Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait, Les Misérables 1888, Van Gogh Museum.
For a successful stockbroker and self-taught artist, French post-impressionist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) appeared to have had no shortage of self-belief, but literature suggests that during his life this enigmatic character was largely disliked. In nearly every reference to Gauguin, we see commentary about his pompous, overbearing self, his regular conflict with friends and his lifestyle of questionable decisions by mainstream standards.
This raises the question of the art of the artist versus the life of the artist and what is the importance is understanding the lifestyle to appreciating the art? Does it matter at all? Logic says it shouldn’t.
So why are we so deeply interested in the personal lives of artists? Is it voyeurism? Celebrity titillation? Or is it playing to the idea that the artistic lifestyle must be different, non conforming, controversial?
Paul Gauguin Christ in the Garden of Olives, 1889 Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach
In 1889, Gauguin gave his own features to the above depiction of Christ on the eve of his crucifixion. Drooping and weary olive trees mirror the posture of Christ himself. Gauguin said about this work,
“There I have painted my own portrait… but it also represents the crushing of an ideal and a pain that is both divine and human. Jesus is totally abandoned; his disciples are leaving him, in a setting as sad as his soul. ” (Gauguin Myth Maker, National Gallery of Art catalogue Washington DC).
Clearly Gauguin felt very deeply and certainly endured heartaches as he struggled to lead a creative life. This work shows sensitivity and passivity, resignation and sorrow. Yet the dominant historical persona that Gauguin has left behind reflects little of this depth and sensitivity and speaks far more to his lesser qualities.
It is common knowledge that Gauguin left his wife and five children unsupported to take several long trips to Tahiti and start a new life escaping “everything that is artificial and conventional” (“The painter who invented his own brand of artistic licence,” Arifa Akbar, The Independent, 20 April 2010.).We know of his questionable sexual exploits of whom the subjects are often represented in his work, how he took young old Polynesian girls as his brides, in a place where syphilis spread wildly through the community. One of his most important pieces is Manau Tupapau ( The Spectre Watches Over Her) 1892, (below). Inspired by Manet’s Olympia which Gauguin had copied in 1891, and his reading of Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout’s Voyages aux Iles de Grand Ocean in 1892, the painting shows a young girl, exposed, uncertain and uncomfortable. She is watched over by a figure who is both reassuring and frighteningly inevitable. There is a stillness and disquiet across the painting, a stiffness with resignation about the subject.
Paul Gauguin Manao Tupapau ( The Spectre Watches Over Her ) ,1892 Albright Knox Art Gallery.
Another renowned work was Femmes De Tahiti, painted by Gauguin shortly after his arrival in the country . Featuring two Tahitian women, relaxed, almost to almost melancholy with lowered eyes,slumping postures and a sense of uncertainty and disengagement. A close up foreshortened image, stylistic and bright, Gauguin dominates the space with the sitters almost spilling from the edges of the canvas.
Paul Gauguin Femmes de Tahiti, 1891,Musee d’Orsay
Though there may are clearly questions and judgements about Gauguin’s lifestyle,his works are undoubtedly beautiful . His unapologetic use of colour shows in his vibrant, life pulsing pieces that are full of vigour We are uncomfortable with his content, but cannot argue of the place of Gauguin has as a stepping stone between Van Gogh and Matisse on the pathway to modern art .So how do we reconcile our disapproval for the lifestyle against our appreciation of the art?
Do we need to reconcile the two at all?
The artist or the art?……
This is a question to ponder, particularly since from the end of the last century to current day our perceptions of artists appear to be as much about their lifestyle as their work.
Notables outside Gauguin include Andy Warhol…Brett Whitely and Francis Bacon.
At a recent Francis Bacon (1902-1992) exhibition at the AGNSW, I considered the work and the balance of topics explored in the exhibition, such as Bacon’s studio ( interesting) and his lifestyle( not so much). I have to wonder at how much lifestyle /celebrity and controversy plays a part in our interest in ,and judgement of the artworks produced.
Would Warhol, Whitley and Bacon be as interesting to us were they just nondescript people living mundane lifestyles? Would we like their work any more or less had their lives been more every day, opaque and uninteresting? Does an artist need to live an alternative lifestyle to be an ‘real’ artist? Does good art only come from the fringes of society, acceptability and conformity? Have the social struggles that undoubtedly Bacon endured to be accepted, now become the currency of fame as we live in a freer society ?As our society reveres celebrity, the gladiators of a modern age, do we need our artists to be ‘other than’ us to be truly great? Or does living an artistic life always need to be mutually exclusive to an accepted life?
Francis Bacon Portrait of Michel Leiris, 1976 private collection
Francis Bacon Study for portrait of Eddy Batache 1979 private collection
I wonder on this as I view the work of Francis Bacon.. I do like his portraits, and not just because portraits are my thing, but because their lack of linear representation, to me at least, shows parts of a character and personality that we may not ordinarily see in a naturalist approach..I also like that these works are usually small and controlled, but this is purely my aesthetic with his work.
So then I turn my attention to one of the key pieces in the exhibition-Study of Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X
Francis Bacon Study of Valazquez’s Ponocent X, 195rtrait of Pope In3Des Moines Art Center
In this piece, Bacon represents a screaming Pope who is silenced by the dark drapery around him. His skeletal, disappearing self ,appears ghoulish Bacon apparently refused( or chose not ) to see the Velazquez (1599-1660) original, which is a shame as he may well have been awestruck by its deep richness and complexity. So what is it about this work and Bacon that so many love? Cutting edge? Risky? Rule breaking? Reports suggest that to Bacon, this piece was an homage to the Velazquez original ( below), although he never did see the original. I wonder how an artists paints an homage to something they have never even seen in the flesh? This seems counter intuitive,but maybe not.
Diego Velazquez Portrait of Innocent X 1650 Doria Pamphili Gallery
And so the crowds love the Bacon study, but do they love it because it is out there and edgy and non conformist like Bacon? Or do we like it because it is a good piece of art?
Is it good art?
Or is it just controversial, and for us….is that now enough?