Sunday, 29 April 2012

Gauguin, Unspoiled Nature and the Heart of the Vocational Exile

Always curious as to how and why a person painted what they did, this week I turned my attention to 
Paul Gauguin.
I have just finished reading this hard cover edition of In Search of Gauguin by Jean-Luc Coatalem.

At the onset, I found myself mildly frustrated by the author's self-engaged and possessive approach to his subject. His story begins with his own purchase of a highly intriguing auctioned photograph which sparks his imagination and drives him to want to know more about its origins in Gauguin's life. The photo is of a Polynesian woman named Helena Suhas, who was the mother of a young boy named Atiti who was painted by Gauguin upon the child's untimely early death. However, Coatalem neglects to include a replica of this photo of Helena in the book for his readers to visually share in his exclusive experience of owning the picture! It seemed to me a nasty tease ~ even though he describes the photo well, he falls short of the 1000 words that could justify its omission. Surely he would know we'd all want to lay eyes upon this rare picture! The question of the unpublished photo irked me....could it have something to do with the biographer's personal quest for the elusive, for that which cannot be accurately captured or retrieved, or in the case of art, that which cannot truly be owned?

After I got over this initial irk, I found myself bothered by his habit of changing tenses mid-paragraph or at the end of chapters. And then, after I got over that, I started to really enjoy the book, and couldn't blame Coatalem for obsessively entwining his own life's quest with the desire to taste the very aura of Gauguin and retrace his footsteps. Any art nut should at least understand that feeling.

As the book draws you in, this becomes the journey...going after the heart of the vocational exile, the Inca, Gauguin. I recommend that regular folk like me read this book near a computer, so you can google image the titles of the paintings as you go along if you're not able to conjure them up in your head on the spot like a seasoned art historian...the catalog of Gauguin's entire works is enormous and this biography refers to many of them by number and title, offering a scant mid-section of colour plates that only scratches the surface (it is a biography and not an art book after all). For me at least, Coatalem's descriptions sent me running to look up the paintings online.

I enjoyed the book even more once Coatalem began narrating it from his notebooks in Tahiti .....the allure of the exotic, the other-worldly quality of colour and landscape, and the local lore all come to life to offer up or or wash away the missing pieces the author seeks. Even so, he has to strain his eyes and imagination to see past the barrier of modern day buildings and traffic into the moving ghosts and scenes of the blissfully pastoral yet colonial-ravaged past that welcomed Gauguin ashore roughly 100 years earlier.

Eventually it began to make sense to me why Coatalem does not reveal to us the photo of Helen Suhas. Coatalem started out covetously chasing after any remaining relic left behind as evidence of Gauguin's near mythical existence. We know this woman also existed, and yet it's only by chance that we may come across physical remnants or proof of the essence of someone long after they are gone. This is Coatalem's repeated discovery as he wanders down a "multiplication of trails". He eventually questions his own motives as he despairs "Why are the details so pointless, and so compelling? What's the good of these signs, scattered like tiny pebbles, which lead nowhere except to what is already evident?...What haunts us is what has given us our foundation." And so perhaps this is why he allows Helena to haunt his book like a quiet ghost reminding the reader that she is not just reduced to a photo, she is a spirit.
And I also came to grasp that Coatalem's habit of switching from the past tense of far removed days into the present tense at opportune moments mid-description was his way of remaining suspended in the eternal present in the place and situation of his choice, just like Gauguin sought to do.

Finally, I gained some insight into Gauguin's often unsavoury but nevertheless passionate and hedonistic character, his longing for fame and his suffering for redemption, his attitude toward his work, and his opinions on technique. And I also took with me some very valuable quotes by the artist to inspire my personal approach to painting. Some will say that reading about the inner lives of well known artists and studying their technique is another form of diversion and distraction for anyone who wants to be productive with their own creative pursuits. But I believe that immersing yourself in the lives of those who have gone before and paved their own path and forged a distinctly elevated style, especially against the odds of material difficulties and social solitude, is helpful in building your own vision and courage, and nurturing your own talent. And if not, it is never time wasted to lose yourself in beauty and play your integral part in art as audience!

I enjoyed this book, it was engulfing and stirring and many-layered, and I enjoyed revisiting so many of Gauguin's paintings.

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Here is one of my very favourite pieces by Gauguin, Tahitian Pastorale (Tate Gallery, London). You see these rich ochres, sultry red-oranges and gentle green shades and you think, he created this magical palette entirely in his head! And yet, Tahiti was this gorgeous, this rich in vivid hues. Artur Gilles, an expert consulted in the book, had this to say: 
"Gauguin did no more than copy, capturing the precise shades of colour. He was able to see."
Wow. What sight he had to pull it like this out of nature!

And another I love....I can sink into this painting, Spirit of the Dead Watching... even though it has a foreboding air, the contrasting colours and luxurious repose of the vahine are both striking and peaceful at the same time.

I wonder, would we be reading about Gauguin at all had he not gone to Tahiti? He was the epitome of an artist flourishing in the precise surroundings that beckoned to him. When he came back to France, the Ministry of Fine Arts sent him packing, telling him his art was too "revolutionary", and he was soundly rejected by his peers, returning finally, distraught and poverty-stricken, to end his tapering days in the South Seas.

And now, Gauguin whispers to you. Listen. And next, may you pick up your paints, newly inspired:

" I want to make only simple, very simple art; for that I need to immerse myself  in unspoiled nature."

"Art is imagination, subjectivity, a language which is able to combine the visible and the invisible."

"Work freely and madly, and above all do not sweat over a painting; great feeling can be conveyed immediately, dream about it and seek out its simplest form."

1 comment:

  1. I love him! I have a few of his books. He speaks to my sense of being a free spirit! His images have always stuck with me.