Articles de La Guinguette - 2003 - novembre - culture

Titre La sculpture de Paul Gauguin
Année 2003
Mois novembre
Catégorie culture
Traducteur Alistair Mills
Dernière mise à jour16 January 2010

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The sculptures of Paul Gauguin

That's where he went further in his creativity, because his sculptures were not selling; he knew well that his sculptures would not sell so that gave him the freedom for remarkable, incomparable creativity and he went much further into primitivism. That is why his sculpture, his canon, his designs were to influence most of the avant-garde artists.

The great artist Paul Gauguin [1] is honoured this winter, thanks to a new exhibition in the National Gallery of the Grand Palais in Paris telling us about his two stays in Oceania between 1891 and 1903.

They are known the world over, the paintings of this former stockbroker turned Sunday painter before leaving Paris life completely - and his family - to follow his love of art, first in Tahiti and then in Atuona.

Less known is his work on sculpture. However he inspired the avant-garde of the time and influenced Matisse [2] and Picasso [3]. Anne Pingeot the curator of the Orsay museum has been given the job of putting this right. First of all she explains to us about the travels of Gauguin and puts them in a historical context:

You must not forget about the role of the great exhibition [4]. They were in a time before television, before travelling was easy and the great exhibitions which date from the 19th century provided a platform for presenting all the known civilizations in one place. So it was a curiosity which had millions of people coming, millions of people visiting the great exhibition. At the same time, they were developing colonialism, without the pejorative meaning that the word has now, and for example, for the great exhibition of 1889, the one for the centenary of the French Revolution, the one of the Eiffel Tower, well there was quite a colonial section where there was a sort of patchwork of all of the civilizations side by side and we know that Gauguin went to it and he returned to it and he marvelled at Java, the dancers from Java and some little brochures were distributed by the organizers saying 'however come and live in these places'. There, the description of Tahiti is incredible in saying 'we only live to love and to sing; you only have to raise your arms to gather fruit', so that was paradise. So Gauguin was seduced by this idea.

The irony was that the western countries had taken such a taste for the exotic things there, that paradise had already been lost. Gauguin went on to see that for himself in his first journey in 1891.

In Tahiti, almost nothing remained. It was a disappointment; what he had seen in Paris had been complete. But there was almost nothing left, much had been taken away and also much had been burned by the missionaries. In the homes of the Tahitians, the people used to say that their civilization would finish the day a floating island arrived. So this floating island was the big ships of the 18th century which had discovered this island of Cythera [5]. The discovery of this paradise by people from the west was a complete disaster as illness arrived and the substantial population was decimated very quickly.

So Gauguin's project was a work of the reconstruction of the world about which he had dreamt.

One of the characteristics of Gauguin was to return things from the gods to those who had lost them. In sculpture, it was very surprising, he was going to create a sort of Pantheon [6]. Gauguin who was really a theosophist who tried to assemble all the religions in existence, something rather extraordinary, so a mixture of Buddhism, or local gods, of Christianity, really all the religions were reconstructed by him.

Gauguin died in poverty in 1903. His work was not unrecognized in artistic circles, but commercial success escaped him. So it was almost by luck that these sculptures were saved.

When he died on 8th May, everything was sold in front of his home, the useful things, but what had no immediate use, that is the works of art, were put any old way into a boat and on this boat there was a young doctor and sailor who was called Victor Segalen. Then they were missing for three months. Before the death of Gauguin, Segalen was in New Caledonia [7], so he arrived three months later and he brought back to Tahiti all the art work of Gauguin for sale in the art market. Fortunately Victor Segalen had been alerted in favour of Gauguin by three people, by Andre Fontainas who was a critic at the Mercure de France [8], by Doctor Gouzeur who had come at another time to Tahiti and had even bought a canvas of Gauguin, and by Saint-Pol-Roux who was a poet who had also been very impressed by Gauguin. So three people had spoken to him about him, and so he was not indifferent to his name, he looked - during the sea crossing between the Marquesas Islands [9] and Tahiti, that's 1500 kilometres, so he had time to read, to look at the enthusiastic correspondence, the many writings of Gauguin, and when the time came for the sale, well he bought them. So much more than Saint-Pol-Roux who said to him "Oh if you find something, bring it back for me, really my wife would like to decorate a room with objects from other places and then if you find some things by Gauguin, personally that would interest me very much". So he was on the alert, that's important, he had his eyes open, his mind was alert and he bought, in his account of the story he said that he bought them for nothing, but that's not true; it has been estimated that he paid what was about a month's salary; that's not negligible.

The research of Madame Pingeot has shown the influence of the sculpture of Gauguin on the following generation. For example, according to her, the wooden panels of the famous 'House of Joy' went on to have an impact on one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century.

I know that they were exhibited at the Blot gallery in 1910, but I am absolutely sure that it was in the sale before and the Picasso [3] saw this panel, number five. Because there is such a strong relationship between the woman who has an arm raised up with an elbow which makes a very pointed angle with one of the faces of the young ladies from Avignon which is very nearly a quote, so well that's the theory which I am defending, Picasso saw this model.

So much was the recognition after his death - the place of Gauguin in the company of great artists is now assured - why so little during his life?

You know, when you are doing something new, you can't be understood. It is not possible. Only, it is only those few artists who have an eye that can see a bit further who understand. Well Degas [10] he bought Gauguin before the sale before his first trip, he bought Gauguin during his stay between the two, he bought Gauguin, so Degas had an eye, that was something. And Gauguin knew that too, that to be bought by Degas, that was of utmost importance. It was recognition. Van Gogh [11] and his brother Theo, his manager, they understood his value, they loved Gauguin you see, they understood, but for the rest of the people, they needed time, time, time.

For the exhibition, a lot of work has been done to put the work of Gauguin into the context of its creation:

We borrowed from the Museum of Humanity [12] and the Museum of African Arts [13], we borrowed works which Gauguin would have seen before he left and at the entrance to the exhibition where there is an introduction, a prologue, and then a whole room dedicated to the Oceanic art which Gauguin would have seen, and that that's really an introduction which is quite significant.

It is above all, a chance to admire the works of a great artist:

It is above all an alternative world. What is an artist? He's someone who adds another world to ours, the being that we don't yet know. So at first, we cannot even see it, as we do not recognise it, and little by little we begin to see it and little by little it enriches our world. He was a great artist.

The letters of Gauguin

What is good with Gauguin is that as he was far away he tells us things. He always explains what he wants to do. He tells us "the ideas behind this painting", so he gives us a course in the history of the art so we only have to listen to Gauguin. "A young native girl who appears to alarmed, is lying on her stomach showing a part of her face. She is resting on a bed on which there's a pareo [13] coloured blue on a yellow, silvery sheet. The background is violet and crimson, strewn with flowers like electric sparks. A rather strange face is at the side of the bed. Attracted by a sort of movement, I paint it without any other concern but to make a simple nude. That's it. It's a slightly indecent study. However I want to do a chaste painting conveying the Kanaka's mood [15], her character, her tradition. The pareo being intensely linked to the existence of a Kanaka, I'm sort of above her head. The sheet made from a tree bark fabric has to be yellow because this colour sparks off something unexpected in the observer because it suggests lamp light that lets me avoid making lamp light. It obliges me to provide a rather terrible background, the violet is so dominant. There you are, that's the musical part of the paint and its scaffolding."

"In this daring position, what is the young kanaka doing completely naked on a bed? Preparing for love. That is really in her character. But it is indecent and I do not want that. Sleeping the act of love would be over, that is still indecent. I only see the fear. What type of fear? Certainly not the fear of Suzanne surprised by her elders [16]. The Tutapau [17], the spirit of the dead, is clear. For the Kanakas, it is a constant fear. At night, the lamp is always alight. No one goes on the road when there is no moon, at least not without a lamp. And yet, they'll go around as a group. Once I have found my spirit, I attach to it completely, and I make that the subject of my painting. The nude is the second subject. Let's back up a little, a musical interlude, a horizontal wavy line. That fits with orange and blue, linked to the yellows and violets over there, lit up by greenish sparks. The literary part; the spirit of someone living is connected to the spirit of the dead. Day and night. This background note has been written for those who always want to know the why, the because. If not, it is quite simply a study of the Oceanic nude."

[1] Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was leading post impressionist painter and artist.

[2] Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was a great French artist, painter and sculptor.

[3] Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was a great Spanish artist.

[4] The great exhibitions, or world fairs, were invented in 1851 and continue to this day. The text refers to the exhibitions held in Paris in 1889 and 1897. The Eiffel Tower was built for the exhibition in 1889.

[5] The Greek island of Cythera in the Aegean Sea is the home of Aphrodite the goddess of love. Its name is used in the arts and in literature to signify a place of love and happiness.

[6] The Pantheon is a temple of ancient Rome and today the Pantheon in Paris is a secular temple dedicated to the memory of the greats of literature and art.

[7] New Caledonia is a group of French Islands in the Pacific to the west of Tahiti and to the east of Australia.

[8] Mercure de France is an artistic magazine in France published since 1890.

[9] The Marquesas Islands are part of French Polynesia to the north of Tahiti. Gauguin died there at Atuona.

[10] Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was a French artist famous for painting, sculpture, printmaking and drawing.

[11] Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was a great Dutch painter who shared an apartment in Arles with Gauguin in 1889.

[12] Musée de l'Homme is in Paris.

[13] Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens is in Paris.

[14] A pareo is a wrap around skirt work by women in the South Seas.

[15] A kanaka is a native of the South Seas.

[16] This is a reference to a famous painting topic, Suzanne, surprised by her elders. Many of the great masters painted this scene which is taken from the Book of Daniel in the Bible. For example, the painting by Paolo Caliari is in the Louvre in Paris.

[17] The tupapau is the spirit of the ancesters, an important concept for Polynesians. Gauguin's famous painting Manao Tupapau is in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery today. This letter discusses a study which Gauguin made before creating this famous painting.

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With questions or for more information, please contact Alistair Mills (alistair.mills@btinternet.com)
Updated 16 January 2010

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