The roisterer of Tahiti with sin in his stroke

Gauguin - Gauguin Tahiti - The Way to Paradise - Edouard Vuillard
March 26, 2004

Tom Rosenthal revels in the works and lives of antithetical contemporaries Gauguin and Vuillard in the fin-de-sicle Francophone world

During a memorable weekend in Paris last October, I spent most of the daylight hours at the Grand Palais gazing in rapt wonder at two simultaneous exhibitions of the paintings of Paul Gauguin and Edouard Vuillard. There is probably no greater antithesis in French art than a juxtaposition of these two, even though they painted in the same period. For Gauguin there were queues round the block; for Vuillard you could stroll in. The Gauguin exhibition has now moved to the US, while the Vuillard exhibition is at the Royal Academy in London. It is, in its way - since Vuillard is less familiar to us than Gauguin - even more revelatory than the Gauguin exhibition, as is the magnificently thorough accompanying book: the largest repository of Vuillard lore in a single volume we are ever likely to see.

To my joy, Françoise Cachin opens her survey of all of Gauguin's work with a stirring epigraph by Charles Baudelaire: "Oh! those pink horses! Oh! those lilac peasants! Oh, that red smoke." How marvellous that Baudelaire should catch Gauguin's essence in a few words. Alas, a moment's historical reflection dampened my enthusiasm. Baudelaire died in 1867, five years before Gauguin started his life as an artist. Not, of course, that Cachin is cheating. Baudelaire's words are still right at the heart of Gauguin's extraordinary liberties with conventional artistic thinking. His writings on art, the best of which are available in English translation as The Mirror of Art , were seminal in France in the four decades after his death; we know that Gauguin read them avidly and was inflamed by them.

Cachin was the director of the Musée d'Orsay and one of the curators of the major Gauguin retrospective shown in Washington and Chicago in 1988, and in Paris, at the Grand Palais, in 1989. She is a distinguished art historian and her book on Gauguin is, in this revised form, the best available survey of his work. It is right up to date in its narrative and it includes the catalogue Gauguin Tahiti in its bibliography. There is a well-illustrated biography with a chronology of parallel contemporary events and a continent-by-continent and country-by-country listing of the Gauguin holdings in major museums and galleries, which is particularly useful for the Gauguin aficionado and art tourist. The plates are integrated with the text and are decently printed. They include key photographs and pages from sketchbooks with extracts from Gauguin's letters and other writings in his assertive but formidably legible handwriting.

Cachin's chapter titles are always well chosen - not something to be guaranteed in most books of this kind - and they frequently get to grips with the inherent complexity of this fundamentally unclassifiable man and artist, for example, "Brittany in the Japanese style by a 'Savage from Peru' 1888". The book is also refreshing in that it is far from being a eulogy, let alone a hagiography (that would have been difficult in view of Gauguin's life, to say the least). In various aspects of his art, Cachin says loud and clear, Degas, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat and, above all, Cézanne, outstripped him. Yet she also maintains that, like Frenhofer (misprinted here as Freinhofer), the principal character in Balzac's great novella The Unknown Masterpiece , Gauguin "actually lived painting as an absolute search and a total commitment of the self". Balzac's second protagonist is Poussin, and his novella is almost certainly the best study of a painter ever written in a genre that, during the nearly two centuries since Balzac wrote in 1831, has produced some remarkable literature: Patrick White's The Vivisector , John Updike's recent Seek My Face (his version of Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler), and Mario Vargas Llosa's new novel, The Way to Paradise , reviewed here. As Cachin puts it: "This is why Gauguin is such a disturbing artist, for we are troubled as much by the unevenness of his work as we are by the astounding course of his artistic evolution, and by his naive but ultimately triumphant will to become a great artist."

Where Cachin does her creditable best to give us the whole of Gauguin's immensely varied oeuvre,  Gaugin Tahiti is a prodigiously detailed survey, by divers hands, of the periods he spent in the South Seas and in which he produced his most revolutionary works, those that most justify Baudelaire's "prophetic" description. The catalogue is, however, more than a mere record of a beguiling and wholly convincing exhibition of Gauguin's tumultuous last decade and his prodigious output of paintings, drawings, woodcuts and sculptures - an exhibition that included a filmed version of the incandescent sketchbook Noa Noa that, at eye level, slowly turned the pages for the viewer to create a very reasonable substitute for the unattainable pleasure (unless one is a multi-millionaire collector) of handling the original and turning the pages oneself.

It is easy, in the spellbinding presence of show and book, to forget that Gauguin was often reviled in his lifetime and that some of his greatest masterpieces were hard to sell and did not command high prices. His panoramic Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (54in high by 147in wide and now hanging in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts' permanent collection) was sold with difficulty to a Bordeaux doctor in 1901 for Fr1,500.

His glorious polychrome carved wooden reliefs, Be in Love and You Will be Happy and Mysterious , were attacked by critics when they were shown in Brussels in 1891 as the expression of an "erotico-macabre temperament of a genius of lewdness, a dilettante of infamy who is haunted by vice... the deformed sculpture of a sadistic faun whose kisses are slobbery and disgusting, whose forked tongue sensuously licks a beard impregnated with slime".

One is reminded of Clement Scott and his vilification of the London premiere of Ibsen's Ghosts . Nor was it only dim-witted art critics who failed to recognise a genius. Gauguin had become friendly with August Strindberg when the Swede was living in Paris, and asked him to write a preface for his next exhibition. Strindberg, a sophisticated writer on art and a fine painter, himself a pillar of modernism, declined. His closely argued letter of refusal, quoted in full in a 1923 edition of Gauguin's Intimate Journals , makes interesting reading: "I cannot understand your art and I cannot like it. I have no grasp of your art, which is now exclusively Tahitian. But I know that this confessional will neither astound nor wound you, for you always seem to me fortified especially by the hatred of others: your personality delights in the antipathy it arouses, anxious as it is to keep its own integrity... Gauguin, the savage, who hates a whimpering civilisation, a sort of Titan who, jealous of the Creator, makes in his leisure hours his own little creation, the child who takes his toys to pieces so as to make others from them, who abjures and defies, preferring to see the heavens red rather than blue with the crowd."

In fact, Strindberg and Gauguin had much in common, despite Gauguin's pursuit of the "noble savage" ideal in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, while Strindberg expressed his personal savagery in merciless depictions of human emotions and cruelty in his plays. Strindberg closed his remarkable letter with the words: "For I, too, am beginning to feel an immense need to become a savage and create a new world."

In the book by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, Gauguin is one of two protagonists who, separated by time, never met in life. The other is Gauguin's grandmother, the half-Peruvian illegitimate early feminist, Flora Tristan. Space does not allow me to do justice to this heroic, much-abused, beautiful and totally endearing woman recreated by Vargas Llosa. The chapters of this compelling narrative alternate between her and her grandson, and one can see how the artist inherited Flora's fiery will and indomitable courage. We have, of course, already had a fictional Gauguin, in the guise of the painter Strickland in Somerset Maugham's highly competent but middlebrow novel The Moon and Sixpence . Vargas Llosa's book, by contrast, is undoubtedly literature of a high order; his Gauguin is in no way inferior to Balzac's Poussin. He uses the greater licence of fiction to analyse Gauguin's relentless sexual drive and to link it with the need to enjoy the freedom of Tahiti and the Marquesas, a wanton freedom to pursue sex and art untrammelled and inextricably intertwined. He brings to life individual paintings, as both artistic and erotic experiences, with absolute conviction. He has Gauguin come back to find his latest nubile, teenage temporary wife (acquired from her obliging parents), in the half-frightened, half-provocative posture of the woman terrified by an onlooking devil in The Spirit of the Dead Watching . He understands her fear, he comprehends the supernatural; but he is overcome by lust and sodomises her. This is the Gauguin to whom, according to Vargas Llosa, Van Gogh observed that his Martinique paintings were "Astounding! Painted with the phallus, not the brush - paintings that are art and sin all at once."

By normal bourgeois standards, Gauguin was a monster. A quarrelsome roisterer, a solid stockbroker with a rather stuffy Danish wife by whom he had five children, all of whom he abandoned; a syphilitic who had one fresh teenage native girl after another. He was a major irritant to the French colonial governments of Tahiti and the Marquesas, whose hypocritical, repressive clergy he constantly outraged. When he needed money most desperately, he would earn it by writing fiery political polemics and even editing an anti-government journal. He was a chancer with chancres, yet in this wonderful novel, he emerges also as a heroic genius and a loyal friend who commanded, from those who had the wit and sympathy to appreciate him, loyalty, affection and love. Vargas Llosa's The Way to Paradise is an unforgettably vivid portrait of the man who created the masterpieces analysed and celebrated in these two art books, and it should be read simultaneously with the work of the art historians.

If Gauguin was flamboyant, Vuillard was intimate; if Gauguin was prone, in life and art, to grand gestures, Vuillard was restrained and almost concealed; if Gauguin was a world traveller and artist, Vuillard was purely an artist. He worshipped his mother and lived with her until she died. He managed to have his dealer's wife as his mistress, which somehow added to the essential cosiness of his existence.

Vuillard's quiet, selectively gregarious but in essence private existence furnished all that he needed to make great art that was as reserved and as subtle as he was. Not for nothing is a key chapter of the Vuillard catalogue titled "Behind closed doors". Vuillard's world at its best is one of privacy and seclusion, of great and searching intimacy. He renders life as a series of textures that relate to each other with integral subtlety and nuance, the human contiguous with the material, so that, no matter how clear the outlines that separate them, they blend seamlessly with each other to form a whole of such harmonious rightness it takes one's breath away. His near contemporary Pierre Bonnard had a similar but less intense gift in which, because of Bonnard's obsession with his wife's bathing, a certain sameness of imagery supervened.

With Vuillard, as both the Royal Academy exhibition and this beautifully printed catalogue show, there is a unique capacity to capture the various textures of an interior, as in Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist (1893). The tablecloth, the patterned wallpaper, the sister's large check dress, the mother's severe black, the mahogany brown of the chest of drawers, all have brilliantly realised, differentiated surfaces. Yet we see more than an interior decorator, for the surfaces are merely the backdrop to an intense drama being enacted between the rather smug, domineering matriarch (one feels for Vuillard) and the stooping, submissive daughter. There are infinite riches in this little room.

When Vuillard moved on to paint elaborate portraits of his grand friends and patrons, and rather extravagant, sometimes multipanelled landscapes and park scenes, the almost magical touch in the paintings of interiors seemed to desert him, so that his later paintings, while admirable in many ways, do not convince and seduce like the earlier works. He was also a gifted photographer leaving, as this massive study of his work reveals, a remarkable informal record of his family and his circle of devoted intimates.

Tom Rosenthal is a former chairman, Institute of Contemporary Arts, and the author of studies of 20th-century artists.

Gauguin

Author - Francoise Cachin
Publisher - Flammarion (distributed in the UK by Thames and Hudson)
Pages - 312
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 2 0803 0430 5
Translator - Bambi Ballard

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