Monday, September 24, 2012

Gauguin by David Sweetman

Gauguin’s ‘use’ of women has been the subject of much recent criticism, which suggest that his Tahiti paintings were merely a continuation of the erotic themes of nineteenth-century Salon art in an exotic setting. But such a view is only plausible if we drag Gauguin out of the context of his age in order to isolate his work under the spotlight of twentieth-century sensibilities. It is essential to remember that he was working at a time of rising gynaephobia, when the Symbolist aversion to the feminine was transformed into outright disgust. Thus the femme fatale of Gustave Moreau’s Salome was seen by Huysmans, in A Rebours, as a phantasmagoria of evil:

She had become, as it were, the symbolic incarnation of undying Lust, the Goddess of immortal Hysteria, the accursed Beauty exalted above all the other beauties by the catalepsy that hardens her flesh and steels her muscles, the monstrous Beat, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like the Helen of ancient myth, everything approaches her, everything that sees her, everything that she touches.

No one should think that this was mere fictional fancy with no effect on the real world. Some of the practical manifestations of this fear of women were merely misogynistic and silly – even as Gaugin was painting his Rupe Rupe series, the Sar Peladan, the mystic magus, was holding his annual salons of his Order of the Rose+Croix, for which he had ordained a set of rigid rules, amongst which no. 17, headed ‘Women’, state categorically that “in accordance with magic law no work of any woman could ever be exhibited’. Others were even more deadly, as seen in the growing literary mode in which women were killed, mutilated or dissected; most notably the English novels Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which became, and remain, widely read classics of world literature despite the lightly hidden subtext of male violence against women which they present.

It hardly needs saying that Gauguin is part of that world and that his life reflects aspects of it. His desire for young women – girls in effect- demonstrates this, especially those brought up in the obedient ethos of non-European cultures, showing none of the independence of mind encouraged by even a limited Western education. But this was not the message of his paintings, which time and again create a uniquely feminine universe in which women dominate, both as subject and in meaning, the scene which he presents. Of course it would be ridiculous to carry this too far. In terms of actual feminism he would never approach his own grandmother whose thinking was in advance of his, a decade before he was born. One could even argue that he got no further than accepting the reverse of the femme fatale view of women, seeing them instead as mother-figures, essentially positive and nourishing, a concept which had spread in the wake of Darwinian evolutionism which seemed to reinforce the role-images of man the hunter and woman the home-maker. Certainly the ‘maternity’ pictures can be slotted into such a category with ease, for while Gaugin’s treatment of the family was cavalier to say the least, his representations of motherhood are tender to the point of sentimentality.

While a reverence for maternity is clearly preferable to the desire to commit vivisection on the female body, or any of the other obscenities available in late nineteenth-century literature, it hardly constitutes a liberated view of women. Yet given his own limitations and the context of his time, Gaugin goes further than that. It has to be significant that in his series for the Universal Exhibition, works which he believed would herald the transition into the new millennium, Gauguin once again created a set of canvases in which male figures are barely discernible. Yet these are not tableaux of women offered like odalisques in a bain turc , but independent beings in a universe which is entirely theirs – light years away from the reality of Gauguin’s life among his male friends with a young vahine somewhere in the background, to cook, clean and come to his bed in exchange for her food and a few gifts.

It is the classic division between the artist and art, the life surpassed in the creation, yet it is all too often the Gauguin, dying of syphilis and tortured with religious and philosophical brooding, who fills the frame for those who study his paintings and his writings –while it it is the average gallery-goer, the ordinary member of the public, standing in enchanted innocence before Two Tahitian Women, who may well have a broader appreciation of Gaugin’s legacy. . . .

Here is a man whose life spanned the latter half of the great century of change, ranging from the antique world of the crumbling Spanish Empire to the thrusting Europe of railways and factories and colonial power. Who had enjoyed the great circus of progress and technology and wealth only to turn away from it in disgust. Gauguin never truly abandoned his origins, never really entered the non-European world which was all around him, never truly lived the myth of his own escape from civilization. Rather, he existed in the fissures that were opening between the certainties of his age. As the nineteenth-century belief in progress, in the scientific and the rational fractured, and people looked to the irrational and the spiritual and thence to nihilism and utter disbelief, Gauguin yet hoped there might be another way, some path we had missed, somewhere back along the road, and that there might still be time to return and find it and thus move forward in an entirely different direction from the commercial squalor and the spiritual emptiness which progress left in its wake. Sixteen years before the First World War would prove him right, Gauguin offered us his vision of the other. Not a paradise –there is too much decay and death in this arcadia, but nor is this the expression of despair that some have chosen to see. ‘Where are we going?’ is the final question, and the answer, albeit tentative, which Gaugin seems of offer, lies in the concept of eternal renewal, of rebirth and continuity and, ultimately, of hope.

Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin was a man both of and beyond his time. He inherited all the confused uncertainties of the nineteenth century, often reveled in them, occasionally surpassed them. Although only fifty-four when he died, Gauguin had known a range of experiences spanning the late eighteenth century world of his great uncle Don Pio Tristan to the birth of the twentieth century, whose cultural ethos his life and work helped shape. He knew this in a vague, uncertain way and in his last letter to Charles Morice, written in April 1903, He attempted to situate himself in time and history, with a statement of faith which can stand as his epitaph:

In art, we have just undergone a very long period of aberration due to physics, mechanical chemistry, and nature study. Artists have lost all their savagery, all their instincts, one might say their imagination, and so they have wandered down every kind of path in order to find productive elements they hadn’t the strength to create; as a result, they act only as undisciplined crowds and feel frightened, lost s it were, when they are alone. That is why solitude is not to be recommended to everyone, for you have to be strong in order to bear it and act alone. Everything I learned from other people merely stood in my way. Thus I can say: no one taught me anything. On the other hand, it is true that I know so little! But I prefer that little, which is of my own creation. And who knows whether that little, when put to use by others, will not become something big?

Paul Gauguin; A Life by David Sweetman; Simon and Schuster, N.Y. 1995

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