Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
In April 1897 Paul Gauguin had already been back in Tahiti for two years. His health was poor and he rarely worked outside in the lush natural world or by the ocean. He spent much more time in his studio. That month he received the news from his wife Mette that his daughter Aline, at the age of only twenty, had died in Copenhagen in January from complications due to pneumonia. Gauguin was utterly distraught at this news and in the following months he gradually resolved to take his own life. Illness and distance from home were an unbearable weight. But before leaving the world he wished to paint his masterpiece, one last great work summing up the meaning of his journey in the world and among the lights of painting. So he ordered fresh paints and lots of brushes, some very large, from Paris. On Tahiti he had an enormous canvas made, almost four meters long and one and a half meters high. Having been admitted to the French Hospital with heart problems on the second day of December 1897, he immediately walked out again and set to work on an epoch-making painting, one of the most celebrated works in the whole of the history of art. By the end of December the painting was finished, and the day before old year's night he climbed up into the mountains with a jar of arsenic, bent on suicide. But he swallowed so much all at once that he immediately vomited the poison. Prey to convulsions and in terrible pain, he lay on the mountain for a whole day until he eventually managed to stagger back down to the village for help. What survives from this whole experience is the celebrated painting Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?. (lineadombra.it)
Gauguin inscribed the original French title in the upper left corner: D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous. The inscription the artist wrote on his canvas has no question mark, no dash, and all words are capitalized. In the upper right corner he signed and dated the painting: P. Gauguin / 1897. The painting was created in Tahiti, and is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Gauguin—after vowing that he would commit suicide following this painting's completion, something he had previously attempted—indicated that the painting should be read from right to left, with the three major figure groups illustrating the questions posed in the title. The three women with a child represent the beginning of life; the middle group symbolizes the daily existence of young adulthood; and in the final group, according to the artist, "an old woman approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts"; at her feet, "a strange white bird...represents the futility of words." The blue idol in the background apparently represents what Gauguin described as "the Beyond." Of its entirety he said, "I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better—or even like it." The painting is an accentuation of Gauguin's trailblazing post-impressionistic style; his art stressed the vivid use of colors and thick brushstrokes, tenets of the impressionists, while it aimed to convey an emotional or expressionistic strength. It emerged in conjunction with other avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, including cubism and fauvism.
Like Van Gogh, Gauguin thought and wrote about his work at length. A collection of his writing is contained in The Writings of a Savage. His concern with philosophical questions can be judged from the following extract: Given this ever present riddle: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? What is our ideal, natural, rational destiny? And under what conditions can it be accomplished? or what is the law, what are the rules for accomplishing it in its individual and humanitarian meaning? We do not know whether Gauguin ever found a satisfactory answer, but we must look at his paintings for illumination of these questions.
To look for allegorical meanings in Gauguin’s greatest work appears to be an invitation to embark on a fool’s errand. Gauguin’s implication that his title was a mere afterthought is somewhat hard to swallow in the light of events leading up to and immediately following the execution of the painting. Knowing noting of its genesis, or even of its content, we can still admire the organization of color, line and pattern in ”Where Do We Come From?” and still marvel at its glowing topical light. Still, a nagging question remains which is what exactly are is the viewer looking at? That question is best answered through some biographical data on Gauguin to know where Gauguin came from. What was he? And Where was he going? By the time Gauguin decided, belatedly, and irrevocably, to devote his life to art, the most controversial innovation in the history of painting, impressionism, had won a measure of acceptance. The disturbance that it once caused now seems altogether disproportionate to the small measure of radicalism the style really embodied. The much misunderstood aim of impressionism was the achievement of a more credible realism, and the adherents of the style were more concerned with evolution than revolution. Gauguin’s contemporaries found his colors bizarre, his drawings crude, and his forms flat an unconvincing. They were not yet able to concede that paintings could exist on their own terms, independent of both external reality and established conventions. However, no such hesitation impeded public acceptance of the content of Gauguin’s pictures, which were taken to be literal illustrations of Tahitian life and mythology. Posterity has chosen to see the particualr in the universal and to cast its image of Tahiti in Gauguin’s mold. Since Gauguin’s death in 1903, much has been learned about the indigenous arts of the South Pacific that was not known in his time. The enormous idols dominating ”The Feast of Hina” and ”Where Do We Come From”, were the products of Gauguin’s fanciful approach to the Tahitian scene and its mythology, and that effigies in other paintings had no real counterparts in tahitian sculpture but were derivations and composites of Indian, Javan, and ancient Egyptian religious art. Still, the notion endured that the remainder of Gauguin’s Tahiti, the idyllic settings peopled by childlike, unspoiled beings, may be taken as a literal transcript of what the artist found in the colony.
(NONE OF THE ABOVE Posted on March 2, 2010 by Dave at madamepickwickartblog.com)
Paul Gaugin and Piano
The life of Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), who abandoned his wife, five children, and a successful career as a stockbroker to paint in poverty in exotic Tahiti, is one of the legendary tales of the art world. Today he is recognized as a highly influential founding father of modern art, who emphasized the use of flat planes and bright, no naturalistic color in conjunction with symbolic or primitive subjects. In brilliantly lucid discussions of life and art Gauguin paints a triumphant self-portrait of a volcanic artist and the tormented man within. (The Writings Of A Savage (Paperback) book description at amazon.com) Why did Gauguin make his way towards the tropical island of Tahiti? The artist, Gauguin, continued his search for the essentials of humanity whilst being torn apart by the extremities between civilized and savage, sacred and profane, life and death, man and woman, spiritual and materialistic. He turned his back on the highly developed western civilization of the end of the 19th century and made his way alone to the solitary island of Tahiti in the South Seas. It can be said that his tumultuous life is typical of the lonely wandering artist who sacrificed his life for art. Awakened by his inner "wildness", Gauguin searched for the "paradise" which would nurture his nascent singular imagination. His search led him to Brittany with its strong tradition of Celtic culture, Martinique with its sparkling tropical nature, Arles, in the South of France, which provided the stage for his legendary collaborative work with Van Gogh, and his two journeys to Tahiti. In this way, Gauguin continued to travel with no ending in sight. During this process, he arrived at the fundamental subject matter of human life and death, civilized and savage. The aim of Gauguin's paintings was to express through the language of form, the deep emotions and contemplations of human existence. His great masterpiece which was painted in Tahiti, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-98), represents the consolidation of what he was attempting to achieve through his art. Along with the enigmatic title, this work represents his spiritual testament which he left behind for future generations.
( About the Exhibition, THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, TOKYO at momat.go.jp)