Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Nevermore (O Taiti), 1897, oil on canvas, 50 x 116cm, Courtauld Institute of Art
Paul Gauguin’s work only really affected me at the Tate exhibition of his work in London last year. Like Kandinsky, one really has to see his paintings and sculptures in reality to appreciate how bold, unearthly and erotic they are. I went with a female friend who said she felt there was a little too much of the fantasist about Gauguin’s myth, and perhaps we should be uncomfortable with his story – it is a little too reminiscent of a particularly male artiste fantasy. It reminded me of Alan Bennett’s words (about Philip Larkin): ‘most men regard their life as a poem that women threaten. They may not have two spondees to rub together but they still want to pen their saga untrammelled by life-threatening activities like trailing round Sainsbury’s, emptying the dishwasher or going to the nativity play.’ Some of the reason so many men are infatuated with Gauguin is the same reason so many are infatuated with Bob Dylan – he left all responsibilities behind for a life of what looks like (if you squint) a purely truthful existence (whatever that is), hedonistic and without any of the serious drawbacks that a real-life life brings.
But the paintings themselves, even without the back-story, are so powerful. This painting Nevermore (O Taiti) features the Tahitian woman who was Gauguin’s companion and muse in the last years of his life. He found his own island, literally, to live out his fantasies, but the results are not shallow. They are extraordinarily powerful in a fundamental and primeval way. He got close to a primitive symbolism which artists would follow, and was an enormous influence on Pablo Picasso – who used to sign his name ‘Paul’. I have just read W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence based on Gauguin’s life and the final scene, in which a doctor visits the artist’s house, comes close to capturing the qualities of Gauguin’s work. Groping through the dark of a room in which the artist lies dead (from leprosy, in reality it was Syphilis that did for Gauguin), the man comes across a painted room:
‘He knew nothing of pictures, but there was something about these that extraordinarily affected him. From floor to ceiling the walls were covered with a strange and elaborate composition. It was indescribably wonderful and mysterious. It took his breath away. It filled him with an emotion which he could not understand or analyse. He felt the awe and the delight which a man might feel who watched the beginning of a world. It was tremendous, sensual, passionate; and yet there was something horrible there too, something which made him afraid. It was the work of a man who had delved into the hidden depths of nature and had discovered secrets which were beautiful and fearful too. It was the work of a man who knew things which it is unholy for men to know. There was something primeval there and terrible. It was not human. It brought to his mind vague recollections of black magic. It was beautiful and obscene.
“Mon Dieu, this is genius.”
The words were wrung from him, and he did not know he had spoken.’ TH
For more on Paul Gauguin, check out our book Gauguin: The Origins of Symbolism.