We think of Paul Gauguin when we think of the stereotype of an artist running away from it all to an island paradise and going native. Well, at least that used to be the dream. Paul Gauguin certainly lived it. He remains the most celebrated example even if the details cast a shadow on his work. His was a most eccentric artistic and personal journey. Written by George Roddam and illustrated by Sława Harasymowicz, this is a complex story told in a clear and concise manner.
Born in Paris in 1848, Paul Gauguin came into the world during an uprising that would have made the Occupy movement blush. It led the family to flee to another familial branch in Peru, but not before Gauguin’s father died of a heart attack. In 1855, the family returned to Paris but Gauguin’s love for the tropics ran deep. Fast forward a few more years, Gauguin’s life reached critical mass. He had allowed himself to enter into a career as a stock broker and had married Mette, a young Danish woman from a respectable family. They had children, five in all. However, he was developing into a very capable artist. In time, he would establish himself among the great Impressionists of the day. And an inevitable conflict would arise.
We look at Gauguin’s work and it feels all part of a whole. The depiction of young women from Brittany eventually makes way for the depiction of young women in Tahiti. Gauguin follows his idealistic and romantic notions. In the same way that he mistakens the traditional head-dresses of the Breton women as significant, so he goes on to project wisdom and nobility upon the Tahitian girls he meets. There is one girl in particular, Teha’amana, only 13 years old, who he takes as a lover. She proves to be very silent. Gauguin sees that as a sign of great wisdom. More likely, it was a child’s reaction to becoming sexually involved with a grown man. Gauguin explained the relationship as part of the local custom.
What we remember most of the work of Gauguin is an unapologetic embrace of primitive culture. His work is a unique offshoot of the Impressionists’ aim to depict daily life. This book does a capable job of providing context to the most celebrated case of an artist going native.
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