“Oh, I hate that man. He left his wife and children, was cruel to Van Gogh, and bedded down all those Tahitian girls. I just cannot look at his paintings.” This is a simple-minded, uninformed, dull, and predictable comment that I have little patience or tolerance for, and I have heard it countless times whenever I list Paul Gauguin among the painters I identify with aesthetically. Several films have been made about about Gauguin, yet none of them have caught his essence, at least until this documentary by Waldemar Januszczak. It is not a perfect film, but Gauguin is vividly present in it.
Donald Sutherland starred as Gauguin in the 1986 film Oviri, directed by Henning Carlson. In that film, the banker Gauguin and his wife, Matte, are on a Sunday horse and carriage ride with his co-workers and their wives. The financiers engage in shop talk while Gauguin broods. Finally, the frustrated painter taps the carriage driver on the shoulder and tells him to stop. Gauguin looks at his wife and peers and says, “You are my jailers.” With that, he jumps out of the carriage and walks off to find his paradise. A nice story but one that is a total fiction, buying into the painter’s mythology.
In actuality, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), contrary to the repeated myths, was not a millionaire banker. He was a successful stock broker. He did not quit his job. The stock market crashed and he lost his job. Gauguin, who had been a “Sunday” painter for years, felt that this was reason enough to pursue painting full time, something he had been longing to do. It was with this that his wife left him. Gauguin did not desert his wife and five children. His wife rejected him after he lost his income as a stockbroker.
Art critic Waldemar Januszczak attempts to set the record straight. “What’s to like about this man?,” Januszczak asks. “First of all, there is the art, which needs no defense. Gauguin painted some of the world’s most alluring woman and put them into several of the world’s most gorgeous pictures, but what I really like about him is that he did it for big and noble reasons.” And then, most aptly, he says, “There is always more to a Gauguin than meets the eye.” Januszczak covers those “big and noble reasons,” but falls a little short in the “more than meets the eye” comment (more on that later).
Januszczak follows Gauguin’s travels. “Take it from me that he had guts by the barrel-load and with the life he lead, he needed them.” Januszczak takes the viewer through Gauguin’s early history: the premature death of his father, the strict Catholic upbringing in a boarding school as Gauguin was prepped for the priesthood. Gauguin was having none of it and, of course, he was on his way to his own brand of vocation; but first, he ran off to sail the seven seas. After a seven year stint in the navy, the twenty-three year old Gauguin landed a job in the French Stock Exchange through the assistance of his late mother’s lover. Gauguin remained in that position for eleven years. During that time, he met and hurriedly married Matte. “This was a tough woman. She smoked cigars, loved dancing and parties, expensive dresses. She thought she was marrying an up and coming financial wiz kid. What she didn’t know was that her Gauguin had a terrible secret. He had got interested in art!” Most fatefully, Gauguin met numerous painters, including Pissarro and Cezanne. For Matte, this would prove to be a Pandora’s box. Gauguin’s great granddaughter, Mette, expands on this: “I don’t think she had any idea of his passion for art. She saw it as an interesting hobby that kept him out of the bars. It was a safe hobby for a man to have. But that began to change. And she said to my grandfather that she really had no idea that this was in him. It was really quite a shock to her. I don’t think she had any real interest in art.” With the recession, “Matte was reluctant to cut back on her maids. Gauguin was reluctant to cut back on his art.” Their posh house had to be sold, and the family bought a less expensive home where Gauguin had his first studio. Januszczak wanted to take his cameras in there but, “Nuns don’t like to let Gauguin through the door. They shouldn’t have worried. Gauguin’s painting here are among his most lyrical, including his paintings of the church.”
During this time, Gauguin wrote his occupation down as “artist” on his fifth child’s birth certificate. “It was hard on Matte. She was so fond of elegant dresses and parties. She wasn’t interested in poverty. This was not what she married Gauguin for. When her uncle turned up on a boat bound for Denmark, she got on it. She did not consult Gauguin. He cashed in his life insurance early and followed her.” It was a humiliating six months in Denmark. A job as a waterproofing salesman in Copenhagen was disastrous. Gauguin hated Danish businessmen, and they hated him. Through political connections, Matte got a job with the conservative Prime Minister giving French lessons to diplomats while “Gauguin, the embarrassing bohemian she brought back from Paris, was banished, out of sight, to the attic. In this little room Gauguin painted his first self-portrait.” Matte was constantly embarrassed by her husband, his opposing political views, the way he dressed, his lack of income. She and her family ganged up on him and threw him out. This happened in 1885, and it is the true beginning of Gauguin’s life as an artist.
Back in Paris, Gauguin took up pottery. His first works in this medium harked back to primitive imagery and unbridled sexuality. There is little doubt that Gauguin, deemed a penniless vagabond, felt impotent, belittled in the eyes of his wife, and erotic pottery was his response. In 1887, Gauguin, with the painter Emile Bernard, spent time painting in the artist colony of Pont-Aven. At first, Gauguin made his bed with the Impressionists, but he found the movement too stifling. The artist found his own voice and, posthumously, he came to be seen as one of the fathers of the Symbolist school, of cloisonnism, and of Synthetism. Gauguin also became fascinated with Theosophy, a kind of philosophical blend of various religions and cultures. Mystical symbology, Japanese art and primitivism came to have much impact upon his work.
Along with fellow painter Charles Laval, Gauguin spent some time in Panama, even working briefly on the Panama Canal. He was fired, but he also contracted malaria from his stint there, and it would remain a health impediment throughout his life. In Martinique, Gauguin wrote a naughty latter to Matte (who he never saw again after 1891) in which he describes an encounter with a woman and a fruit. “Is it true?” asks Januszczak. “I don’t think so. It’s too much like the story of what Eve did to Adam. Whether it happened or not, fruit as the symbol of desire began appearing in his paintings.” This is one of the few concessions Januszczak makes to Gauguin’s use of symbolism. The filmmaker does not delve too deeply into that “more than meets the eye” symbology. Quasi-religious metaphors and primitive desires become an obsession with Gauguin, who readily identified with the outcast.
Gauguin’s work in Pont-Aven, Brittany, and Arles are more self-assured in composition and more exploratory than his later Tahitian paintings of “alluring women.” His “Self-Portrait With Halo” (depicting himself both as Lucifer and as a saint), as “Christ In The Garden of Olives,” his “Vision After The Sermon,” “Yellow Christ” (which fuses elements of Buddhism with orthodox Christianity), and “Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ” are among his most startling, arrogant, and masterful canvases. Gauguin’s ludicrous, self-pitying empathy with the betrayed Christ (painted after a woman he loved ran off with Laval) was “an unlikely route to great work.”
Of course, the nine weeks Gauguin spent with Van Gogh in Arles (1888) resulted in Van Gogh’s infamous lopping of of his ear lobe. The collaboration between Van Gogh and Gauguin was doomed from the start. Each artist had found his own (very different) path before their stay at the Yellow House. Regardless, they respected each other’s work, and Gauguin inherited from Van Gogh an admirable “Greed for Yellow.” Gauguin, like Van Gogh, suffered much from depression and had suicidal tendencies. After his later, famous Gospel canvas “Where Do We Come from? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” (‘A Buddhist message refracted through a Christian prism’ about the cycle of life), Gauguin, like Van Gogh, also attempted suicide (he failed, only getting sick from the arsenic he consumed). The reason for this attempt (which, oddly, Januszczak does not discuss) is that Gauguin’s daughter Aline had died unexpectedly. Gauguin’s remorse and sense of guilt overwhelmed him. There is a single recorded memory of Gauguin’s public admission of failure. A friend recalled “he burst into tears and sobbed, I let down my family and he ran out of the cafe.”
Gauguin’s sojourn to Tahiti sealed his fame and he went there twice, never actually finding his much sought after Eden. Gauguin’s affairs with underage native girls is used as evidence of his hedonism, but as Januszczak explains, “Gauguin had been faithful to Matte for sixteen years before he gave into temptation.” Incredulously, some art historians even want to hold his mix of Christian imagery with native figures as proof of inherent racism within Gauguin. This is an absurdly Politically Correct assumption. Such critics fail to mention that Gauguin also employed Buddhist, Hindu, Judaic, Pagan and even literary imagery (Edgar Alan Poe) into those same canvases.
Gauguin himself exaggerated his hedonism, claiming that one lover was thirteen when she was, in fact, fifteen. Today, either seems shocking, but we are looking at the situation through twenty-first century filters. It was much more accepted in years past; my own parents were married at the age of fifteen. It was not that uncommon.
Gauguin sought to escape the phoniness of a bourgeoisie society which had deemed him a failure. Tahiti was, he thought, his Lost Horizon, but he found the influences of Christian missionaries had infected the culture there. He was, yet again (at least psychologically) exiled. Januszczak gives an amusing anecdote regarding Gauguin’s frequent clashes with Church clergy. A bishop had riled him and Gauguin responded, in clay, by making the bishop into a horned devil. “The bishop was not amused.”
Gauguin’s mid-life crisis gave way to serial affairs and eventually resulted in syphilis. Ravaged with the disease and destitute, Gauguin, working as journalist in Tahiti, took sides with the natives against the French colonists, was fined, and sentenced to three months in prison for “libeling” the governor. As he was appealing his sentence, on May 8th, 1903, Gauguin took a large amount of morphine and died of a syphilitic hart attack (or, as some have claimed, a suicide).
His last few paintings are among his most sublime images, anonymous male figures on white horses, riding into the shore line. Predictably, Gauguin became a huge success after his death and he was a major influence on Picasso (a whole book could be written about that). Despite a few quibbles, Januszczak’s film is superb and an essential way to get to know one of the greatest painters since El Greco. It is an apt and overdue tribute for which Januszczak deserves considerable credit and gratitude.
Still, I cannot help but think back to a few years ago when the Indianapolis Museum of Art spent untold millions to purchase and exhibit a large collection of Gauguin’s Pont-Aven works. A life-size puppet of Gauguin greeted children at the festive grand opening. Contrast this with Paul Gauguin himself, dying penniless, in the middle of the night, in the mud, in a hut, in agony, alone except for the company of his dog named Penis and never knowing if anyone really gave a damn whether he painted or not.
And Paul Gauguin was an immoralist?