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Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Paul Gauguin Self-portrait,
1902, his last self-image
The secret fantasy of every hen-pecked husband is to escape to some sunbathed island in the South Pacific and there to frolic merrily in the soft blue waters, lie back in the warm white sands, eat mangoes or some such other tropical fruit while all the while being fawned over by beautiful, scantily clad, native girls for the rest of his natural life. Okay, the mangoes might be a bit much, but you get the idea. The French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin did just that over a hundred years ago. A stock broker by profession, and a weekend painter, he first tried living with his friend Vincent van Gogh. Clashing violently with the unstable genius, while being more than a little unstable himself, he vowed to escape civilization. He left his wife and five children and fled first to Panama, then to Martinique, and finally to the French colony of Tahiti where his existence in the midst of the island's bare-breasted beauty transformed his art and won him a measure of success as the exotic masterpieces were shipped back to Paris for sale. 
Tahitien: Fatata te Miti, 1893, Paul Gauguin 
All Gauguin needed was a break. More than just a break from the ennui of the 19th century middle-class rat race, Gauguin needed a break from reality. His art itself needed a break from the French bourgeois pretensions which dominated even those such as himself and van Gogh painting on the cutting edge of the artistic norms of their day. It was hard to sell, hard to rise above the crowd of literally thousands of other artists painting staid landscapes, static still-lifes, stolid portraits, and the stratified social milieu of Parisian street scenes. Defying social taboos as to how a French family man, even how a French artist should behave, Tahiti provided that break. The French island colony in the south Pacific was exotic, not to mention erotic, especially as portrayed by Gauguin. Only after he began sending back to his Parisian art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, his colorful painted encounters with these elements of his new, unfettered lifestyle did he gain any measure of success. His work found an audience. He began to sell.
Women and a White Horse, 1903, Paul Gauguin, one of his last paintings.
Sadly though, success came too late. The "good life" was beyond his grasp. He tried going back to France for a few months, only to return to the south Pacific, disillusioned with European art. He set up shop in the Marquesas Islands. But alcohol and sexual promiscuity had, by then, taken its toll. He attempted suicide and failed. Five years later, May 8, 1903, facing a prison term, deeply in debt, largely unable to paint, he died of syphilis, a failure in his own eyes. Much of his debt he owed a wealthy plantation owner who was angered that Gauguin had the nerve to die without having first settled his debt. In a strange fit of senseless outrage, he burned Gauguin's small island cottage, and with it dozens of paintings worth, even then, thousands of Francs--and worth many millions today.

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