Paul Gauguin, the savage artist thirsting for the unknown

Gauguin was a sailor and then a stockbroker, although he had always been fascinated by art.

Exoticism in his veins

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848 to a French father and a South-American mother. After spending a happy childhood with his maternal grandfather in Lima, in 1855 he returned to France, where he completed his studies. He was a sailor and then a stockbroker, although he had always been fascinated by art. In fact, he made art his profession after meeting Pissarro and being fired because of the stock market crash that occurred on 1883. Family life, of course, couldn’t but bother a restless soul as his: Paul left thus his Danish wife and children in Denmark, where he had moved in the meantime, to return to Paris and fully devote himself to his passion.

His “terrible itching for the unknown”

Driven by the “terrible itching for the unknown”, as he wrote in a letter dated 1886, Gauguin explored the world and art to investigate himself. Over time, he experimented with many techniques, such as painting, woodcut, pottery and wooden sculpture, taking inspiration from the Oriental and Japanese craft and the Inca pottery he had admired during the period of his childhood he spent in Peru. Besides, the corrupt industrialized society in which Gauguin lived fueled his desire for contact with a pure humanity, which he initially believed could be found in what he called the “wild and primitive” Brittany. However, his stay didn’t last that long: being adamant about his desire to immortalize an even more uncontaminated world, Gauguin decided once again to pander to Baudelaire’s “invitation to travel” by going to Panama first and to Martinique later. 

Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait with Halo and Snake, 1889, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. 

“Je suis un sauvage”

Once he had left Martinique and the very troubled life with Van Gogh in Arles behind, in 1891 Paul left towards Tahiti. The oeuvre produced in the Polynesian years is very large, thanks to the luxuriant nature that finally appeared to him like that lost paradise that was hard to find in western civilization: it’s mostly scenes of daily life and images of natives, wooden bas-reliefs and statues depicting the idols of magic rituals revealing his notable interest for occultism and for symbolism. His love for that land was so deep that the artist defined himself as “a savage” and used to portray himself as such in his self-portraits. In addition, Gauguin found in the exotic women he used to portray – who finally had become iconic and whom he used to portray with marked contours and flat and brilliant colors laid down with uneven brushstrokes – the materialization of the ideal of the primordially free and happy human being, an ideal that he had consistently pursued during his life.

Paul Gauguin, Arearea, 1892, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

A Grand Palais for a grand exhibition

The Grand Palais in Paris is currently holding the exhibition “Gauguin l’alchimiste” (meaning Gauguin the alchemist), which will end on January 22, 2018. The exhibition displays more than 200 masterpieces by the prolific artist: paintings, drawings, prints and those potteries and sculptures that Gauguin himself defined as the “results of my great madness”. Gauguin died in 1903 in his “Maison du Jouir”, built in Maori-style in Atuona, in the Marquesas Islands, after having expressed his point of view on life with the monumental painting “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”: three questions that every man has asked himself since the dawn of time without receiving an answer. Every man, whether savage or not.



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