The late 19th-Century Western world was materially the richest civilization ever seen. Its cities glittered with electric lights and throbbed with industrial energy. Its ships had turned the world's great oceans into a roadstead. Within a few years, it would conquer the air.
And yet, among its most sensitive spirits, there was pervasive anxiety, not to say despair. Matthew Arnold in England, Arthur Rimbaud in France and Friedrich Nietzsche in Germany all lamented— or repudiated— a civilization decadent at its core.
Paul Gauguin was one of this number. A stockbroker and part-time painter of no great accomplishment, he quit his job and moved to peasant Brittany, looking for a simpler, more authentic life. He found it among the Bretons and their folk Christianity, and developed a proto-Expressionist style— flat planes and primary if muted colors— to depict what he (and his subjects) saw.
In his Vision of the Sermon (1888), a circle of pious female onlookers in their broad white caps "look" at Jacob wrestling with the angel in a clearing beyond a tree that divides the picture into an actual and a visionary space. The erasure of demarcation between the material world and that of the imagination would become the signature feature of Gauguin's art, so that in time all his landscapes would be dream-saturated and— despite (or because of?) their seeming air of stasis and repose— curiously vivid, mysterious and troubling.
It needs scant emphasis to see the connection between this maneuver and Freud's contemporaneous discovery of the interpenetration of conscious and unconscious psychic life.
Tahiti, already corrupted
In time Gauguin found his Bretons insufficiently exotic and, as in The Yellow Christ (1889), he found their Christianity, although affecting, difficult to render without patronizing. After a stay in Martinique, he set out for the South Seas in 1891, following a track already well worn by Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson. He spent most of the rest of his life there, first in Tahiti and then on the more remote island of Hiva-Oa in the Marquesas, where he died in 1903.
If Gauguin had hoped to find an uncorrupted culture among the Tahitians, he was soon disabused. The French had already imposed themselves there, and folk customs and beliefs were rapidly fading.
Still, if the colonial authorities were turning happy islanders into unhappy Frenchmen, why could Gauguin not reinvent the Tahitians as the simulacra of what they had once been? In a way, that would be only a further perversion of them.
An artist's fantasies
But Gauguin was no more an anthropologist than he was a trader or missionary. His nude Tahitians would be neither more nor less than what Victorine Mourent had been in Manet's Olympia or the working-class nudes of Seurat's The Models: projections of the artist's own fantasy in the attitudes of classical figures.
In Gauguin's case, the frame of reference was his own, as he incorporated elements of native mythology with entirely novel imagery— for example, a sanguinary goddess of his personal invention, whom he called Oviri— to create a world half-real and half-inspirited.
Was this, as the show of Gauguin now on display at the National Gallery suggests, an attempt to create a new mythology? I think that would overstate the case.
Gauguin as Judas
Gauguin had no coherent vision to present, and certainly no doctrine to proclaim. For him, the artist was by definition a mythologizer; and, in a world where the gods were dead, the notion of a divine creator was simply another mask for the human one.
Thus, Gauguin gives his own features to his Christ in the Garden of Olives, along with the red hair and beard associated with Judas Iscariot. Is the suggestion here that the artist makes his own Gethsemane and concocts his own betrayal (or reveals his own limits)?
In another self-portrait— the show offers a generous sample—Gauguin portrays himself with the attributes of Eden (low-hanging fruit; a snake); but whether he represents God the Father, Adam or, as the halo above his head suggests, some intermediate or indeterminate figure, remains unclear. The only conclusion we can draw is that the artist is the unstable center of his own creation, and that such creation, in a world where the old meanings have failed, is the only one we have.
In the end, we can probably best see Gauguin as a Decadent dealing in the coin of an imagined primitivism. We could dismiss him as such, but for the fact that he paints, draws and sculpts so well, and that his private Eden is so tantalizingly tempting and attractive.
Those cool-armed, frank-breasted women with their bowls of fruit; those horses drinking placidly by their stream; those ghosts and demons in the background, adding their playful suggestion of evil— Gauguin has somehow tapped into archetypal images and given them sensuous embodiment. His Tahiti may no more have existed in reality than the Hollywood version of it in Dorothy Lamour films, but the fantasy is compelling, and the best of his work has given us some of the more arresting images of the modern Western imagination. Call him the first Surrealist? Why not?
The National Gallery gives space to Gauguin's work in a variety of genres, and includes a good number of his lesser-known works. An international tiff kept some long-anticipated masterworks from the Hermitage from joining the show.
Still, this well-conceived survey makes its point. The modern artist creates his own myth, and inevitably places himself within it. Van Gogh did this with a certain naiveté of expression, and Gauguin with a good deal more cunning. Between them, they would set the stage for the artist-heroes of the 20th century: Picasso, Pollock, Kiefer and their like.