8 May 1903, the French Post-Impressionist artist Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin died in Atuona on the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia at the age of 54.
“D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?” (Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Paul Gauguin)
|“Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?” 1897, arguably the climax of Gauguin’s work|
There is a cartoon, showing a youngster dressed up to the nines as if his career in business is already past its sell-by date, telling his hippie parents to behave themselves because he’d expect guests. It’s not passed down if Paul Gauguin the Stockbroker ever had to tell his family to keep their red gobs shut, since his grandmother Flora Tristan was a socialist writer and activist and his father Clovis a socialist journalist who had to flee from France to Peru after the failed revolution of 1848. On the other hand, the pater familias died en route when Paul was just 18 months old, but even if Clovis did not appear in a questionable shape, young Paul’s life in Peru was full of primal, formative scenes that would shape his life and art anyway. His mother wearing the traditional garb of a Peruvian lady with the veil that covered only one of her eyes, giving her obviously an almost cubistic appearance, her predilection for pre-Columbian art and the contrast of the South American countryside of his early childhood with the Paris of the 1860s and ‘70s, just to mention a few. But Paul would be a mysterious traveller between the worlds anyway, in his life and in his art. He already started to paint when he was a successful businessman, in the Realistic manner of the Barbizon school, though not quite original in 1876, turned towards Impressionism when he decided to become a full-time artist after a stock market crash in 1882, developed into a moderately celebrated post-impressionist, ogled at Symbolism, developed a style known as Synthetism until his art culminated in the paintings created in Polynesia in the manner he is best remembered for today, simply as Gauguin, influential enough to point first and foremost expressionistic artists on their way towards the 20th century and modern art.
Gauguin had, famously, a biography that reads as if Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad had tried their hand at writing an artist novel. It was W. Somerset Maugham who finally wrote it 20 years after Gauguin’s death of general failing health and syphilis, naturally, and his own autobiography, Avant et après (Before and After), published in excerpts already in 1903. Maugham’s “Moon and Sixpence” certainly contributed to the formation of the Gauguin myth and it’s not without the usual irony of the art world that his works became posthumous top sellers while the artist himself died poor as dirt. His embracing of the idea of an Edenic primal state, leading back to Rousseau and the Age of Enlightenment, a concept that never fully passed a reality check, not even in Gauguin’s own perception, and was nonetheless elementary in transporting an image into the 20th century that had long since become a European archetype, along with the respective clichés embedded in his somewhat aseptically sensuous images from far-away places. His own role as pioneer of Modern Art notwithstanding.
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