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Sunday, January 8, 2012

The School of Hard Knocks

Man in a Red Beret (van Gogh), 1888,
Paul Gauguin
As one who has studied the lives of hundreds of artists spanning hundreds of years, I cannot help but be impressed with how troubled the vast majority of great artists have been over past centuries. One would almost come to consider major trials and tribulations some kind of prerequisite to greatness. Rembrandt lost most of his family in death and had money troubles galore. Michelangelo was quite possibly the loneliest artists who ever lived (mostly by choice). Like Rembrandt, Monet was plagued by money troubles for much of his life. More than a few artists have committed suicide and those who didn't were often prone to various undiagnosed mental problems, depression, bad tempers, criminal records, marital infidelity, alcoholism, drug addiction, and a whole host of untreated, or untreatable illnesses. Though in the 20th century a surprising number of artists have lived and worked well into their 80s and even 90s (such as Picasso), over the history of art, deaths of artists in their 30s and 40s were quite common (Pollock and Raphael, for instance). Of course, we are all aware that the poster boy for the painting school of hard knocks was Vincent Van Gogh, but it's also interesting to note that his one-time colleague, Paul Gauguin, actually comes in a close second.

The Swineherd: Brittany, 1888, Paul Gauguin
Born in 1848, Gauguin never picked up a brush until he was almost thirty. Even though he tried for a time to settle down, marry, raise a family, and work a nine-to-five job (as a stock broker, no less), there was an element of wanderlust in his soul dating from his youth spent in Peru, and six years at sea as a merchant marine. He took up painting as a hobby to relieve the stress from the daily grind of a bourgeois daily life. He learned to paint from the Impressionists and fell in love with their spontaneous color and the joy of creative expression he found in his art. But rather than giving him some sort of release, painting served only to further unsettle his life. Finally, he broke. In 1883, he gave up his "so-called life", left his wife and five kids, to devote himself totally to his art. He fled the painful pressures of urban life for the rural tranquility of the backward French province of Brittany on the northern coast of France (above).

I Raro te Oviri, 1891, Paul Gauguin, his mature Tahiti work
Except he wasn't happy there. He was constantly moving back and forth between villages before "escaping" again to the French Caribbean island of Martinique for a short time, only to return once more to Brittany, and from there to Arles where he had his turbulent, short-lived association with Van Gogh. Then it was back to Brittany again, from there to Tahiti, back to Brittany for a fourth time, back to Tahiti, and in a final act of desperation, deeply in debt, terminally ill with syphilis, and in trouble with the law, he ended up in the Marquesas Islands where he died. Even Van Gogh didn't bounce around that much! Gauguin was filled with disdain for the pretentious, "civilized" world in which he'd grown up and which had little use for either him or his work. He searched in vain for something simpler and better in a natural, unspoiled, primitive environment only to find he still needed the very art world from which he had again and again tried to flee. Perhaps it might have been better for them both if Gauguin had tried harder to hang in there with Van Gogh.

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