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Monday, August 22, 2011

Gauguin's Addiction


Paul Gauguin, 1891
All too often, it may be said of many of us that we are our own worst enemies. As artists, we're often neurotic, compulsive, too passive or too aggressive, sometimes paranoid and in general, just plain maladjusted. It's often the price paid for creative genius. It's not a "given" of course, and there are a few happy campers out there who are thoroughly in control of themselves; it's just that they're so well behaved we seldom notice them. Likewise, the history of art is chock full of the former, and little heedful of the latter. We all know about van Gogh's problems, what a scoundrel Caravaggio was, about Rembrandt's carelessness with money, Monet's chronic destitution, and Pollock's drinking problems. Their stories envelope them in a romantic aura making their work worth more today, if for no other reason than it seriously limited their output during their most creative years, and in fact, their lifespans.

The Seine at the Pont d'lena, Snowy Weather,
1875, Paul Gauguin, possibly the painting
accepted into the 1876 Salon
The perfect example of this is Paul Gauguin. We all know how the stockbroker father of five chucked it all and sailed off to enjoy a life of unworldly, carefree simplicity among the swaying palms, the bare-breasted beauties, and the white sand beaches of far-off Tahiti. Okay, so there was a little more to it than that. Gauguin was addicted to painting. Like all addictions, it began quite innocently; he and a friend, Sunday afternoons, a few landscapes, something to cover the walls of his new home. Then he had the good fortune to have a rather conservative piece accepted into the Salon of 1876. Already a success at business, Gauguin foresaw a similar easy ascent to the heights of the art world. Painting began to absorb every moment of his spare time. He met Camille Pissarro and fell in with the wild-eyed Impressionists. He displayed with them and even got good reviews from an art critic. The following year, however, the same critic panned his work as showing "no progress." That did it. To the surprise and dismay of his wife and all his friends, Gauguin up and quit his "day job," so to speak, to devote full time to his addiction.

I Raro te Orvin,1891, Paul Gauguin,
from the early Tahitian years
He had some savings and he worked to cut expenses but nothing he did turned out as he'd expected.  Saddled with a tendency toward wanderlust from his youth in Peru and a later stint in the merchant marines, he tried the coast of Normandy, tried an ill-conceived couple months with his friend Vincent in the South of France, then took off to the island of Martinique in the Caribbean, even a couple months actually helping dig the Panama Canal. Finally, he went on the lam to Tahiti. There he quickly drank and caroused away what little money he had left before finally finding some solitude with a teenage "wife" in a remote village where in one year he managed to creating some sixty of the Tahitian masterpieces we know today. But even surviving on pennies a day, he couldn't afford canvas and paints. He sailed back to France arriving sick, without a sou, and terribly depressed. That was soon alleviated by the timely death of an uncle who left him $2,000. Both his illness and his depression instantly vanished. So too, in short order, did the money. Unable to sell his work, he fled back to Tahiti, determined to make a go of it this time in the islands. History repeated itself.  He even botched a suicide attempt by overdosing on arsenic, thus making himself very sick but still pretty much alive. A deal with the Paris art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, gave him a monthly stipend of $60 in exchange for his paintings. However even that didn't stave off poverty, nor more importantly, the effects of syphilis. He died in 1903 alone and unloved.  Meanwhile, Vollard had shrewdly cornered the market on Gauguins; and in very short order, was making a fortune off them.

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