].  This opinion is open to question , the real reason that Gaugin was interested in the primitive was to make his way as an artist and earn a living.

What was new for Gaugin and what he developed quite well was how he applied the paint. There is no doubt that Gaugin was technically brilliant and he could paint. at this time. He had engaged with Symbolism a movement that believed in art as a feeling , emotional and that it reflected inner feelings tied in with religious symbolism. ” The flattened areas of rich colour , the use of dark outlines and the distortions and simplifications are in part influenced by Symbolist ideas and practices”. [3]

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Gaugin’s obsession with local peasant women is evident in all his pictures from Breton. ” Nearly all Gaugin’s Breton paintings discussed so far include or are centred around images of local peasant women”. [4].

” Finally the construction of a Primitive art often (though not always) involved a gendered concept of nature and the natural”. [5].  These statements should be more specific. Gaugin had  euro centric and racist views , together with his sexist attitude he believed that as a white European painter he was superior to people from a different culture. Camille Pissaro , an impressionist painter and close friends with Paul Cezanne and Gustave Courbet had suggested that Gaugin’s art is created for the sake of the art market and the up and coming bourgeois. ” Pissaro is suggesting that Gaugin has jumped on a fashionable bandwagon and is producing not original works but paintings he knew would appeal to a bourgeois who were rediscovering various religious and spiritual cults”. [6].

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Camile  Pissaro in a letter to his son Lucien had stronger words to say about Gaugin. ” The Japanese practised this art as did the Chinese and their symbols are wonderfully natural, but then they were not Catholics and Gaugin is a Catholic. I do not criticise Gaugin for having painted a rose background nor do I object to the two struggling figures and the Breton peasants in the foreground. What I dislike is that he copied these elements from the Japanese painters and others. I criticise him for not applying his synthesis to our modern philosophy which is absolutely social , anti- authoritarian  and anti mystical. This is a step backward; Gaugin is not a seer , he is a schemer who has sensed that the bourgeois are moving to the right”. [7].

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His symbolist views were in fact idealist constructions that had no reference to reality and really lived in a world of make believe.  ” By contrast the idealist will believe that the principal determinant on human action is the way human beings understand and interpret the world.as such it can extend to the assertion of the power of the will or the spirit”. [8].

Maurice Denis an artist in the Nabis group commented on Van Gogh comparing his art to Gaugin’s. ” They admire his aggressive attitude in the face of nature(Van Gogh) , his abnormal exasperated but truly lyrical vision of things ,his determination to say everything he feels .With Gaugin we are dealing with a decorator, The man who decorated the living room , the man who in Tahiti in spite of worries , illness  and poverty cared about nothing so much as the decoration of his Hut”. [9].

Marxist commentators have suggested that because of the crisis in Capitalism this became reflected in art like Gaugin’s. ” Conceived during a period of widespread European Pessisim and disenchantment stemming from a Capitalist depression lasting nearly a generation Symbolism was the artistic symptom of a structural crisis”. [10].

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” in Tahiti Gaugin sought to indulge fully in his Primitivist longing to go back far back .Tahiti for Gaugin represented both personal and artistic regression”. [11].

” In fact a closer look at Gaugin’s paintings from Brittany reveals that he did entirely abjure modernity and politics. During the next 6 months he depicted such modern subjects as Proletarian Labour in the Seaweed Gatherers (1889)” . [12].

His sexist and reactionary views on Women is captured in the following comment . ” On the one hand Gaugin’s vulgar association of the Primitive , the non-European , the natural and the femine  conforms to the reigning Euro-centrism that sanctioned violence upon the bodies of real  Tahitian Women and Men during the 125 years since their discovery”. [13].

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Gaugin when he arrived in Tahiti was really escaping from the world trying to convince the art buying public in France that his art was beneficial to Tahitian society. It was obvious that his paintings would not be bought by Tahitians but by the rich French art lovers. ” In common with the other symbolists Gaugin sought refuge from Modernity in a remote and unspoiled land. he was frightened by and yet accepted his own powernlessness and marginality .Unlike  them he posited in his art a primitive alternative to the European social and cultural order”. [14].

Critics and Tahitians alike have criticised Gaugin over his paintings of the Primitive and his decision to live in Tahiti amongst Tahitian women, use them sexually , because in that underdeveloped country he could carry out these activities unlike in France as I have commented in my article on Delacroix. ” Many Polynesians consider him to have been like any other French colonist who exploited their homeland just as much as the Plantation owners and other settlers”. [15].

” Some critics have reassed Gaugin’s life in Tahiti too suggesting that he exploited the Island and the people for his own purposes without any real understanding of their way of life”. [16].

I have in this article on Paul Gaugin taken a very critical attitude particularly in comparison to his onetime friend Vincent Van Gogh. There is no doubt that Gaugin was a very technically brilliant artist but his subjects and location took on the appearance of an arrogant and racist position to the native Polynesians that he lived him. It has been argued that his art using colour and flat picture plane developed into Abstraction. His symbolist philosophy and religious imagery would be echoed by Wassily Kandinsky and others. He would leave a legacy which would be taken up by the Surrealists minus the racist and euro centric attitude. ” Gaugin anticipated the stance of the surrealists author Andre Breton ( a close friend of Leon Trotsky) who wrote 50 years after Gaugin’s death Surrealism is allied with peoples of colour first because it has sided with them against all forms of Imperialism and white Brigandage”. [17].

FOOTNOTES

1) PRIMITIVISM CUBISM ABSTRACTION OPEN UNIVERSITY . PG. 8

2) IBID   PG 8

3) IBID   PG 20

4) IBID   PG 21

5) IBID   PG. 27

6) IBID    PG 34

7)  ART IN THEORY 1815-1900  ON ANARCHY SYMBOLISM AND PRIMITIVISM PG 1031

8)  SYMBOLISH ART OF THE AVANT GARDES  PG 237

9)   MODERN ART AND MODERNISM GAUGIN AND VAN GOGH PG 53&54

10)  19TH CENTURY ART A CRITICAL HISTORY  PG 357

11)  IBID  PG 381

12) IBID   PG  364

13) IBID   PG  387

14) GAUGIN ARTISTS OF THE WORLD PG 33

15) IBID     PG 33

16)  IBID    PG 41

17)  19TH CENTURY ART A CRITICAL HISTORY  PG 388

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3 thoughts on “PAUL GAUGIN (1848-1903) SYMBOLISTS ARTS DIALECTICAL RETREAT INTO MYSTICISM IN BRITTANY AND TAHITI. BY LAURENCE HUMPHRIES”

    1. You are right of course as Pissaro commented Gaugin was just a Decorator whereas Van Gogh was very close to the masses painting and reflecting their poverty and misery , this was never the case with Gaugin
      Laurence

      Liked by 1 person

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