Episode 14: Paul Gauguin, “Where Did We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” (1897-98)
Paul Gauguin’s “Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” was his masterpiece. We know this because he told us so. He wrote, “It surpasses all my preceding ones. I shall never do anything better, or even like it.” And at 4 ½ by 13 feet, it’s his largest painting. Seriously, it’s huge. It’s also, as you might imagine, one that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is most proud to own. And, as happens when paintings are rock stars, it spends most of its life on the road. So in the few and far between moments when the painting is back at home, I always jump at the chance to give a talk on it. It seems like it should be a gimme, so big and so clearly jam-packed with symbolism that all I have to do is call on my memorized bullet points – this means this, that means that, and bingo, the talk writes itself.
But then I get closer to the talk, and that’s when I always remember, time and again, that I have no clue what to say about it. None. And my art history education is surprisingly, and annoyingly, little help. Is it religious? Allegorical? Anthropological? Profound? Is it an authentic slice of Polynesian life painted by a man freshly unyoked from the pressures of the modern industrialized European city, and therefore in the best position to see it clearly? Or is it a romanticized, blatantly fictional cultural appropriation of what he’d hoped to find?
So, let’s get this out of the way. Yes. The answer is yes. But, to be clear, this is a kind of qualified yes that begins a story, not ends it, and is therefore so open-ended that I’d like to believe I have permission to start at square one every time I want to talk about it. Because there is nothing clear-cut about this painting. And that’s by design. Gauguin, that slippery little sneak, painted it to be impossible to decode, to evade our confident art historical interpretations. Even critics at the time were stymied by the lack of any clear meaning to this mishmash of symbols and styles. We spot Christian themes, Polynesian idols, Byzantine gold leaf, Japanese woodblock composition, all tangled up together into a customized, subjective mythology that belongs exclusively to Gauguin– the gospel according to him. And though any artist would assume, and hope, that their magnum opus was widely seen, this is actually a powerfully private artwork, intended for Gauguin alone as he was processing his own string of personal tragedies—particularly the recent death of his favorite daughter—and preparing himself to confront his own mortality. Ravaged by syphilis, and losing his eyesight, Gauguin worked on it feverishly, painting straight onto the nubbly canvas and without any preparatory drawings. He finished it in a month – an astonishing feat – and actually planned to commit suicide when it was completed.
The problem is, we don’t know this background when we stand in front of this painting. We don't have access to that month of frenzied catharsis. We viewers are on the perpetual other side, confronted with a giant enigmatic puzzle of symbols and associations that are begging to be read, even though the storyteller, who even admitted that these symbols came largely from his own imagination, can give us the slip at his whim.
Fortunately, Gauguin did leave a decoder ring of sorts. In letters to friends, he offered his own idiosyncratic translations. Some are actually relatively straightforward, as you may have already deduced: as we move from left to right, in the tradition of a Christian fresco, we see the three figures that represent the questions posed by the title: a sleeping baby, where we all come from, a group of adolescents, including the teenage boy who reaches for a piece of fruit – dead center, where we are. On the right hand side sits an elderly woman who holds her head, side-eyeing the rest of the scene, resigned to where we’re all going, and consequently, in Gauguin’s words, completing the story. To her upper right is a blue statue, clearly non-Western, although nothing more specific than that, that Gauguin described as “The Beyond.” In the furthest lower-left hand corner is a white bird with a lizard in its talons, which is, according to Gauguin, a symbol of the futility of words.
And for everything left that isn’t translated by Gauguin, we can simply observe, or we can look to the interpretations offered by art historians. For example, this progression of time across the canvas that is accompanied by figures and animals, all set against the background of Tahitian jungle terrain. Compositionally, we notice, it’s kind of flat, like a Japanese woodblock print, and the figures are somewhat disproportionate to one another, like they were cut out and pasted on – maybe, some have suggested, in an attempt to dissuade the eye from believing that what we’re seeing is reality, when it clearly isn't. These figures are clearly not integrated into their environment, so maybe this is a clue that what we’re looking at isn’t exactly cultural anthropology. And yet they are painted in bold, lush saturated colors that evoke a damp kind of warmth, something you find yourself feeling more than seeing, helped by the fact that even though every gallery in art museum is a little humid, you never really noticed until you stood in front of this painting. In the upper left and right corners, gold leaf peeks through like the sun through clouds.
The left corner inscribed with the title’s painting in French. The questions in the title were a rephrasing of a catechism that Gauguin’s Catholic school teacher devised and recited in seminary in an attempt to instill a proper sense of spiritual reflection into his young students: Where does humanity come from, where is it going to, and how does humanity proceed? Though he adamantly rejected Catholicism later in life, Gauguin apparently added this inscription to the painting after the painting was finished, and after his suicide attempt failed. At least one thing is clear, then: this is a painting about questions, not answers.
So. There’s a lot going on, and plenty of room for misinterpretation and reinterpretation, but what can be unequivocally understood, as we take in this allegorical hodgepodge, is that this was intended to be meaningful-with-a-capital M, evocative-with-a-capital E. And it is. Except… maybe not for the reasons Gauguin intended. Because while this painting may not teach us anything authentic about native Tahitian life at the turn of the century, it does tell us a heck of a lot about the painter, and why Gauguin was moved to create this romanticized tropical fiction from his own desperate and deteriorating perspective. Beneath these luscious colors and deliberately naïve painting style, we’re actually witnessing escapism from the anxiety of the industrialized city, the grief of a mourning parent, and the trauma of a repressed Catholic upbringing. This painting is as complicated and convoluted as the psyche of a painter seeing the world through his unique perspective. And we've talked about artists at the turn of the century doing just this, painting a world that has been seen through one specific person’s eyes, from Cezanne to Picasso, but Gauguin adds the ambitious layer of choosing to paint his own portrait with a masterwork-sized statement on a foreign culture. I mean, when Cezanne was dabbling in this kind of thing, he only used a bowl of apples.
This brings us to the elephant in the room: if this is a portrait of Gauguin, we should, rightly, be a little leery of his bastardizing Tahitians to tell his story. Even if you don’t know anything about Gauguin, there’s certainly something disconcerting about this fetishistic scene of non-western stereotypes steeped in Christian imagery that was painted by a Frenchman. And if you do know something about him, then Gauguin’s biography, which is present in so many of his paintings, isn’t exactly a flattering one. I’m all for separating the art from the sins of the artist, but even so, this is a hard guy to love. He was a comfortable bourgeoisie stockbroker in the 1870s to early 1880s, as well as a “Sunday” painter, that is, a painter his spare time, though still talented and connected enough to exhibit with the Impressionists a few times before branching off. In 1883 he lost his job in a stock market crash, and in 1886, he infamously abandoned his wife and five children to pursue a full-time painting career, dismissing capitalism and the corruption of the city to seek out a purer, more elemental life. In 1891, he made the move to Tahiti, hoping to find this unspoiled paradise, and found, instead, that this utopia was actually already pretty thoroughly colonized, with a native culture that was rapidly disappearing under the pressures of Westernization. But he painted it anyway. Not as it was, but as he wanted it to be.
It’s easy to view this decision as dismissive, condescending, privileged, subjugating. And yes, of course it is. But from another vantage point, if art history has taught us anything, it’s that there is tremendous power in the first-person narrative.
When we briefly looked at Gauguin before, it was in the context of the Post-Impressionists, artists who stole away with the Impressionist palette and then rejected their “superficial” mindset. All of them were preoccupied with telling the deeper story of their own perspectives, some aesthetically, some psychologically, and how Gauguin approaches this is particularly interesting, because he actually sets the stage for all of the abstract art we’ve been looking at over the past few episodes, in a way that, as we’ve discussed, Cezanne and Picasso intentionally didn’t. “Art is an abstraction,” he wrote. “Don’t copy nature too literally. Derive from it nature as you dream in nature’s presence. Think more about the act of creation than the outcome.” Cezanne and Picasso played with our subjective ways of looking around a very fixed, concrete object. We were the ones who change and evolve – the apples stayed put. But Gauguin is suggesting that our own experience can actually change the subject—and furthermore that our experiencing matters more than keeping reality in tact. Gauguin painted the dreamers and the dreams in the same canvas, on the same plane. He was an artist who privileged our lizard brains, our animal instincts, in his words, our “primitive souls”, when we approach fine art. “Derive nature as you dream in nature’s presence” is a pretty gorgeous way of saying, basically, feel free to make it up, to ignore reality, as long as you’re living your own truth. But it also means, quite rightly, that our fantasies and desires color our perceptions and blur the boundaries between actual reality, if such a thing exists, and the reality we experience—the one filtered through our perspective, the only kind of reality we can ever really live. There is something so soulful and forward-thinking in believing that painting can be an act of feeling as you paint, and painting as you feel, and that the observation of something can be synthesized with your own feelings about it. Just ask Jackson Pollock.
In Gauguin’s case, Tahiti was seen through his emotional lens of escape, exoticism, eroticism, Pagan spirituality, and everything else that non-Western culture represented, and not just to him – don't forget, thinking back to Kirchner, how seductive the pull of the “primitive” was for industrialized Westerners. Gauguin called his style Synthetism, referencing this synthesis between observation and feeling. It was characterized by a dreamy sense of mystery and depth, nonacademic and childlike references like folk art and stained glass, flattened space that was meant to visually reject reality, an ambiguous use of symbols, and, like the German Expressionists, a powerful, emotional, and anti-naturalistic use of color.
The wall we run into with Gauguin, again and again, is that the story obviously doesn't end with how his experience of this world shaped him. We also need to contend with the imprint he left on this world, living in a hut he dubbed the “House of Orgasm”, taking multiple native child brides, infecting them and countless others with Syphilis, and, worst of all for our purposes, creating a catalogue of work that played into the late 19th c. French desire for all things non-Western, and positioned him in art history as an anthropologist of sorts, when that couldn’t have been be further from the truth. Some critics, wrestling with Gauguin’s legacy, decided that the proper posthumous punishment was to simply ignore his paintings, given the distasteful context in which they were created. But you just can’t ignore them. When Gauguin paintings are hung side by side, or even if you just did a Google image search right now, you’re flooded with sumptuous, brilliant color, like being swarmed by the plumage of tropical birds. And then you think about that white bird, and how there is a sense of the futility of words against the warmth, the mystery, and the exotic, existential beauty of this painting.
There’s a kind of childlike humility expressed that speaks, so poignantly, to how Gauguin had hoped this world would be. And I feel it myself when the painting is safely back home, the sense that I want to be near it, and place my trust in something I don’t understand, even as I try and crack its code, and even as it continues to withhold any answers from me. But then, what can you expect from a painting that only asks questions?