Daytime TV: Creative impulses

Gauguin and Vaughan Williams had unconventional private lives, but they created beauty, says Gary Day

October 7, 2010

Credit: Miles Cole

Paul Gauguin didn't half go on about himself. "I have two natures," he proclaimed, "the savage and the civilised" (The Savage: Paul Gauguin and the Construction of Paradise, BBC Four, Monday September, 11pm). Since he was a stockbroker, this surprised nobody but himself. The pandemonium of a bear or bull market, though, did not give sufficient rein to his primitive desires. They could find their true expression only in one of the French colonies. "I want to live without money, paint what I like and die out there," he declared. He nearly fulfilled all these aspirations when he went to Martinique. He stayed in a leaky hut, sketched and caught dysentery. Severe abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhoea prevented him from doing whatever savages do, but at least he wasn't back in civilisation being cared for by doctors.

Gauguin left Martinique because it wasn't primitive enough. He headed to Tahiti where during the day he stared at women and at night he listened to the "sweet music" of his soul, although others may use a different term. A studio mock-up of the island helped us to visualise the place. There were some plastic rocks and three girls wearing towels with the labels sticking out. A running tap simulated a waterfall. This was 1980. The viewer was expected to do their share of the work of imagining.

We caught up with Gauguin being savage in the forest. There were a few trees from the props department. The artist spoke of his exultation in chopping them down. "My hands became stained with blood in my wild rage, my intense joy of satiating within me, I know not what divine brutality." You get the feeling he would have got on rather well with D.H. Lawrence. Both men wanted to shake off the heavy weight of Europe and find a world elsewhere. Lawrence managed it rather better than Gauguin, who didn't get his dinner from the river, as he said he would, but at the grocery store, in tins.

He came back temporarily to France. Paradise is all right for a holiday, but you wouldn't want to live there. When he returned to Tahiti, and again wanted to come home, no one would lend him the money. Remaining on the island, they argued, increased the value of his paintings. Gauguin had gone there to revitalise his art by getting in touch with human nature as it was in Eden. In one way he succeeded. By taking a 13-year-old mistress he proved himself as ignorant of the difference between right and wrong as Adam and Eve before the Fall. One impression of the artist might be that he was one of the first sex tourists.

Gauguin desired women but was afraid of them. The same cannot be said of Ralph Vaughan Williams (The Passions of Vaughan Williams, BBC Four, Friday 1 October, 7.30pm). If ever there was a candidate to prove that sexual intercourse began before 1963, it was he. Simona Packenham recalled being at a party where the composer was discomposing a group of women. "He was sitting on the sofa with five women," she said, "and there were another five behind, all leaning over to catch his every word." Or should that have been "note"? The two women in Vaughan Williams' life were his wife Adeline, a cousin of Virginia Woolf, and his long-time mistress Ursula Wood, who was 40 years his junior and whom he eventually married when Adeline died.

There was a lot of speculation about how the composer's feelings for these women appeared in his work, which in turn raised questions about the nature of music. Is it a representational art form? One critic argued that in listening to A Sea Symphony you could hear the waves crashing against the rocks. But would you really hear that if it had a different title? Another critic maintained that the last 12 minutes of Symphony No. 6 reflect the composer's wish that Adeline, who was ill with arthritis for most of their marriage, would die, leaving him free to marry Ursula. Such unverifiable claims merely deflect you from the music; a pleasure lost.

Vaughan Williams himself said that he hated people trying to find meaning in his music. Gauguin was only too happy for viewers to find meaning in his paintings, as long as that meaning was him. But the two artists were perhaps not so different: both sought to make beauty out of ugliness. Stephen Hawking tweaked that notion slightly (Stephen Hawking's Universe, Channel 4, Saturday 2 October, 7pm). Bound in a wheelchair, but counting himself king of infinite space, he explained how a slight unevenness in the distribution of gas in the early Universe allowed gravity to condense it into stars, planets and us. We owe our existence to a tiny cosmic slip. Aren't mistakes great?

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