(1848 - 1903)
April 26, 2003
Gauguin's Pacific sanctuary
He came here to die, but the Marquesa islands are celebrating his life, says Jill Hartley
On Thursday, May 8, a surreal procession of tattooed horsemen and Breton women in national dress will lead a Paul Gauguin lookalike in a primitive wooden carriage to the beach in Atuona, capital of the French Polynesian Marquesa islands, the furthest archipelago from landfall on the planet.
For it is here, on this date 100 years ago, that the famed French painter died aged 54, a syphilitic alcoholic. After becoming disillusioned with the colonial bourgeoisie in Tahiti, he chose to spend his last two years in virtual exile on Hiva Oa, one of ten little-known Pacific islands.
The centenary of his death is an excuse to celebrate his life’s work. This year sees major retrospective exhibitions in Paris, as well as events in Brittany, where Gauguin spent his earlier days locked in creative tension with Van Gogh, at the artistic colony in Pont-Aven, now twinned with Atuona.
For me, it was an excuse to visit the Marquesas. Researching a stopover in the Pacific on the way back from New Zealand, I discovered this cluster of dark dots 1,500km and a three-and-a-half-hour flight north of Tahiti. A combination of curiosity, a lust for beyond-the-brochure travel, and a smidgen of oneupwomanship had me hooked.
Gauguin had other reasons. Writing to his patron in September 1901, knowing he was dying, he explained why he had chosen Hiva Oa as the place to end his life: “It is an island, still almost cannibalistic. I think the savage element there, together with complete solitude, will revive the fire of my enthusiasm before I die, give new life to my imagination and bring my talents to a fitting conclusion.”
His words “savage element” resonated as we landed on the neighbouring island of Nuku Hiva: we were not in usual tropical resort country. These melancholic, black volcanic islands with their jagged peaks lack the coral reefs, white powder beaches and too-blue lagoons typical of their prettier South Seas cousins.
The 90-minute hotel transfer by four-wheel drive, on mainly dirt roads, flung us round hairpins through brick-red dust clouds, along a desolate mountain ridge to a vast canyon, then higher to an almost Scottish landscape of feathery pines. We passed only two primitive farms before reaching our 20-room hotel, the Keikahanui Pearl Lodge, named after a Marquesan warrior with a menacing full body tattoo. This was unexpectedly luxurious with thatched bungalows, an infinity edge pool and French restaurant serving foie gras and magret de canard.
It was excellent, but we could have been anywhere with a good French chef and a sticky climate. Not so the next day when we took an eerily quiet Sunday stroll through Taihoae, the island’s capital (pop. 1,500). First we came across a seafront park littered with effigies of Tiki, the Polynesian “creator”, and curious elongated heads, reminiscent of those on Easter Island.
We moved on to the Cathedral of St Mary, built in 1975, and best described as Bali meets Bavaria, with wooden carvings and two Rapunzel-style turrets. Walking back along the beach, we saw a horseman thundering towards us. As he approached we could see his black ponytail flying in the wind, his naked tattooed torso and a bone necklace at his throat. Keikahanui reincarnated, or an extra from a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty? There was no film crew so we asked Californian art historian Rose Corser, co-owner of the hotel, who has lived on the islands since the mid-70s. “The people here are reticent in many ways. They are fierce, proud and strong. Their strength is almost unbelievable, particularly when they are drunk.” We made a mental note to avoid the bars, but we never felt threatened.
That said, there’s a dark side to the islands which is impossible to ignore. Rose explained that cannibalism was an accepted practice right up to Gauguin’s time.
Archaeologists differ on the geographical origins of Polynesian culture, but all agree that the Marquesans were a powerful race of cannibalistic warriors, known for their canoe-building, carvings and tattoos. By 1300, the islands had an estimated population of 100,000. Mainly thanks to Captain Cook in 1774, who brought firearms, alcohol and diseases, the population was decimated, and by 1923 only 2,000 Marquesans remained.
Today the islands have a young, mostly Catholic, population of around 10,000. Many are almost boastful of their cannibal origins. At Hatiheu in the Taipivai Valley, where the writer Herman Melville allegedly skirmished with head hunters, our guide Richard showed us an ancient banyan tree, discovered by a German explorer in the 1950s, festooned with human bones and skulls.
On arrival, Atuona seemed refreshingly jolly as the shopkeepers and artisans were preparing to welcome cruise ship passengers with a dancing display and craft market. First our guides Pepuru and Sabine gave us the Gauguin tour, taking us to meet artists Claude Farina and his Czech wife Viera, who were busy copying all the artist’s works to hang in the town’s Maison de Culture.
“Some copies are not so good,” said Josette Garonne, Gauguin scholar and president of the Marquesas Arts Society, “but we have little choice as we have no originals here and can’t even afford the insurance to borrow them from overseas collections. Gauguin came here to escape civilisation. The only way to understand that is through his art.”
Next day Peperu took us for a drive through the Puamau Valley to the ancient site of Oipona, famed for its tikis as well as its ghoulish past. As we strolled past a cylindrical pit used to house prisoners, caves used to store human bones and an “oven” once used to cook human parts, he invited us to feel the mana, the Polynesian spiritual life force.
On our way back through neat villages with satellite dishes funded by the French Government, and waving mothers playing bingo with their naked babies on the beach, he grew wistful for the past. “After dark we used to tell our children wonderful stories of their ancestors. Now they just watch trash on TV. Soon all our history and culture will die,” he said.
Back at Atuona, I strolled up the hill to Gauguin’s simple grave under a lone frangipani tree. The Marquesas had stirred me in a way a more conventional white sand tropical idyll never could. I was a stranger in an alien paradise, something I knew the painter would have understood.
Paintings - Artcyclopedia
Paintings - Artchive
Magpie mystic of the South Pacific
Paul Gauguin died 100 years ago next week. But his lush visions of exotic escapism, and his struggle with profound human questions – who are we? where are we going? – seem more resonant than ever. John Whitley reports
Exactly 100 years ago next Thursday, Paul Gauguin died alone and in agonising pain in his shack on the Marquesas Islands near Tahiti. He was 54, heavily in debt, his paintings were almost universally derided and he was addicted to morphine – he may even have been killed by an overdose of the drug, which he took for the suppurating syphilis sores on his legs.
It was not a savoury end for the macho womaniser who, 30 years before, had flourished as a loadsamoney trader on the fringes of the Paris stock exchange. But within a decade of this solitary death he had become the centre of a romantic myth which, a century later, continues to celebrate the artist as a heroic rebel and draws tourists in their hundreds of thousands to the South Seas.
More importantly, Gauguin became acknowledged as one of the trio of 19th-century painters who shaped modern art, along with Vincent Van Gogh and Cézanne. From his . rst retrospective in Paris just three years after his death, where Matisse, Derain and Dufy were among the visitors overwhelmed by the freedom of form and colour in his paintings, the Fauve movement and then Expressionism took wing.
And, although he hated to admit it, the young Picasso was profoundly influenced by those early shows and their revelation of the potential of “primitive” art forms. It’s now known that his sight of carvings such as the menacing Oviri, drawn from Peruvian and Polynesian totems, led directly to his revolutionary Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Yet the legend has continued to distort that artistic achievement. Gauguin was perhaps the first great painter to live out the role of romantic outsider promoted by poets like Byron, Vigny and Baudelaire, and this reputation still befuddles the most scholarly observers. At this very moment, a team of art archaeologists are solemnly excavating the well behind Gauguin’s shanty to dredge up the debris of his final days.
“Yes,” sighs the Gauguin and Van Gogh scholar George Shackelford, chair of art of Europe at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “You can’t keep people from believing what they have been taught. “Everyone has this picture of the wild man, the barbarian who created great art in primitive conditions. And, actually, it’s rooted in fact – Gauguin led an existence in Tahiti that was certainly eccentric, at times extremely primitive. That makes a great story.”
Indeed, Gauguin’s whole life was a scriptwriter’s dream. It has inspired shelves of novels such as Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, while Hollywood has hired George Sanders, Anthony Quinn and Donald Sutherland to play the misunderstood genius.
Raised among distant cousins in Peru, he returned to France for a formal education, then roamed the world as a merchant seaman. At 25 he married and settled down on the stock exchange, devoting his spare time to studies with friendly Impressionists, notably his mentor, Camille Pissarro, and Degas. Hit by the 1882 crash, he threw it all up to become a full-time artist, but poverty drove him to the cheaper artists’ colony at Pont-Aven in Brittany and then to Arles. There he may (or may not) have incited Van Gogh to hack off his ear.
It was in these years, says Shackelford, that the run-of-the-mill Impressionist, largely self-taught, was transformed.
“His ability to suddenly grow in stature, to establish his identity, is virtually miraculous. You have these imitation Pissarros and Renoirs in the 1870s, and then he begins to produce objects that are quite amazing. There was this quantum leap in the 1880s, when he and Van Gogh sort of fed off each other, and then in 1889 you get a blossoming with that marvellous Soyez Amoreuses carving which prefigures Tahiti.”
The art establishment was less convinced. So in 1891, thwarted in his efforts to establish himself as a leader of the French avant-garde, Gauguin abandoned wife and children and sailed off to Tahiti, where he was to remain, apart from a single visit to France, for the rest of his short life.
There he hoped to find the truly exotic, a people untouched by Western civilisation. But in fact this French colony was as pettily provincial as any small town in his homeland and the natives had lost their primal innocence under the twin bludgeons of the Catholic church and Western diseases.
Not that Gauguin cared much about authenticity. He preferred to create his own version of Polynesian culture, painting his women either naked or in the pareu loincloths that they had long ago relinquished for the shapeless shifts favoured by the missionaries, and he named his canvases in garbled, pidgin Tahitian.
In fact, recent research has shown that many of his paintings and carvings are really variations on classic Western images: the drapery in the famous Two Tahitian Women, for instance, derives from medieval friezes and the pose of What! Are You Jealous? is based on a photograph of the Dionysus temple in Athens. Arguably, they turn out to be European settings in which the models just happen to be Tahitian.
“Gauguin was an absolute magpie,” says Shackelford, “and he had an extraordinary visual memory. As Degas said, he’s picking all our pockets. He was a very clever manipulator of other people’s ideas to suit his own purposes. But he managed almost always to radically improve them.”
Thus the picture of a raw, exotic paradise that was to in. uence so many European admirers was really a phoney one, a white settler’s view of the primitive. “He created a Tahiti that he imagined would be marketable to a Western public,” explains Shackelford. “That was crucial to his survival.” This noble savage had a personal spin.
Shackelford is determined to liberate the paintings from this popular fantasy. He suggests that the key to Gauguin’s achievement may lie in a detailed study of that final Tahitian decade when his work seems to blend his exposure to Polynesian culture with the richly coloured, icon-like decorative patterns he had developed years before in Brittany.
So he has concentrated on this period in the exhibition of more than 100 works that Boston is mounting jointly with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris this September – inexplicably, the first major show for 15 years. Called simply Gauguin: Tahiti, it will include many carvings, woodcuts and photographs of the islands, as well as the ornate doorposts that he carved for his last house.
“We’re not trying to dispel a myth so much as showing that there’s an even better story,” insists Shackelford. “We hope that showing this great collection in proper sequence will refocus the public’s imagination on his artistic achievement.”
To prove this point, the heart of the exhibition will be a once-in-acentury display: the gigantic painting D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?, which Gauguin made in 1897 and Boston bought in 1936. Painted partly on sacking and 12ft long by 4ft 6in, its fragility has prevented it from travelling to exhibitions and it has not been seen in Europe for more than 50 years.
Its sheer survival is remarkable. “Gauguin sent it with a naval officer who was returning to France,” explains Shackelford, “and it’s so huge that one imagines it must have been rolled up or folded to get on the boat, but there are no traces of this having happened. Gauguin didn’t he may have used a wax coating, and you’d expect much of the paint to have been rubbed off. Yet that didn’t happen.
“It’s certainly his masterpiece. It sums up everything that he’d achieved from Brittany onwards and it’s one of the great signposts of 19th-century art. You can’t imagine the art that came after it, from Matisse or Picasso, without this work being there first.
“And the great thing is that we are showing it in the context that Gauguin intended, for the first time since his death. When he shipped it off to Vollard, his dealer in Paris, he explained that he wanted it surrounded by nine smaller, related paintings, and that was how Vollard installed it in 1898.
“Then the set was split up. But now we’ll have eight of those nine pictures so, for the first time in 100 years, you’ll see the effect Gauguin wanted. We have no idea how they were installed in 1898, there are no photographs or descriptions, so it has to be done by my eye.”
Typically, Gauguin refused to explain the meaning of the big canvas. “He said, the title is there to ask questions – if you explain a work of art too much you lose the poetry. One way of reading it, going from right to left, is life’s journey from the baby to maturity, with death on the left.
“But the surrounding paintings bring something extra to it. They expand a part of the story or the decorative ensemble, as well as being right. For example, Vairumati takes the very beautiful young woman on the extreme left of the big painting and recasts her into a queen with a golden, throne-like bed behind her. It’s all in a wonderful golden colour, a symphony in gold.”
Seen together like this, where each of the smaller paintings elaborates motifs from the larger work, it becomes clear that Gauguin spent his entire career striving to be a philosopher as much as a painter. The ferociously unrealistic colours, crudely shaped figures and dreamlike vistas represent a personal inner world of emotions and belief.
“Gauguin suggests that the real subject of a work is the emotion of the viewer,” explains Shackelford. “He wasn’t interested in trying to tell a story or paint an allegory like the academic artists. His goal was to inspire a poetic reaction through his paintings, through their breadth, their colourism and what he called ‘skilful harmony’.
“With Van Gogh one is tempted to empathise, to believe in his own emotions when you look at his paintings, whereas Gauguin almost always manages to leave you mystified. He wants to leave you not unsatisfied but still unsure.”
And it may be this mystification that has ensured that Gauguin’s art remains universally popular today. His writings and the title of his great picture itself are imbued with the Rosicrucian mysticism and the Symbolist imagery of friends such as Mallarmé, which dominated European thought as it prophesied gloom and doom with the twilight of the 19th century.
It’s a mood that is entirely in tune with our own millennial angst. His paintings are among the prime trophies of the world’s great museums and no longer startle with their jarring colours and distorted perspective in a world where the exotic is only a commuterhop away.
What continues to disturb and attract us is the enigmatic way he used his work to ask the moral and philosophical questions that he was struggling to answer as he lay dying in his hut in the South what are we, where are we going? And, 100 years later, we are no closer to the answer.
‘Gauguin: Tahiti’ is at the Grand Palais in Paris from Sept 30 to Jan 19, then at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, from Feb 29 to June 27.
By RICHARD EDER
THE WAY TO PARADISE
By Mario Vargas Llosa. Translated by Natasha Wimmer.
373 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.
In ''The Feast of the Goat,'' published two years ago, Mario Vargas Llosa used the life and death of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo to portray the pathologies of absolute power -- the humiliation and enslavement of others, the self-atrophy -- and to tell in near-thriller style the story of the three conspirators who waited by the roadside to gun down the Goat. (Goat -- chivo -- is how the book renders the dictator's popular nickname. Dominicans were apt to use chivito, availing themselves of the useful facility of Spanish for making a grim universe momentarily manageable by voicing its monsters in the diminutive.)
For the most part the novel was smart and exciting. Yet it was something of a watering down, not of Vargas Llosa's talent but of what may be called his genius. ''Goat'' fills in history. It does so grippingly and with shrewd insight into the psychopathology of public life -- something the author gained a taste of years earlier in a failed run for the Peruvian presidency. What it doesn't manage is to use fiction to transfigure history -- think of ''War and Peace'' and ''The Charterhouse of Parma'' -- the way the author did in some of his strongest works: ''The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta,'' ''The War at the End of the World'' and much of ''Death in the Andes.''
His new novel, ''The Way to Paradise,'' draws heavily on history, or rather two histories. There is no question of transfiguring. Only occasionally does the book even amount to filling in history, and rarely very shrewdly. It is more in the nature of lavish personal decorating, with speculative sorties.
The histories have twin protagonists: Paul Gauguin and Flora Tristan, his Franco-Peruvian grandmother. Just two of the celebrated degrees of separation lay between them, but they were enough to mark out a vast distance between the tumultuous-living painter of polychromatic, totemlike figures in Brittany and the South Seas and the puritanical, self-unsparing woman who struggled around France in the 1840's to campaign for workers' and women's rights.
What did Tristan and Gauguin -- born four years after her death -- have in common? A fiery temper, a fierce unconventionality and a driving impulse toward their two very different extremes. Vargas Llosa's novel follows the extremes in alternate narrative loops without constructing a fictional mean, or even much of a fictional connection. The main connection, in fact, is the author himself. Besides relating his characters' lives he interrogates them persistently, and in an intimate second person that quickly does more than irritate, and creates special awkwardness for Natasha Wimmer's otherwise diligent translation.
Of the two stories, Gauguin's is less interesting -- partly because it is so much better known but mostly because Vargas Llosa doesn't bring to it a lot more than rhetorical invoking. It is set during the painter's years in Tahiti and the Marquesas -- the last 12 of his life -- with two intervals when he returned to France, broke and ailing. The previous years come as a series of flashbacks that erupt without warning -- in the course of a single paragraph, even. A reader will need a standard chronology to clear the blur.
There is brief reference to Gauguin's early service in the French Navy, followed by an account of his prosperous years in a stockbroker's office. Then we learn about his marriage to Mette Gad, a Dane. Vargas Llosa provides a conventional depiction of an ambitious bourgeoise who leaves Gauguin and returns to Denmark after he is laid off and thus released for full-time painting, poverty, drink and cultivating an artist's version of the beyond-good-and-evil superman.
Superman leads a group of painters in Pont Aven, where he evolves his distinctive style. Subsequently he feels oppressed -- here the author uses a share of his novelist's talent -- by the mystical devotion of Van Gogh in their ill-suited Arles menage. He flees when ''the mad Dutchman'' (a Gauguin-imposed tag Vargas Llosa repeats to characterize not its subject but its author) brandishes the razor he will soon use on himself.
The writer tells of Gauguin's Tahiti years with a garishness that seems designed to reflect the flamboyance of the paintings; also, perhaps, the thick impasto of some of Gauguin's own writings. When the sight of one of his vahine (''wives'') inspires the artist to begin his ''Nevermore'' canvas, the prose distends on his behalf:
''In this pagan world, the reclining woman accepted her limitations, knowing herself to be powerless before the secret, cruel forces that descend suddenly upon human beings to destroy them. Against such forces, primitive wisdom -- the wisdom of the Arioi -- doesn't rebel, weep or protest. It faces them philosophically, consciously, resignedly, as the tree and the mountain face the storm, and the sand on the beach confronts the sea that washes over it.''
It is something of a relief to go from such roiling in place to the story of Flora Tristan. The writer maintains his interrogative speculating and intimate second-person address, but the story is fresher and better organized; and the character is more likely to evoke a reader's curiosity and sympathy.
Again, the account begins with the later life and meanders backward in an unassembled chronological jigsaw. Tristan, barely 40, has come out of impoverishment and suffering to win a reputation in socially concerned circles with a book advocating a union of the working class to correct the horrendous conditions of the time. Unusually for a woman back then, she is not content to write; instead she embarks on a town-by-town tour of the south to try to organize workers' committees.
She does it despite failing health -- the brute of a husband she left years before had shot her, the bullet lodging in her chest -- and harassment by local authorities. Vargas Llosa writes of her meetings with followers of the social theories of Charles Fourier, whom she berates for parlor pinkishness and the failure to engage workers directly (she was nicknamed Madame-la-Colere). He writes of workers infuriated by her feminism and clergy put off by her atheism.
The town-by-town accounts are repetitious, but the author presents an engrossing, sometimes horrifying image of social conditions in France at the time. The portrait of Tristan is jagged and full of gaps, yet these make it oddly affecting. She is the woman alone, rejecting marriage, heterosexual sex (she breaks off a lesbian attachment to concentrate on her mission), comfort and anything but temporary human alliances, and all this for a social purpose that Vargas Llosa makes something more than an abstraction. It burns in her and we see the burn marks.
In by far the richest and most satisfying part of the book, the author abandons his tortured textual embroiderings of Gauguin, and his more successful elaboration of the surviving materials on Tristan. She visits her rich and powerful family in Peru. The visit did take place, and here, on his home ground, the novelist's imaginative gifts are in full flower.
Arriving in Arequipa (which is where Vargas Llosa himself was born), Tristan enters a feudal kingdom run by her uncle, Don Pio Tristan. Her reception is lavish, ceremonial, as befits a royal connection. Steel shows, though, when she asks for her inheritance rights. The warmth continues unabated -- Don Pio treats her as confidante and adviser -- but the feudal order is unbending. As a relative she is welcome to come into her own, but she will get nothing of her own to take away -- except for a small allowance later canceled.
Before she returns to France to begin her crusading, Vargas Llosa gives a splendidly baroque account of an absurdist civil war -- one of many in 19th-century Peru -- that stumbles its way into Arequipa. There is an insurrectionary army and a loyalist army: they feint at each other like two blindfolded boxers and end up fleeing in opposite directions. The rebel general cautiously leads his peasant forces back to claim victory; it's not long before his officers change sides on him. Meanwhile the aristocracy, led by Don Pio, diligently shuttles its allegiances and fortunes back and forth, day traders on the doubtful-futures market.
When Vargas Llosa temporarily abandoned writing for his traumatic entry into politics, he had already produced a body and quality of work that mark him as one of the great Latin American novelists of his time, possibly surpassed, but only slightly, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Since then, except for ''Death in the Andes,'' he has seemed to cast about, experimenting with an elegantly witty erotic novel, a struggling sequel, journalism and commentary, and the two fictionalized histories. To a considerable degree, ''Goat'' justified the experiment; the new book largely fails to.
Richard Eder writes book reviews and articles for The Times.
An activist and an artist, linked by blood and ambition.
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, November 30, 2003; Page BW15
THE WAY TO
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
Farrar Straus Giroux. 373 pp. $25
Mario Vargas Llosa -- Peru's greatest living man of letters -- has written novels, essays, political tracts, literary criticism, short stories and much else. Throughout his distinguished career he, like so many other Latin-American authors, has found in France and French literature a second home. For instance, his best work of nonfiction, The Perpetual Orgy, proffers a highly personal appreciation of both Madame Bovary and its creator's emblematic devotion to writing -- the only way to get through life, said Flaubert, is to lose oneself in art as in "a perpetual orgy." By contrast, Vargas Llosa's most ambitious novel, The War at the End of the World, recreates a would-be utopian community in the South American backlands, then chronicles its destruction. The Way to Paradise, his latest work of fiction, combines the themes of these two books -- political vision and artistic vocation.
Yet "combines" may not be the best verb to describe what Vargas Llosa has here attempted. In alternate chapters he counterpoints the intense lives of Flora Tristan, the leading social activist of mid-19th-century France, and her grandson, the revolutionary painter Paul Gauguin. Like Zola, whose greatest novels trace a genetic propensity for obsessiveness and violence in the Rougon-Macquart family, Vargas Llosa tacitly reveals the similar characters of Flora and Paul (who was born after his grandmother's death). In essence, both are true believers, driven by passionate conviction, willing to sacrifice family, love, material comfort and health for their respective dreams. Even their differences suggest a kind of obverse similarity -- Flora loathes sex and the demeaning exploitation of women, especially young women; Paul can't work without sexual excitement and prefers 14-year-old Tahitian girls as his companions. Ultimately both are searching for "the way to Paradise," one looking for her paradise in the future and an egalitarian world, the other in his art and an idealized Tahitian past.
The main point to alternating chapters and protagonists, as with the use of plots and subplots in mysteries, is to eventually knot the two disparate threads together. Vargas Llosa's characters can never meet, but their lives are comparably agonizing stations of the cross, tales of painful self-liberation. As Flora travels through France trying to drum up interest in her tract, "The Workers' Union," she is spat upon, physically attacked, reviled as a whore aiming to break up the family. Paul, a moderately well-off stockbroker, liberates himself from every bourgeois idée reçue, abandoning his wife and five children to pursue his painting, throwing himself into sexual excess of all sorts, consorting with madmen like Vincent Van Gogh, and finally taking ship for the South Seas. Both these obsessives hate the bourgeoisie: "In all his conversations and dreams about the need to seek a still-virgin world that had not yet been captured in European art, a central consideration had also been escape from the cursed daily quest for money, the everyday struggle to survive." Flora carries a bullet near her heart from a murderous attack by her loathsome shopkeeper husband (who eventually commits incest with his daughter); Paul suffers from the debilitations of syphilis. The last two chapters of The Way to Paradise present harrowing accounts of their early deaths.
Vargas Llosa employs one other technique to unite his two storylines: a disembodied authorial voice that addresses both Flora and Paul as "you." That is, the novel will be describing actions in the third person ("he" or "she") and will suddenly shift to the second person: "All you wanted was to escape the barred cage called matrimony." But within a sentence or two we'll be back with "she couldn't help feeling a twinge of regret for everything she didn't know." This might sound confusing, but isn't: Instead I think it's a technique to imbue the novel's surface with an extra fillip of stylistic vitality.
Which, alas, it needs. Vargas Llosa certainly knows everything about the nature of fiction, but that doesn't preclude making misjudgments. To evoke the obsessive quality of Flora and Paul's views of the world, he never quits their consciousnesses. As a result, The Way to Paradise gains textual intensity but must also settle for a kind of narrowness and claustrophobia. Except for a trip to Peru (an attempt to secure an inheritance), the Flora chapters sound alike: Beautiful Florita arrives in Arles or Marseille or Lyon or Bordeaux, sets up a meeting with local workers, suffers some sort of indignity, sells a few copies of "The Workers' Union" and then moves on. Notable political thinkers and artists occasionally pass by on the periphery -- Charles Fourier, Liszt, even Marx. In similar fashion, Paul duly encounters Manet, Pissarro and Mallarmé, as he gradually discovers his own vocation and its high price.
As narrative The Way to Paradise is virtually inert. The book loops backward and forward in time to describe the lives of its protagonists, but almost as though this were experimental biography, not fiction. As with any novel in which a relatively well-known historical character is the hero, one can't help but wonder: Where do the facts stop and the fancies begin? Are Paul's thoughts after sex with a Tahitian man made up -- or are they, perhaps, drawn from a letter or diary? Did this even happen? Such uncertainties leave a reader dissatisfied, especially since the "novel" is presented as a historically faithful account of its protagonists' lives, albeit one transmitted by a narrator who can flit in and out of the heads of Flora Tristan and Paul Gauguin.
With drama played down, conversation reduced to a minimum and a resolutely cheerless, earnest tone, what does The Road to Paradise have going for it? A couple of things. Through his characters Vargas Llosa does capture much of the liberationist spirit of the 19th century, the great romantic desire to escape the cramping bonds of tradition, whatever the cost. His stylistic virtuosity with authorial voice commands admiration. But to my mind the best parts of the novel are the embedded essays, whether on the allure of the primitive or the conditions of life in Peru in the 1840s or the theories of Charles Fourier:
"In the phalansteries, according to Fourier's design, there would be young virgins who would entirely forgo sex; and vestals, who would practice it moderately with the vestels or troubadours; and women with even more freedom, the damsels, who would pair off with the minstrels; and so on, up a rising scale of freedom and excess -- odalisques, fakiresses, bacchantes -- up to the bayaderes, who would make love as a charitable act, sleeping with the old, the sick, travelers, and in general beings who were otherwise condemned by an unjust society to masturbation or abstinence. . . .What alarmed (Flora) most about Fourier's doctrine were his claims that 'all fantasies are good in matters of love' and 'all passionate obsessions are just, because love is essentially unjust.' His defense of the 'noble orgy' made her dizzy, as did his espousal of coupling in groups and his assertion that in the society of the future, minority tastes -- unisexual, as he called them -- like sadism and fetishism shouldn't be suppressed but rather encouraged so that each person might find his perfect match and be satisfied in his weakness or whim. All this, of course, would harm no one, since everything would be freely chosen and approved."
Such passages should send at least a few readers to their local libraries to learn more about Fourier and his ideas. Similarly, Vargas Llosa is very good at evoking the impact of paintings, such as Gauguin's "The Vision After the Sermon" in which a group of Breton peasant women look out on a meadow and see Jacob wrestling with the angel:
"The true miracle of the painting wasn't the apparition of biblical characters in real life, Paul, or in the minds of those humble peasants. It was the insolent colors, daringly antinaturalist: the vermilion of the earth, the bottle green of Jacob's clothing, the ultramarine blue of the angel, the Prussian black of the women's garments and the pink-, green- and blue-tinted white of the great row of caps and collars interposed between the spectator, the apple tree, and the grappling pair. What was miraculous was the weightlessness reigning at the center of the painting, the space in which the tree, the cow, and the fervent women seemed to levitate under the spell of their faith. The miracle was that you had managed to vanquish prosaic realism by creating a new reality on the canvas, where the objective and the subjective, the real and the supernatural, were mingled, indivisible. Well done, Paul!"
Vargas Llosa's own cultivated intelligence shows itself in these two passages. But intelligence alone won't carry a novel, though it can make it intermittently engrossing. A novel must somehow cast a spell, must enchant the reader -- nothing else really matters. One can admire The Way to Paradise, but what a book really wants is to enthrall. •
The distant corners of happiness
Vargas Llosa's novel follows Gauguin and his grandmother as they search for fulfillment in France, Peru and Tahiti
Reviewed by Alan Cheuse
Sunday, December 7, 2003
The Way to Paradise
By Mario Vargas Llosa
FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX; 366 PAGES; $25
The bold, dynamic and endlessly productive imagination of the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the writing giants of our time, is something truly to be admired. It feeds almost always on the material of history and transforms such matter into fiction quite personal without ever losing the effect of universality. Nothing demonstrates this better than his latest novel, "The Way to Paradise," a dual narrative about the life and work of Paul Gauguin and his grandmother, the political organizer Flora Tristan.
As with any great writer, Vargas Llosa makes us see clearly what we have been looking at all the while but never noticed -- in this case, the Peruvian connection to one of Europe's first utopian activists and one of the late 19th century's greatest artists -- and their links to each other.
First comes Flora Tristan, born out of wedlock to a Peruvian of high standing and a French mother. In the France of the mid-19th century, she works,
as one of the early chapter headings would have it, in "the shadow of Charles Fourier," one of the major utopian thinkers of his time, trying to overcome the enormous bias against women in politics and business as she attempts to organize the lowest and most brutalized workers in France. As she sees it, her task is no less than the salvation of humanity. And having struggled against the stigma of illegitimacy, a bestial marriage and the prevailing biases of the time, she takes long steps toward achieving this, at least in her own mind.
In alternating chapters Vargas Llosa recounts the life of Tristan's grandson, the great Paul Gauguin, whose enormous life change in his early 30s led him from work as a stockbroker to an apprenticeship as a painter and rapid elevation to the highest realms of artistic achievement. Like his grandmother, he seeks an almost impossible goal, in his case the renovation of the aesthetic of modern painting. Or as Vargas Llosa puts in his address to the spirit of his character Gauguin, "Western art had deteriorated because of its alienation from the totality of existence manifested in primitive cultures. In them, art -- inseparable from religion -- was part of everyday life, like eating, dressing, singing, and making love. You wanted to recapture that tradition in your paintings."
For both of these people, as Vargas Llosa presents them, paradise lies "en otra esquina," in another corner, as in the children's game, a version of hopscotch, that both grandmother and grandson see played in the streets of France. In Arequipa, Peru, to which Flora Tristan in 1833 makes a pilgrimage in the hopes of winning an inheritance from her father's wealthy family, paradise is seen as residing in France. In France, as Gauguin discovers, paradise beckons as the idea of Tahiti. In Tahiti, at the turn of the century, he finds his goal in the sublimity of his greatest paintings.
The ephemeral nature of social and aesthetic perfection comes to life in this dense and fascinating novel of ideas: Flora Tristan's struggle with her enraged and brutal husband, her difficult encounters with her Peruvian relatives, her struggle against the rigidity of owners and workers and the rivalry of other organizers; and her grandson Gauguin's quest for a life in which people and nature know no divide. But, to be honest, the book is quite slow, if not sluggish, as it moves forward, telling the story of each life in great detail and making their differences stand out (grandmother Tristan, abjuring love and affection for a life of usually bitter struggle and defeat in the realm of the factory and the street, grandson Paul, seeking union with the attractive and seemingly more natural inhabitants of Polynesia after his dry bourgeois life in France and Scandinavia).
But even though it moves with little more than glacial speed, it takes us ultimately to the vividly described master projects of the great painter, in his paradise of work, and this is worth the long journey, as in, for example, Vargas Llosa's portrayal of Gauguin, studying his subject as he draws:
"This marvelous body, the skin matte with golden highlights, the solid thighs extending into strong, well-shaped legs, wasn't European or Western or French. It was Tahitian. It was Maori. This evident in the carelessness and freedom with which Pau'ura lay, in the unconscious sensuality she exuded from all her pores, even her locks of black hair made blacker by the yellow cushion
-- its color so gold so rich that it made you think of the mad Dutchman's [Van Gogh's] intense golds, which the two of you spent so much time discussing in Arles." Or in his depiction of Gauguin's pathetic last months of life, surrounded by the island landscape and people that kept him alive, and dying from all the indulgences he made for himself while living there.
In this, the master Peruvian novelist's first truly international novel, the canvases of these lives light up with the glow of his passion, even as his subjects struggle to flame on, then sputter out and die. •
Alan Cheuse is a book commentator for National Public Radio.
12 December 2003
Great art is worth all the pain the artist offers up to it. Of course we believe that: Beethoven and Mozart, struggling to create against extreme physical suffering; Emily Dickinson, making diamond out of tortured isolation. But what about other people's suffering? Is art worth that? So asked Elizabeth Bishop, when Robert Lowell showed her his poems whose words were stolen out of letters from the wife he left.
And suppose the art is not that great anyway, only fairly good or rather bad. Suppose you are deluded about your own worth: many artists are. Will you put everyone else through hell for a handful of bad paintings? It is not proven that great suffering all round will produce a masterpiece. Not everyone who makes others suffer gets an earth-shattering aesthetic out of it.
This year is the centenary of Paul Gauguin's death; his life has long been a test case for these questions. In Somerset Maugham's novel The Moon and Sixpence, the Gauguin hero is Charles Strickland, a conventional stockbroker who left his wife of 17 years to paint. After newly savage sexual intensities and a lot of hard painting, Strickland dies blind and leprous in Tahiti. In 1919, the Manchester Guardian reviewer hated it. Not because the moral questions were new but because the stark way Maugham posed them upset him: "One is repelled, not by Strickland's monosyllabic callousness but by the knowledge that this callousness is seen and represented without subtlety."
He would have recoiled even more violently from Mario Vargas Llosa's blazing new version of Gauguin in The Way to Paradise. One thing he could not have used as an excuse, however, is lack of subtlety. The Way to Paradise weaves an extraordinarily rich double fantasia around Gauguin's life, strenuously explores qualities in the works, and sets the moral issues in a far wilder, more real historical world.
And not just France and Tahiti: Vargas Llosa counterpoints Gauguin's life with another, giving his interest in the story a very personal charge. Maugham made Gauguin's Peruvian ancestry, and earlier life as a merchant seaman, explain the drive towards primitive exoticism, his 1891 journey to Tahiti, and his 1895 return to the island, where he died 12 years later.
Vargas Llosa goes further, interleaving Gauguin's life with that of his half-Peruvian grandmother Flora Tristan, an extraordinary trailblazing suffragist. Gauguin's Tahitian world of rainforest, rotting magic, blue shadows and ripe flesh is mirrored in the hallucinatory violence of Peruvian history seen through Flora's eyes. Escaping a brutal husband, she asks her father's Peruvian family for her inheritance, and there encounters revolution, and her own passion for justice, which becomes to her what art is for Gauguin.
But her search for truth does not create Paradise for her daughter, nor does Gauguin's for his Danish family and Tahitian lovers. Leprosy nothing: he had, and died of, syphilis.
Setting the moral stakes higher than did Maugham, Vargas Llosa complicates and enriches them. By apostrophising each character, he reminds us that everyone can be interpreted differently. "Was this the work you intended to paint? Now, seeing it after your return from the dead - a pretty phrase, Koké - you were not so sure."
It's riveting stuff, beautifully written; wild, exact, and visually stunning. En route it makes wonderful sense of the paintings. We get guilty flashbacks to Van Gogh, the mad needy Dutchman. "My spermatic painting!" he says before he kills himself, watching Gauguin rut in Provence. "I did it by spilling all my sexual energy on canvas instead of wasting it on women!"
We get Gauguin's own attempted suicide in Tahiti after painting his largest, most famous painting, which he intended as his final work: Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going? Most fundamentally, Vargas Llosa's novel asks what the exotic really is. He himself is not exoticising in describing Peru: it is his own country. Gauguin, he suggests, had a right to the exotic. It was his home as well as his truth. That Paradise was where he came from.
Dec. 19, 2003, 2:20PM
By DAVID D. MEDINA
THE WAY TO
By Mario Vargas Llosa.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25; 384 pp.
AT an age -- 67 -- when most fiction writers are running low on creative juices, prolific Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa has written yet another stunning novel. The Way to Paradise is a masterfully constructed story that will certainly put readers on the path to literary bliss.
The novel is a tale of two historical characters, French painter Paul Gauguin and his feminist/social-activist grandmother, Flora Tristán. Both are adventurers who seek the perfect way of life, the former through sensual pleasure, the latter through social justice.
In real life, the two never met, but the author does an amazing job of putting them side by side in alternating chapters, contrasting their lives while also showing the similarities between grandmother and grandson.
As in previous novels, Vargas Llosa plays with the structure and once again succeeds in presenting a narrative that is engaging and intriguing. He combines a third-person omniscient narrator with a second-person storyteller who is teasing and sympathetic. Seamlessly, within each chapter, he frequently moves from the present to the past, slowly unraveling the struggles both characters endure in their search for salvation.
The book wastes no time in captivating the reader, announcing in the first sentence that Tristán is intent on transforming humanity and eliminating injustice. Touring France to recruit people for her Workers' Union, she meets an array of socialists, communists, anarchists and other followers of such 19th-century social theorists as Saint-Simon, Fourier and Proudhon. Beautiful and volatile, Tristán must fight off lecherous men and the authorities who fear her mission is subversive.
While traveling from one sweatshop to the next, Tristán contemplates her life and in doing so reveals she is the illegitimate daughter of a French mother and a Peruvian father. She grew up desperately poor, married a despicable man, and escaped her torturous relationship by sailing off to Peru to reclaim her inheritance, only to be rejected by her uncle.
Everywhere she goes she sees the folly and cruelty of men. To get a better understanding of the mistreatment of women, she dresses as a man in London and visits the brothels. Tristán sacrifices everything, including love and sex, in order to serve justice.
Gauguin, on the other hand, thrives on sex. In Tahiti, where he travels in search of a pure and primitive way of life and to get away from the "decadent" Western civilization, the painter has a series of teenage lovers. Despite the syphilis that eventually kills him, he fathers children with the native women. When he isn't drunk, high on opium to ease the pain of his deteriorating body or carousing with the girls, he creates some of his best art.
Like his grandmother, Gauguin could have lived a conventional life but instead chooses to follow his bliss. A successful stockbroker with a beautiful wife and five children, he leaves all that behind when he is 35 to devote himself to art. He lives briefly with Vincent van Gogh in southern France but leaves because he can't stand the mood swings of "the Mad Dutchman."
Some of the passages describing Gauguin's work read like art critiques, offering reasons that the artist made the painting. The narrator praises Gauguin for vanquishing "prosaic realism by creating a new reality on the canvas, where the objective and the subjective, the real and the supernatural, were mingled, indivisible."
Gauguin is fascinated by the ambiguous "man-woman" phenomenon, "the third sex" that is openly accepted in the South Seas islands. Big and macho, Gauguin, the author suggests, had homosexual tendencies that he reflected in his art.
Although exotic Tahiti inspires Gauguin to new artistic heights, he eventually grows disillusioned and begins seeking another island untouched by Western corruption. He sails to the Marquesas, where the people, he thinks, are still free and untamed. But he is disappointed there as well. With energy left for only a few more paintings, he struggles to make a living and dies in poverty. Ironically, it is left to their long-term enemy, the Catholic Church, to bury Gauguin and Tristán.
This is the kind of novel you dread finishing not because of its sad ending but because you want the story to continue and the writing to mesmerize for a while longer. With this novel, along with such others as The Green House and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Vargas Llosa should definitely be a strong contender, if he is not already, for the Nobel Prize.
David D. Medina is a senior editor of the alumni magazine and minority community affairs director at Rice University.
Centenário da Morte
Por LUÍS MIGUEL QUEIRÓS
Quinta-feira, 08 de Maio de 2003
Paul Gauguin A arte da fuga
Nada indicava que Gauguin tivesse nascido para ser pintor. Aos 30 anos é um bem sucedido corretor da bolsa parisiense, casado e pai de filhos. Não era fácil adivinhar que iria abandonar tudo, a família, os amigos, o conforto da civilização europeia, para cumprir a sua vocação de artista nas remotas ilhas dos Mares do Sul, vivendo entre os nativos, pobre e com a saúde arruinada.
Ele próprio, em cartas que escreveu no final da vida, falava dos seus sofrimentos quase com orgulho, vendo neles a marca de água do artista genuíno. Mas recomendava que não se exagerasse, talvez por se recordar ainda demasiado bem dessa véspera de Natal de 1888, em Arles, quando Van Gogh cortou a sua própria orelha (ver caixa). De resto, talvez Gauguin se limitasse, afinal, a fazer o que lhe apetecia, o que lhe dava mais prazer, e a verdadeira sacrificada tenha sido essa desgraçada jovem dinamarquesa, Mette Sophie Gad, que se viu a braços com cinco filhos e poucos ou nenhuns recursos.
Apesar desse período de convencional vida burguesa a que durante algum tempo se resignou, Gauguin tinha sangue de aventureiros e a sua própria infância e adolescência foram razoavelmente movimentadas. Nasceu em 1848, em Paris, filho de um jornalista francês, Clovis Gauguin, e de uma peruana, Aline Chazal. A sua avó materna era a escritora mestiça Flora Tristan, militante feminista e seguidora de Saint-Simon.
Envolvido na política, o pai de Gauguin parte com a família para o Peru em 1851, quando Luís Napoleão chega ao poder. Morre durante a travessia e a víúva e o filho acolhem-se num palacete da família, que pertencera a um tio-avô de Flora Tristan, Don Pio Tristan y Moscoso, vice-rei do Peru. Em 1855 regressam a França e instalam-se em Orléans, onde Gauguin faz os seus estudos primários e liceais. Aline Chazal projecta para o filho uma carreira na marinha e, aos 17 anos, Gauguin alista-se como cadete no navio mercante Lusitano, que faz escala no Brasil.
À marinha mercante, segue-se a de guerra, que Gauguin abandona em 1871, após o conflito franco-prussiano. Nesse mesmo ano emprega-se numa firma de corretores de bolsa, onde permanecerá 12 anos, auferindo rendimentos francamente respeitáveis para os padrões da classe média parisiense da época. Casa-se, em 1873, com uma dinamarquesa de 24 anos, Mette, com quem terá cinco filhos. A vida corre-lhe bem.
Entre os seus colegas de trabalho conta-se Émile Schuffenecker, apreciador dos impressionistas e pintor amador. Aos domingos encontram-se para pintar e Émile convence Gauguin a frequentar, com ele, a academia parisiense Colarossi. Schuffenecker, um artista menor, adquiriu recentemente uma repentina celebridade, quando, em 1997, surgiram indícios muito convincentes de que teria sido ele o verdadeiro autor de "Jardin à Auvers", que se pensava ser uma das últimas telas de Van Gogh e que, nesse pressuposto, atingira em leilão quase 25 milhões de libras.
Enquanto aperfeiçoa a sua pintura, Gauguin frequenta as exposições dos impressionistas e gasta verbas consideráveis na compra de telas de Manet, Monet, Sisley e Pissarro. Torna-se amigos deste último, que o apresenta a Cézanne. Durante um breve período, chegam a trabalhar os três em conjunto. E em 1876, Gauguin tem o seu primeiro momento de glória: uma paisagem da sua autoria, bastante influenciada por Pissarro, é aceite no Salon, a mostra anual dos impressionistas. Dez anos mais tarde, a oitava e última exposição do grupo exibirá nada menos do que 19 telas de Gauguin, que começava precisamente por essa altura a romper com o movimento.
Mas o ano crucial fora o de 1883. Com o colapso da bolsa parisiense, abandona a empresa e decide tornar-se pintor a tempo inteiro. Como Paris era demasiado caro, muda-se com a família para Rouen, onde espera enriquecer vendendo quadros aos grandes proprietários rurais. Não vende nenhum. A falta de meios leva a mulher a regressar à Dinamarca com os filhos. Gauguin junta-se-lhes em 1884 e emprega-se como vendedor. No ano seguinte está de volta a Paris, com o terceiro filho, Clovis, o mais velho dos rapazes, e sustenta-se a colar cartazes.
A vida não lhe corre nada bem, mas toma uma decisão acertada: instala-se, em 1886, em Pont-Aven, na Bretanha, um conhecido refúgio de artistas, onde a sua arte começa a revelar um estilo francamente autónomo, com a utilização de grandes manchas de cor, que não pretendem reproduzir as da natureza, e o recurso a tintas puras, não misturadas na paleta. No fim do ano regressa à capital, onde conhece Van Gogh: um encontro que se revelará decisivo.
Paris não é o cenário ideal para buscas interiores, sobretudo quando o dinheiro escasseia. Van Gogh parte para Arles e Gauguin embarca para a América Central com o pintor Charles Lavall. Trabalha um par de semanas no Panamá, na Companhia do Canal, e depois segue para a Martinica, a primeira aproximação ao primitivo paraíso natural que depois acreditará ter encontrado no Tahiti e, finalmente, nas selvagens Ilhas Marquesas.
No início de 1888 está de novo em Pont-Aven, com um grupo de pintores, entre os quais se destaca Émile Bernard, cujo "cloisonnisme", com os seus campos de cor bem definidos, o irá influenciar. É nestes meses que antecedem a turbulenta coabitação com Van Gogh que Gauguin pinta "A Visão Depois do Sermão ou Jacob e o Anjo", tida hoje como a obra em que o artista rompe definitivamente com o impressionismo e anuncia o seu estilo posterior, conhecido como simbolismo sintético por assentar no desejo de associar a realidade e a abstracção, a natureza e as emoções, a herança cultural do Ocidente e as lições da arte primitiva. Quando Van Gogh enlouquece e o ameaça com uma navalha de barba, é mais uma vez na Bretanha que procurará refúgio. Rodeiam-no vários jovens pintores e há quem se desloque de Paris só para ver Gauguin em acção. Começa a criar discípulos, como Sérusier ou o jovem Pierre Bonnard.
Desta vez, o pintor passa a maior parte do tempo numa aldeia próxima de Pont-Aven, Le Poldu, acolhendo-se com o pintor holandês Jacob Meyer De Haan na estalagem de Marie Henry, cuja sala de jantar pintam em conjunto. De Haan paga as contas e serve de modelo a Gauguin, que, em troca, lhe dá aulas de pintura. Um acordo perfeito, mas que não tarda a turvar-se quando ambos se tornam amantes da estalajadeira. Um deles, ao que parece De Haan, engravida-a. Nos últimos retratos que Gauguin faz do amigo e rival, este aparece com olhos lascivos e orelhas animalescas. Picasso, ao assistir em 1906 à primeira grande retrospectiva póstuma de Gauguin, interessou-se por estas deformações deliberadas, que terão influenciado a composição, no ano seguinte, das suas célebres "Demoiselles d'Avignon".
Depois da decisão existencial de 1883, a segunda e última grande viragem na vida de Gauguin ocorre em 1891, quando decide deixar a Europa e radicar-se no Tahiti, na Polinésia Francesa. Nesse mesmo ano nasce em Paris a sua filha Germaine Chardon, futura pintora, cuja mãe, Juliette Huais, servira de modelo a Gauguin em 1890. Já no Tahiti, improvisa um casamento com uma nativa de 13 anos, Tehamana, de quem tem um filho em 1892. Na sua tela "Tehamana Tem Muitos Pais", é perturbante o contraste que as formas sensuais e o olhar melancólico e distante da jovem tahitiana criam com as pudicas roupas que enverga, impingidas pelos missionários católicos.
Quando regressa a Paris, em 1893, Gauguin expõe os trabalhos que realizou na Polinésia. Fracasso total. Há quem lhe chame selvagem e bárbaro, o que, secretamente, talvez tenha apreciado. A boa notícia é que um tio lhe deixou uma pequena herança. Gauguin desbarata-a rapidamente com uma rapariga javanesa, Annah, que lhe esvazia o "atelier" e desaparece sem deixar rastro. Já está de novo falido quando, após uma breve surtida à Dinamarca, para se despedir da ex-mulher e dos filhos, regressa definitivamente aos Mares do Sul. Para custear a viagem coloca em leilão 74 pinturas, conseguindo vender 47. Não se pode queixar. Em toda a sua vida, Van Gogh só conseguiu vender uma obra.
Com falta de dinheiro e a saúde deteriorada pela sífilis, os seus últimos anos no éden polinésio são tudo menos paradisíacos. Em Janeiro de 1898 chega mesmo a tentar suicidar-se, logo após ter concluído a espantosa obra-prima a que chamou "De Onde Vimos? Quem Somos? Para Onde Vamos?", uma imensa tela de mais de quatro metros de comprimento. Apesar das dificuldades, Gauguin pinta, escreve e faz filhos, todos de mães diferentes.
Em 1901, quando o fim já está próximo, troca o Tahiti por Atuona, na ilha de Hiva Oa, arquipélago das Marquesas. É aqui que morre, a 8 de Maio de 1903, quando acabara de se ver condenado a três meses de prisão por desacatos com a igreja e com a autoridade colonial.
Nos anos seguintes, a sua obra, que abrange ainda a escultura, a cerâmica e a gravura, influenciará muitas das principais correntes artísticas do início do século XX: expressionistas, fauvistas, primitivistas, talvez mesmo os primeiros surrealistas.
Nove Semanas e Meia
Quinta-feira, 08 de Maio de 2003
A história da arte está cheia de encontros felizes e frutuosos. Mas também os que correm mal podem vir a revelar-se decisivos. Os pouco mais de dois meses - entre Outubro e Dezembro de 1888 - que Van Gogh e Gauguin passaram juntos, na célebre casa amarela de Arles, dificilmente poderiam ter corrido pior. No entanto, as violentas discussões que travaram terão servido a ambos para perceber melhor o tipo de artista que cada um deles queria ser.
Van Gogh chegou a França em Fevereiro de 1886 para viver com o irmão, Theo, negociante de arte, e tornou-se amigo de pintores como Toulouse-Lautrec e Émile Bernard, com os quais organizou uma exposição num café parisiense. Gauguin, que era já um pintor respeitado - participara em várias exposições dos impressionistas -, visitou a mostra e sentiu-se especialmente emocionado com uma tela de Van Gogh, mostrando dois dos seus recorrentes girassóis amarelos. Por contraste com o impressionismo, podia considerar-se incendiário o modo como Van Gogh retratava a natureza. Ficou tão entusiasmado que se propôs adquirir o quadro, dando em troca uma obra que pintara recentemente na Martinica.
Em 1886, quando se encontram pela primeira vez, Gauguin e Van Gogh são dois pintores em busca de novos caminhos, ambos descontentes com o meio artístico parisiense, aburguesado, competitivo e dominado pela escola impressionista. Gauguin regressa a Pont-Aven, na Bretanha, e Van Gogh radica-se no Sul de França, na velha cidade romana de Arles. Mas mantêm o contacto. Trocam correspondência e enviam um ao outro auto-retratos baseados em personagens literárias. Gauguin faz-se representar como o Jean Valjean de "Os Miseráveis", de Victor Hugo, e Van Gogh pinta-se como um monge budista retirado de um romance de Pierre Loti.
Com o auxílio de Theo, que se propõe financiar a fundação de um "Atelier do Sul" na casa de Arles, Van Gogh convence Gauguin a juntar-se a ele. Para o receber, pinta girassóis amarelos nas paredes.
Gauguin chega em Outubro de 1888. As primeiras semanas correm bem. Van Gogh, ainda que distante de qualquer tentação imitativa, insiste que a arte deve partir da observação da natureza, ao passo que o seu amigo confia mais na imaginação. As coisas resolvem-se com um compromisso: quando está sol, trabalham no exterior, mas aproveitam os dias de chuva para pintar dentro de portas. Van Gogh ilustra as divergências entre ambos de um modo original, retratando as cadeiras que cada um deles utilizava. Gauguin, por sua vez, produz um retrato de Van Gogh pintando girassóis.
Mas o que começa por ser um saudável diálogo vai-se tornando num antagonismo tempestuoso. Os acontecimentos precipitam-se no final de Dezembro. No dia 23, num bar, Van Gogh atira uma bebida à cara de Gauguin. Inocente sinal da crise que se aproximava. Em plena véspera de Natal, um Van Gogh enlouquecido ameaça o seu hóspede com uma navalha de barba, que depois utilizará para cortar metade da sua própria orelha esquerda. Gauguin, já bastante irritado - segundo afirmará mais tarde - com o modo caótico como o amigo geria a casa e as finanças, achou que a sua estada em Arles começava a tornar-se demasiado arriscada e regressou à Bretanha, enquanto Van Gogh se fazia internar num hospício em San Remy, onde, aliás, pintou muitas das suas obras mais célebres.
A uma distância segura, mantiveram, contudo, a amizade que os ligava, continuando a corresponder-se até ao suicídio de Van Gogh, em 1890. Em 1901, treze anos após o encontro de Arles, Gauguin, exilado nas ilhas Marquesas, pobre e doente, pintou a sua própria cadeira decorada com uma braçada de girassóis. Era a sua última homenagem ao amigo.
Gauguin Tahiti: the Studio of the South Seas
George Shackelford and Claire Frèches-Thory
371pp, Thames and Hudson, £39.95
Be amorous, be happy
Martin Gayford reviews Gauguin Tahiti by George Shackelford and Claire Frèches-Thory and In Search of Gauguin by Jean-Luc Coatalem
Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin is a hard man to get into focus. Despite a huge amount of writing about the artist, some of it by Gauguin himself, he continues – more than 100 years after his death in 1903 – to obey the injunction carved on the entrance to his last dwelling in the Marquesas Islands – "Soyez mystérieuses" (Be mysterious).
He was, with his friend Van Gogh, the first great example of the artist as outcast. But Gauguin lived considerably longer than Van Gogh's 37 years (he died at 54), and acted out the role more consciously. He abandoned bourgeois life – including his wife and five children – to become, in middle age, an artist. He suffered poverty and rejection. In his final decade, he retreated to the South Pacific and became a hermit of avant-gardism – these years are the main subject of these books.
Both Gauguin and Van Gogh were strongly marked by their religious upbringings. Gauguin was taught at a Jesuit seminary; Van Gogh was the son of a Calvinist minister. They both aimed to make art a substitute and replacement for orthodox religion. Van Gogh wanted art to console; Gauguin used it to pose questions, as in the title of his masterpiece, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (recently described by Damien Hirst as the only real subjects in art).
Gauguin's questions were those that many Victorians pondered as the sea of faith slowly receded. His achievement was to give this heart-searching a richly coloured, poetically primitive form. His art led on to Munch and the Expressionists, to Picasso and Matisse.
Gauguin's late paintings can seem to reflect the life and beliefs of the South Pacific, but they do no such thing – by the time he arrived, the islanders had been deprived of their traditional costumes, religion and habits. The figures may look Tahitian, but the notions they embody are often vaguely Christian or Buddhist and their poses are borrowed from such diverse sources as the Parthenon frieze, the Buddhist sculptures of Borobudur or the paintings of Manet.
In his last years – crippled by sores on his legs, hobbling around on a phallic walking stick, surrounded by sumptuously coloured paintings – Gauguin seems like a strange mixture of Prospero, the fake magician Aleister Crowley and Conrad's Kurtz, who sank into depravity in remotest Africa.
He was an exploiter of local women, but at the same time an early feminist – as his writings reveal. He defended the islanders at times, but when hard up in Tahiti took on the editorship of a racist and reactionary newspaper dedicated to protecting the interests of Roman Catholic French settlers. It isn't quite clear whether he really wanted to spend his last years in Oceania or whether he got stuck there, the prisoner of his own image.
On the side of the door to his house was inscribed: "Soyez amoureuses et vous serez heureuses" (Be amorous and you will be happy). And he tried to follow that advice. There he entertained his mistresses – one of whom was 14 – drank quantities of absinthe, and took morphine to dull the pain from the symptoms of the syphilis which was slowly killing him.
By all accounts, Gauguin was an angry, bitter, cantankerous man – but a sensitive, creative and charming one as well. Perhaps the fairest assessment is that of a Tahitian mistress, who called him coquin, or rascal.
Gauguin Tahiti, which accompanies the magnificent exhibition currently at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, contains a variety of essays with fresh research and ideas – among them outstanding contributions by George Shackelford – and excellent plates. Both book and show testify to the richness and strangeness of Gauguin's best work.
Jean-Luc Coatalem, the author of In Search of Gauguin [282pp, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20], is a French travel writer who describes himself as a dilettante. He journeys in the artist's footsteps, musing as he goes. The result is a haphazard collage of his experiences and fragments of the painter's biography. There are purple passages and some inaccuracies, but Coatalem has a genuine enthusiasm for his subject. It is evidence of the continuing potency of Gauguin's self-made myth.
N Z Z Online
8. Mai 2003, 02:10, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
Am 8. Mai 1903 liess Paul Gauguin, der seit wenigen Monaten auf der Insel Hiva Oa in seinem vom katholischen Bischof erheuchelten «Haus der Freude» lebte, nach dem protestantischen Pfarrer Paul-Louis Vernier rufen. Als Vernier das Haus betrat, war der Maler bereits tot - vermutlich von einer Überdosis Morphium dahingerafft. In den Wochen vor seinem Tod hatte Gauguin einen Text mit dem Titel «Avant et Après» niedergeschrieben - weniger eine abgeklärte Rückschau auf sein kontrastreiches Leben denn eine Rechtfertigung der Widersprüche vor sich selbst. «Ich war manchmal gut und beglückwünsche mich deshalb nicht. Ich war oft böse und bereue es nicht», heisst es da zum Beispiel - und weiter oben: «C'est si peu de chose la vie d'un homme et il y a cependant le temps de faire de grandes choses, morceaux de l'Âœuvre commune.»
Wie Gauguin seinen Beitrag zum «gemeinsamen Werk» geleistet hat, werden in diesem Jahr diverse Ausstellungen illustrieren. Nur gerade fünf Jahre nach den Feierlichkeiten zu seinem 150. Geburtstag kommt der Maler damit schon wieder zu Ehren. Die wohl wichtigste Ausstellung zum 100. Todestag des Künstlers wird allerdings erst Anfang Oktober im Pariser Grand Palais eröffnet: Im Mittelpunkt von «Gauguin-Tahiti» steht das monumentale Werk «D'où venons nous? Que sommes nous? Où allons-nous?», das Gauguin 1897 malte und das als sein künstlerisches Vermächtnis gilt. Das Werk gehört dem Bostoner Museum of Fine Arts und wird erstmals seit 1949 wieder in Europa zu sehen sein. Weitere Feierlichkeiten sind in Quimper und Pont-Aven sowie auf Tahiti geplant.
Schon jetzt beschäftigt sich eine Ausstellung im Pariser Musée du Luxembourg mit den Anfängen des Malers in Pont-Aven. In den 1880er Jahren gab der Hobbymaler Paul Gauguin seine Bankkarriere auf, liess sich von Pissarro in die Feinheiten des Handwerks einweihen und zog schliesslich 1886 ein erstes Mal nach Pont-Aven. Dass sich in diesem kleinen Bretonendorf auch mit wenig Geld gut leben liess, hatten vor Gauguin auch schon eine Reihe pinseltüchtiger Amerikaner und Engländer herausgefunden. Deren Bilder werden nun zusammen mit einigen Werken von Gauguin und Mitstreitern wie Emile Bernard oder Paul Sérusier im Musée du Luxembourg gezeigt. Die Ausstellung ist so klaustrophobisch eng geraten, dass sich ein Schnupfen hier wohl so schnell verbreitet wie damals Gauguins moderne Idee, nicht das zu malen, was man sehe, sondern das, was man spüre. «Malen Sie nicht zu sehr nach der Natur», schrieb Gauguin 1888 an seinen Freund und Mäzen Emile Schuffenecker: «L'art est une abstraction, tirez-la de la nature en rêvant devant et pensez plus à la création qui en résultera.»
Die Qualität der Exponate im Musée du Luxembourg ist recht unterschiedlich. Es gelingt der Schau jedoch, deutlich zu machen, wie Gauguin schon damals alle möglichen und vor allem auch modischen Stilelemente benutzte, um seinen Bildern eine fremde, ein wenig exotische und dabei gleichzeitig mysteriöse Tiefe zu geben - von japanisierenden Elementen bis zu antiken oder ägyptisierenden Motiven.
Die «unberührte» Bretagne wird in der Ausstellung aber auch als ein idealer Ort dargestellt, eine Kunst zu entwickeln, deren emotionales Potenzial wie die Versprechungen einer Religion über die ersten Kränkungen der früh industrialisierten Welt hinwegzutrösten vermag. Das nächste, vermeintlich unberührte Paradies suchte Gauguin dann 1891 in der Südsee. Auch da war er nicht ganz so sehr Pionier, wie das aus heutiger Sicht scheinen mag - lag halb Frankreich doch spätestens seit der Weltausstellung von 1889, für die ganze Siedlungen aus den französischen Kolonien nach Paris verschifft wurden, in einem Tropenfieber sondergleichen. Dieses Fieber hatte allerdings wohl nicht zuletzt auch mit den barbusigen Eingeborenenfrauen zu tun, die mitsamt den Hütten ausgestellt wurden.
Gefunden hat Gauguin das Paradies auf Tahiti ganz und gar nicht, wie wir aus seinen Briefen wissen. Gefunden hat er aber einen Ort, an dem es sich billig leben und komfortabel lieben liess - einen idealen Ort, um das Lied von der unverfälschten Natürlichkeit anzustimmen. Ganz spurlos ist die Enttäuschung aber wohl nicht an ihm vorbeigegangen: Auf Tahiti muss sich jene bestimmte Art von Melancholie eingeschlichen haben, die viele seiner Südseephantasien mit einem seltsam geheimnisvollen Schimmer überzieht. Hätte Gauguin auf Tahiti das Paradies gefunden, dann hätte er es ja nicht mit Pinsel und Farbe suchen müssen. Und die Kunst der Moderne wäre um einige ihrer seltsamsten Ikonen ärmer.
L'aventure de Pont-Aven et Gauguin. Musée du Luxembourg, Paris. Bis 22. Juni. Anschliessend wird die Ausstellung im Musée des Beaux-Arts von Quimper gezeigt. Diverse Publikationen zur Ausstellung, Katalogheft Euro 7.-.
FRANKFURTER - RUNDSCHAU
Heute vor 100 Jahren starb Paul Gauguin auf der Südsee-Insel La Dominique. Er war der erste weltreisende Künstler der Moderne
Von Elke Buhr
Tabaksdose plus Zigarettenpapier, ein Kompass, zwei Paar Baumwollhosen, ein
grünes Barett, zwei Liter Absinth, einige erotische Fotografien: Viel mehr war
nicht zu holen, als der zuständige Gendarme auf der Südsee-Insel La Dominique
den Nachlass des französischen Staatsbürgers Paul Gauguin zu versteigern hatte.
1077 Francs und 15 Centimes erbrachte der Verkauf der Habseligkeiten Gauguins,
kaum genug, um die Gläubiger zu bezahlen. Wenige Tage zuvor, am achten Mai 1903,
war Gauguin in seiner Holzhütte gestorben, fünfundfünfzig Jahre alt. Seine Beine
waren zerfressen von Exzemen, die die Syphilis hervorgerufen hatte, sein Hirn
vernebelt vom Morphium, das er gegen die Schmerzen nahm. Was sich noch an
bemalten Leinwänden in der Hütte befand, schafften Freunde nach Tahiti, von wo
aus der künstlerische Nachlass den Weg nach Paris fand. Auf La Dominique blieb
ein selbst geschnitzter Gehstock mit einem erigierten Penis als Griff, den der
Gendarm angewidert zerschlug, anstatt ihn zu verkaufen.
So erzählt es David Sweetman in seiner Gauguin-Biografie. Sein 1995 in Großbritannien erschienenes Buch Paul Gauguin - a complete life (Sceptre Verlag, London), auch in diesem Jubiläumsjahr leider nicht ins Deutsche übersetzt, hat den Anspruch, die erste ernst zu nehmende Biografie dieser zentralen Künstlergestalt der Moderne zu sein; als Einziger, so sagt der ehemalige BBC-Kulturjournalist Sweetman, sei er an die Schauplätze in der Südsee gereist, habe die dortigen Archive durchwühlt und mit den Nachfahren direkt Beteiligter gesprochen. Er versucht, die zahlreichen Mythen, die sich um die Figur des Exzentrikers Gauguin ranken, auf ihren Wahrheitsgehalt abzuklopfen - eine sinnvolle Aufgabe, denn kaum ein Künstler hat sich in seinen autobiografischen Schriften so stilisiert wie Gauguin, und begierig haben schon die Zeitgenossen das romantische Bild des Aussteigers aufgesogen, das so gut zu seiner exotischen Malerei passte. Doch auch Sweetman schwelgt gern in pittoresken Details und legt die Quellen seiner detailreichen Anekdoten nicht offen. Ob er also nur die eine griffige Erzählung durch eine andere ersetzt, weiß man nicht. Sicher ist nur: Gerade zu einer Zeit, in der das Schlagwort der Globalisierung die Kunst erreicht und in der die Kräfteverhältnisse zwischen Zentrum und Peripherie neu verhandelt werden, kann es aufschlussreich sein, zum ersten Weltreisenden in der Kunst der Moderne zurückzukehren.
Die Moderne, so lautet die gängige Überzeugung, hat entscheidende Impulse von der außereuropäischen Kunst bekommen: Aus der flächigen, aperspektivischen Technik der japanischen Holzschnitte, aus den abstrahierenden Formen der Fetischobjekte der so genannten primitiven Völker. Es waren die Bilder und Skulpturen, die dekorative Keramik und die Holzschnitte Gauguins, die diese Einflüsse am entschieden-sten in die westliche Kunst übertrugen; von seinem Werk aus führt die Linie zum Ornament des Jugendstils, zum deutschen Expressionismus, zu Picasso. Und schon bei Gauguin erscheint die Suche nach authentischen Ausdrucksformen, nach der Wildnis und dem Unberührten wie ein gigantisches Missverständnis und ein gut funktionierender Marketing-Trick.
"Der Wilde aus Peru" nannte sich der 1848 in Paris geborene Gauguin gern. Seine Großmutter war die feministische Schriftstellerin Flora Tristan aus Peru, und nach Sweetmans Recherchen erzählt Gauguin ausnahmsweise einmal kein Märchen, wenn er in seiner letzten, reichlich wirren autobiografischen Schrift Vorher und Nachher (gerade im Dumont-Verlag neu aufgelegt) schreibt, er stamme von einem peruanischen Vizekönig aus dem alten Geschlecht der Borgia ab. Gauguin hat einige Jahre seiner Kindheit in Peru verbracht; seine früheste Begegnung mit Kunst dürfte die familieneigene Sammlung indianischer Amulette und Vasen gewesen sein, die seine Mutter später mit nach Paris nahm. Die zweite bemerkenswerte Kunstsammlung, mit der er konfrontiert wurde, war gleich das Modernste vom Modernen im Paris der 1870er Jahre. Sein Vormund Gustave Arosa, der den jungen Gauguin nach einigen Jahren bei der Marine als Bankangestellter an der Pariser Börse einschleuste, sammelte Delacroix, Courbet und die Maler der Schule von Barbizon. Gauguin selbst schloss sich in seiner Zeit als Börsenmakler und Sonntagsmaler den Impressionisten an, sammelte sie und durfte schließlich selbst in ihren Salons ausstellen.
Gern wird der dramatische Gegensatz von Gauguins bürgerlicher Existenz als gut verdienender Investmentbanker mit Familie (mit der Dänin Mette Sophie Gad zeugte er fünf Kinder) und seinem späteren Leben als mittelloser Bohemien-Künstler und schließlich Weltreisender betont. Allerdings brachte ihn bereits sein Börsenjob unmittelbar mit den Auswirkungen der sich global vernetzenden Weltwirtschaft in Berührung. Das immense Wirtschaftswachstum der späten 1870er Jahre, und mit ihm Gauguins Einkommen, speiste sich nicht zuletzt aus der allgemeinen Euphorie für den Panama-Kanal, das größte Ingenieur-Projekt, das die Welt bis dahin gesehen hatte. Als 1882 in Paris die Kurse einbrachen, weil die Hoffnungen der Investoren in Südamerika buchstäblich im Schlamm versanken, verabschiedete sich auch Gauguin vom Aktienhandel.
Während einer seiner ersten Reisen auf der Suche nach einer billigen Malerexistenz in der Wildnis, die ihn nach Martinique führte, arbeitete Gauguin selbst eine Zeit lang als Buchhalter an der Baustelle des Panama-Kanals und konnte so die Slums für die Arbeiter und die von den Bauarbeiten verwüstete Landschaft von Nahem besehen. Was ihn nicht davon abhielt, nach seiner Rückkehr weiter von einem paradiesischen "Atelier der Tropen" zu träumen. Im Frühjahr 1891 reiste er nach Tahiti; bis auf einen kurzen Aufenthalt in Paris lebte er von da an bis zu seinem Tod 1903 in der Südsee.
Vielleicht ist sein erstaunliches Ignorieren der Verhältnisse gleichzeitig das Exemplarische an Gauguins Verarbeitung der Begegnung mit der Fremde: Die Projektion dominiert die eigene Anschauung. Gauguin hat mit eigenen Augen gesehen, wie die Maschinen der Kolonisatoren die Landschaft der besetzten Gebiete umpflügten. Er fand sein Essen nicht auf den Bäumen, wie erhofft, sondern kaufte es teuer beim Import-Laden. Er wusste, dass nach 100 Jahren westlicher Herrschaft von der Kultur der Ureinwohner Polynesiens nichts mehr übrig war, dass die Frauen der Südsee nicht nackt waren, sondern die hochgeschlossenen Kleider trugen, die die Missionare ihnen gegeben hatten, und dass ihre Liebe nicht frei war, sondern käuflich. Und doch liest man in seinem Buch Noa Noa über die erste Tahiti-Reise von bronzefarbenen Brüsten, aus denen schwingende Melodien steigen und gegen die rauen Stämme der Kokospalmen stoßen. Und in seinen Gemälden versammeln sich nackte Frauen mit kräftigen Gliedmaßen und Blumen im schwarzen Haar an gold glitzernden Stränden oder in paradiesischen Gärten.
Es war allerdings auch nicht die künstlerische Programmatik Paul Gauguins, nach der Natur zu malen; anders als noch die Impressionisten, wollte er nicht das abbilden, was er sah, sondern seine innere Welt. Der diffus exotische Eindruck, den seine allegorisch verrätselten Bilder schon bei seinen Zeitgenossen hervorriefen, entsteht dabei durch das hemmungslose Mixen und Übereinanderblenden verschiedenster Quellen. Ägyptische Malerei, der Parthenonfries, Masken und Objekte, die er mal in Neuseeland gesehen hatte, eine kauernde Mumie aus dem Nationalmuseum von Peru, Manets Olympia, eine Nackte in Rückenansicht von Courbet: All diese Bilder hatte er in seinem visuellen Gedächtnis archiviert, sie hingen als Reproduktionen oder Fotografien in seiner Hütte, und sie finden sich in Zitaten und Variationen in seinen Gemälden. Gauguin, so schrieb er immer wieder in Briefen an die Freunde, sehnte sich nach einer ursprünglichen Kunst und nach authentischem Ausdruck - was er schuf, war ein höchst raffiniertes Palimpsest.
Von dem Markterfolg, den seine Bilder in den letzten Jahren hatten, erfuhr Gauguin auf seiner Insel nur wenig. Dass er mit seiner Überblendung des Exotischen mit dem westlichen Bildreservoir die Erwartungen des Publikums an Fremdes, aber nicht allzu Fremdes bedienen konnte, wird er aber gehofft haben. Sein Buch Noa Noa zumindest war bewusst als Bestseller geplant, in Zusammenarbeit mit einem erfahrenen Journalisten, und orientierte sich deutlich an einem damals sehr erfolgreichen Roman über eine Tahiti-Reise, samt romantischer Liebesgeschichte mit einer 13-jährigen Eingeborenen.
Zwar ging auch Gauguin immer wieder Beziehungen zu jungen Tahitianerinnen ein - nicht ganz so jung, wie er behauptete, so Sweetman, aber annähernd -, doch glücklich wurde er auf seinen Inseln nicht. Seine Syphilis konnte er nicht behandeln, immer wieder spuckte er Blut und kam monatelang nicht zum Arbeiten. Kurz vor seinem Tod schrieb Gauguin an seinen Freund Daniel de Monfreid in Frankreich, er wolle nach Hause: Er hoffte, dort den chronischen Ausschlag an den Füßen behandeln zu können. Doch de Monfreid schrieb zurück: "Sie sind jetzt dieser seltsame, legendäre Künstler, der aus der Tiefe Ozeaniens seine bestürzenden, unnachahmlichen Werke schickt, endgültige Werke eines großen Mannes, der sozusagen aus der Welt verschwunden ist. Sie dürfen nicht wiederkommen! Sie genießen die Immunität der großen Toten. Sie sind in die Geschichte der Kunst eingegangen." So starb Gauguin den traurigen Tod dessen, der schon zu Lebzeiten nur noch Legende sein darf. Sein Paradies war eine Projektion, die so mächtig war, dass sie bis heute unser Traumbild von der Südsee prägt, von der Bacardi-Werbung bis zum Neckermann-Katalog.
Im Zeitalter der Migrationsbewegungen funktionieren auch künstlerische Weltreisen in beide Richtungen, und auf der jüngsten documenta haben Künstler wie Georges Adéagbo aus Benin demonstriert, wie sich die Aneignung im Sinne einer visuellen Ethnologie des Westens umkehren kann: Adéagbo kombiniert in seinen wuchernden Objekträumen Einbaum und Fetischmaske mit deutschen Zeitungsausschnitten und James-Last-Plattencovern. An anderer Stelle präsentierten die britischen Meisterzyniker Jake und Dinos Chapman jüngst original afrikanische Skulpturen: Nur war ihr Antlitz das des fröhlichsten Agenten der Globalisierung unter westlichen Vorzeichen, Ronald McDonald. Diese Sorte selbstreflexiver Ironie wäre Gauguin fremd gewesen - doch auch er schnitzte Skulpturen in "primitiver" Technik nach europäischen Motiven. Gauguins erklärtes Ziel war es, die "Eingeborenenkunst" neu zu erschaffen - ein naturgemäß vergebliches Unterfangen. Doch seine Bastarde haben Nachkommen. Wer heute die Vermischung der Kulturen künstlerisch verarbeiten will, ist auf die gleichen Techniken des Mixens und des Zitierens zurückgeworfen, derer sich schon Gauguin am Beginn der Moderne bediente, vor einem Jahrhundert.
Dokument erstellt am 07.05.2003 um 16:52:05 Uhr