Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The vision of Paul Gauguin #1. ‘Keep your eyes on the prize.’

                                                                           A point of view

A word of advice: Don`t paint too much direct from nature. Art is an abstraction! Study nature, then brood on it and think more of the creation which will result, which is the only way to ascend towards God - to create like our divine master.
                                                                                                               Paul Gauguin.

I have been reading lately about the life and art of Paul Gauguin, that colourful character who died just over one hundred years ago in the Marquesas Islands and who revolutionized the development of the visual arts. While sailing around the Pacific several years ago I had planned to visit his grave and was disappointed to be headed off by the weather to another island in the group. So much has been written about his vivid life that his actual writing and painting is generally comprehended through the constricted lens of ‘morality’. By questioning the assumptions of the superiority of European culture, by actively seeking a simpler life close to nature and ‘going native’ he scandalized the morals of his own era and even of our own today. In visiting the island landscapes and peoples through the South Pacific where he painted, printed, carved, and wrote during his last productive years I began to see clearly that although his life and work are intimately connected, his value is more correctly appreciated through his paintings and the landscape than through the ‘morality’ of his life.

Gauguin was already a talented man when he began painting back in France. He quickly mastered the major new themes and techniques of his time and then proceeded to keep on pushing the envelope, pressing on with an art that filtered the world through his personal vision. It was an approach to life that emphasized the value of emulating the creative force of the Creator rather than following in footsteps already pressed into the soil by others. It is an important distinction and helps to explain the antagonism of his society, the freshness of his work and its value to us today.

Gauguin`s use of colour, line and shape as a visual kind of music that directly affects the emotions, his insistence of the freedom of the artist, that there is nothing that art cannot be free to express, are commonplace ideas today. Where Gauguin gets interesting for me is in the realm of the interaction between myself the observer, and his creative works that are left to us. Putting aside his theories and the development of art over the last hundred years, how am I directly affected by one of his paintings? If his paintings affect some of us deeply, then he does have a kind of immortality and we have found his door into the dark and fecund place of the creative spirit. That would be not a bad trick for a man now held in poor regard in the narrow court of public morality but who spent his life first creating a tool set of skills and theories and then putting them to use to express the transcendent.

The first thing I noticed in Polynesia was that I was seeing the islands through his eyes: the shadows, the fallen yellow blossoms, the black volcanic beaches, lush vegetation and red soils. A man galloped his horse down the road, smoke drifted up from smudge fires, children washed their horses in the surf, some women bathed bare breasted in the lagoon with their children - the raw materials that he used for subject matter were all around me, part of a whole universe of hot sun, crashing surf, and palms rattling their branches in the Trade winds. His challenge was to find the visual symbols that would convey all of this and its transcendent meaning within the narrow two-dimensional world of his canvas. As a symbolist painter he was uniquely qualified to take up this challenge.

Gauguin understood that a painting was an abstraction: that it could be an equivalent for the deeper meaning that all the elements of the landscape were expressing in a riot of form and colour. ‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’ is the title of one of his enigmatic paintings: enigmatic on purpose, so that we are forced to participate in the unfolding. He asks the observer to enter into his painting in order to touch deeper meanings. When one realizes that he had all the skills to produced the standard commercially profitable paintings of the day that would have lifted him out of poverty and given him the esteem of the people around him, it is all the more impressive that he kept focused on his struggle to express something that was so difficult to grasp and for which he earned nothing but ridicule from the French Colonials and indifference from his Polynesian neighbours whom he portrayed with such sympathy. He had his eyes on the prize - his place in the development of art and its ability to express the ineffable.

The many paintings he has left us can be viewed from so many different points of view. His challenge to us is to partner with him as we enter through the picture frame. How we frame the world, how we understand it, determines how far we can go into the paintings. We must park our everyday rational mind at the door, accept the challenge and drift through on our emotions, at first not seeking to understand as much as to feel. This is a journey into the unconscious, the unconscious is in its essence the whole universe, and we can experience the truths that Gauguin painted about human kind and our place within the rest of the natural world. He sacrificed his well being for something great and spend his Polynesian years with his artist`s finger on the pulse of being.

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