Gauguin, Gauguin, Gone?


    Paul Gauguin, Self-PortraitLes 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?

Tête À Château: Castell Gala Dali


Castel Gala Dali
Castell Gala Dali, Pubol

It’s summer,1984, and a  fire has broken out in a castle in Púbol, a small town in the Baix Emporda province of Catalonia, Spain.  The fire started in the bedroom belonging to the Marquis of Púbol, better know to you and I as, Salvador Dali. The fire was contained and Dali saved, but those were the last days for Dali  living in his precious castle, monument and gift to his wife, who had passed away two years before.

Gala and Salvador Dali

Twenty years later, nearly to the day, here I stand at the door of Castell Gala Dali, and in many ways, it feels like I  have indeed stepped back into 1984. Castell Dali is an ancient gothic renaissance fortress, now museum, presented by Salvador Dali in 1969 to his wife Gala, to provide her with a peaceful place to live. The castle is in Púbol is a tiny medieval village in northern Spain, about 125km north of Barcelona, and is about as beautiful, quiet and picturesque as you could pretty much imagine.

As Dali is a local legend in these parts, this building forms part of what is known as the Dali triangle, which includes the Salvador Dali House Museum in Portlligat, the Dali Theatre-Museum in nearby Figueres and this one, the House Museum of Castell Dali, here in Púbol.

Dali pic

Once Dali had purchased the building, he set about  completely revamping the interiors it his own his unique way. What is most striking  as you make your way around, is that the building is full or ‘Dali-isms’, it’s almost a complete shrine to him; a world of surreal objects and paintings .On first glance there seems nothing distinguishable as belonging to Gala at all in this home.  Dali’s larger than life persona consumes this castle, to the point that you could be mistaken for thinking it was he, not his wife that lived here, but  in truth Dali was only permitted to visit if he had a written invitation from her. Certainly with Dali living elsewhere ,the castle decor  is so full of him in every conceivable way, there would have been little room for Gala to think of anyone else.

The courtyard entrance is leafy ,summary and calming, and was designed this way to remind Gala of her summer holidays as a child. It is warm and inviting to walk through.

Gala Dali Castle Entrance Courtyard. *
Gala Dali Castle Entrance Courtyard. *

The castle experience is intriguing and complex, and as visitors wander through ,what becomes apparent is that the  initial overwhelming sense of Dali soon falls away as Gala’s active intervention in the architecture and aesthetic of the castle progressively becomes apparent.

The Coat of Arms Room.

Gala Dali Throne in the Coat of Arms Room *

The first room visitors walk through on entering the castle is the Coat of Arms room ,where viewers are met with the image of a large blue thrown , curtained by aqua blue drapery and flanked by two large wooded lion sculptures.

Furniture Alter Coat of Arms Room *
Doorway in Coat of Arms Room
Doorway in Coat of Arms Room *

The room is sumptuous and courtly, as if the resident royals have just stepped out of the room. The ceiling appears on first glance to be a renaissance work, but on closer inspection we see surrealist turrets jutting into the sky and a large hole in the ceilings centre – out of which we see the sky above . Interestingly this ceiling was painted in this design at Gala’s request, as she wanted  ” a nocturnal hole in the Mediterranean sky from which fall surrealist treasures”.  Its reassuring to see her  thoughts and creativity start to come out as you move through the castle.

Coat of Arms Room ceiling *

Gala’s Bedroom

This room is less about surrealism and more about renaissance influences, the designs inspired by the French Chateau de Maintenon, but with a lush blue drapery flowing over….well, pretty much everything. This was the room that caught fire due to a short-circuited nurses bell that one of Dali’s carers over-used, and after Dali’s recovery he ordered the repair and renovation of the room after the fire, from which some original items were retained and others not.

Gala Dali’s Bedroom *
Gala Dali's Bedroom *
Gala Dali’s Bedroom *

Bathroom and  Dresser

The bathroom is one of the more extraordinary rooms of the house, largely because its construction is unlike any bathroom in the traditional sense. This room used to be the kitchen, but certainly Gala transformed the space beautifully and equipped the room lavishly with all the expected furnishings of jewellery boxes,  jars and mirrors.

Bathroom *
Bathroom Dresser and Vanity *
Seville wall tiles *

The sloping walls are decorated with stunningly beautiful tiling -Seville tiling of Hercules, a gift from Duke of Medinaceli. The bath features similarly stunning tiles, this time Delft, representing scenes from childrens games. The significance of these themes, are that the tiles origins signify the great masters – Delft tiles for the Dutch artist  Vermeer and Seville tiles for the great Spanish artist Velazquez.

The Studio and Dali’s Last Studio

The dining room is light and bright and airy. Connecting to the Coat of Arms room. the floors are dark and highly polished and the room beams above take on a darker wood ,but against stark white walls the room still feels remarkably light ,spacious and airy.There is a long dark wood polished table through the middle of the room and its easy to imagine the colourful conversations and languid summer evenings that were had here.

Castell Gala Dali Dining Room/Studio *

There is a small cabinet of curiosities in this room, full of tea sets, shells, Russian dolls and an image from Millais – The Angelus 1857-1859. This work is important because this image was very significant, albeit unsettling, to Dali all through his life and became a recurrent motif in his works. There are many small artworks in the cabinet on various scrap objects, most are signed by Dali as gifts to his wife, or, as in one small painting View of Púbol,1973, appear to have been created by Dali on one of his visits to the castle.

John Millais The Angelus 1857-1859
Collection of objects from the Castell Gala Dali *

In the back left corner of the room there sits a large, white and unusually shaped fireplace. Designed by Salvador from a drawing he did directly onto the wall itself, he recreated the shape of a drop of water before it breaks that sense of curved tension. There is something deeply soothing about the smooth curves of the oversized fireplace.

Fireplace *

Towards the opposite  back corner of the room and edging towards a little window nook, is a space dedicated to what became Dali’s last studio (from 1982-1984), and where he worked when he moved back into the castle to be closer to Gala’s memory, after she died in June 1982 at the age of 87, and was buried in the crypt in the basement.

Dali Studio in Castell Gala Dali *

The studio easel still holds a copy of Dali’s last ever oil painting: Untitled, Swallow’s Tail and Cellos, 1983. The subject matter is the Cello, his main focus for most of his later works, and in this piece brings together the themes of pain and beauty.

Although two tombs were prepared in the crypt of Gala Castle,  after the 1984 fire Dali was moved to his museum, the Dali Theatre-Museum, and it was his deathbed wish was to be buried there in Figueres.

The Castell Gala Dali remains today as it had been left in 1984, a legacy of Dali’s great love of Gala, whom he described as having “built all the successes of my life.”

I had to give Gala a setting more solemnly worthy of our love. That’s why I gave her a twelfth century castle in which she reigns, and which I shall not speak of, for I have meant her to be its absolute sovereign, to the point that I go there only when invited by her own hand. It was enough that I decorated the ceilings so that whenever she looks up she finds me in her heaven” Salvador Dali


The Enigma of Ideas

A common question around writing is “Where do you get your ideas from?” How I wish I knew the answer. I guess if think back to any kind of script or fiction I have written, I suppose the idea has usually come from being somewhere -a place or an event where I’ve been immersed in a situation or a destination. So, the stimulus of an environment helps. Then I tend to ask myself the ‘What if” question. What if x happened here right now, or what would happen if that person over there wanted z etc. Once I’ve got a rough idea of something that sparks an interest, I then play with the idea, trying to make it more resonant.

Robin Mukherjee wrote in Art of Screenplays, that you need to test your idea for that deep resonance. “Do you feel something move in the deeper, darker aspects of your understanding of what it is to be human….if (so) then it is likely to make others respond in the same way.,,if not….focus the beam a bit more.”I think this quote is really key. If I can’t find something about an idea that connects, I can’t get writing. It’s hard to explain and it’s a gut feeling, but it’s really important.

But, it doesn’t mean you throw out all ideas until you get that once that chimes with you. If you’ve got the semblance of an idea, just keep digging a little deeper to see if you can hit on something.

What Constitutes A Script?

In filmmaking, there is much debate over the script, what it constitutes and who owns it. The inherent difference between a script and a novel or a play is that, ultimately, the script is a blueprint, a starting point, and inevitable collaboration, compared to the sanctity of the play or novel.

That understood, it is still hard not to get riled up reading the first chapter of Mara’s text on Autuer theory.  While interesting to understand that the “ politique des auteurs was itself a response to a deeper problem that still has implications for film workers today: namely the separation of conception and execution”, my first question was, why is this a phenomenon, when in comparison to arguably it’s closest artform, playwriting, no such phenomena occurs?

While cognisant and accepting that a screenplay is a looser and less absolute form than a  theatre play, it still seems a giant leap from the reverence of the playwright in the theatre world  to the subversion the  writer  and exultation of the Director in screenwriting.

A quick Google search of Autuer exemplars shows a pictorial gallery of present and past middle-aged white men- Anderson, Tarantino, Scorsese, Wilder, Nolan, Hitchcock -it’s hard to ignore the gender politics here. So is Autuer theory  just a construct of Hollywood elite, a flexing of their power to  portray their talent as more far-reaching than it may actually be ? It reminds me of conceptual artists like Jeff Koons, whose works are often physically created by a team of artists employed by Koons, but the artist concept  and kudos belongs to Koons himself. The difference between this example and the auteurs is to me the hub of the argument -it’s about here the story idea is conceived.

For me the fundamental argument starts before a script evolves at all. At the beginning of any creative process, an idea emerges from somewhere. In the case of the screenwriter, it is a story idea that almost always originates from the writer. The writer then brings that idea to life, then shares it with collaborators to be brought to life. Would the autuers have projects at all if every writer decided to put their pens down?

Heavy Artillery.

WRITING ABOUT ART: Heavy Artillery is the latest exhibition from White Rabbit Gallery, as founder and director Judith Neilson continues to build her legacy of collecting and exhibiting works of 21st century Chinese Contemporary Art.

This exhibition is curated by David Williams and surveys  30 works of new and established Chinese artists. The art historical dichotomy between East and West continues to be explored  in this exhibition as these artists take the western import of contemporary art and create their own zeitgeist.

      Xu Zhen’s  European Thousand-armed Classical Sculpture (2013-2014)        

 Leading the exhibition is a Xu Zhen’s  European Thousand-armed Classical Sculpture (2013-2014). Reaching over three metres tall, this pure white sculpture is created with 19  individual figures, single file, on  large plinths, high above our natural eyeline, forcing viewers to look up uncomfortably to take in the magnitude of the figures in front of us. The individual sculptures  include recognisable figures of Athena, The Statue of Liberty ,Jesus along with  other greek and roman statues. The sculpture as a whole, when viewed from the front, bears a resemblance to Guanyin,a Buddhist bodhisattva  religious figure representing compassion. This combination of recognised western religious and cultural figures displayed within an established Eastern religious iconic formation, raises considerations of the relationships between the East and the West and questions of counterculture balance/absorption and peace/conflict.

                                He Xiangyu’s Tank Project (2011-2013)

The question of conflict is also explored through He Xiangyu’s work Tank Project (2011-2013), a life size copy of a Soviet T34 tank, the same tank used by the Chinese military in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The work takes up a large space in the centre of an empty room, where  immediately on entering the area, we are struck by the strong smell of luxury Italian leather. The tank has been constructed and hand stitched using this leather,  raising considerations of the thousands of designer handbag copies that flood Chinese tourist markets. The tank is without structure, deflated, in the same way you would expect if it had been flattened by a large force.

There are many particularly striking sculptural works in the exhibition, including Library (2008) by Polit-Sheer-Form Office, consisting of 25 bookshelves containing 8,000 books. The books reference Mao Zedong’s ‘Little Red Book’  and raise questions of uniformity and collectivism, and show parallels to  Wilfredo Peito’s White Library, (2004) ,an utterly blank  room of more than 5,000 identical ,blank books.

Chou Chu-Wang, Four Bliss Stones (2014)

It is not just sculpture that features, Liu Chengrui’s performance video Guazi Moves Earth (2008) is hypnotic, as are Chou Chu-Wang’s oil on canvas The Hours (2015) and Four Bliss Stones (2014), meditative dot paintings on river stones. Shinji Ohmaki’s work Flotage-Tectonics (2013-2015) uses traditional silk screen techniques with a contemporary turn, creating elevation maps that could be mistaken for  thumb prints.

There is much to savour in this exhibition, and much more to contemplate. Heavy Artillery is  exciting, engaging and confronting in equal measure.

Handing Your Words Over

Recently, I handed over one of my plays for development to a producer and a group of professional actors. I say handed-over, because it as done with some reluctance and internal struggle before I could do so.

On the one hand, as with every scriptwriter, I really wanted to hear the play come to life. I wanted to hear the characters, to test the pacing and the dialogue and see what audience engaged with, and what didn’t work. I needed to know if the play worked as well outside my head as inside it.

On the other hand, I was full of fear. Fear that the work was terrible, that everyone who worked on it knew it too, but was too polite to tell me. Fear that the audience would feel sorry for me and avoid all eye contact, knowing I was just the crappest writer ever.

Keep in mind, I’m in a country that is not my own, with actors accents and intonations that are totally different from the ones I’d heard in my head as I wrote the play. I worried the words were going to get lost in the subtleties of interpretation, colloquialisms and regional accents. It is also a story I’ve carried in my head and worked on for years. I’m so used to having the main character around, he feels like a friend. I almost couldn’t bear to hear him change, at the hands of an actor who didn’t know him as well as I did. Weird, huh?

Overwhelmingly, I felt like I was putting my heart on a plate, and handing it to a group of people who I didn’t know, to let them gently dissect it between them.

The development process culminated in a live read to a public audience, to get as broad a view as possible on the work. That’s when all the limiting thoughts rolled in, the imposter syndrome, the self-doubt.

I didn’t sleep much the night before the reading. Small grabs of rest were filled with different disaster dreams. The first was that I’d given the producer the wrong version of the script. In the second dream, the actors refused to perform the play because of its poor quality. In the third I watched audience members walk out mid-show.

Friends who were attending the reading, received last-minute texts I’d carefully constructed, advising that I was totally ok if they couldn’t make it to the show, it wasn’t going to be a big deal at all, hardly worth leaving the house for, in fact. I turned the stress on myself and told my husband three hours beforehand that I didn’t think I could attend the performance.

Luckily, in his brilliantly nonchalant way, he just said, “Oh no you don’t. You’re not sabotaging yourself on my watch. We’re going.”

Two Fold. Photo by Fiona Georgiou Hunt

When the time finally arrived to start the show, I took my seat in the far back corner and curled myself into the foetal position, muttering quietly to myself that I really needed to grow a thicker skin.

As it turns out, it was much more educational and far less scary than I’d expected. Actually, it was completely exhilarating hearing brilliant actors bring the words to life, far better than I’d written them. I can’t express enough the value that great actors bring to scripts, it constantly blows my mind.

For the script itself, it was clear some lines worked better than I’d imagined, but one line I thought was pretty funny just wasn’t. A couple of character interactions needed some reworking and a few issues needed resolving.

I can fix the problems, and hearing it live was like putting a magnifying glass to each page, showing up the things to tweak, and the opportunities to dig a little deeper. It’s such a valuable process, even if we go through such angst to get there. The audience feedback was better than I expected, encouraging and helpful. There seemed to be an authentic interest in the story, which gave my confidence a boost.

I know that scriptwriting is a collaborative exercise, and writers need to know when to let their scripts go, but I still can’t help but direct my plays as I see them being performed. This is a control freak character flaw I know, but at least I keep those thoughts to myself.

Hopefully one day I’ll learn to hand over scripts with ease. Maybe I need to meditate away the control freak. I definitely need to stress out less.

But then again, maybe it’s all just part of the writing roller-coaster.

Cover image Photo by Peter Lewicki on Unsplash

A Reflection on Developing a Writer’s Aesthetic

  • Artifice/realism, detachment/immersion – I’m definitely interested in audience engagement. Making audiences feel is critical for writers. I also want the audience to be critical, to think, to question, to be uncomfortable. I think theatre should call for active participation by the audience, otherwise, they may as well be sitting in front of the television.

  • Risk/control – My preference is dependant on the type of work being created. In a fringe theatre environment, or theatre as social practise, audience participation and using random stimuli makes sense. In more conventional theatre, a certain about of improvisation and development during the rehearsal process also makes sense, but this is more about contextualising the work to the time the place and the context it is being performed.

  • Linear/non-linear – I tend to prefer non-chronological narratives but I tend to write more chronological circular narrative, I’m not sure why. Maybe because it’s a more accepted convention. I need to think more about this and try to break the habit.

  • Near-far/scale –In film scripts I tend to use a wide view and use urban settings. In plays, I tend to create urban or domestic scenes, much more close up than films and much more internally focused.

  • Soothe/disrupt – I think I fit in a cynical, provocateur storyteller category, or at least I aspire to be.

  • Collusion/manipulation – Technology is really important. The digital disruption that seems to have occurred in most areas of our lives still hasn’t deeply affected theatre. This is inherently risky, with audiences of the future being digital natives, there are questions to be answered on how to harness technology to both engage these audiences, and to keep theatre craft current. The challenge is, I’m not sure it’s possible in film at least, to use technology in a way that keeps the work current but doesn’t badly date it over time.

  • Physical/intellectual – how important is accessibility to you? Accessibility should be a standard consideration when creating and producing work. In truth, I don’t think I consider it as much as I should in the writing process. Something to work on.

  • Rough/glossy? Familiar/exotic? Heightened/realism? Comedy/tragedy?Black comedy seems to be my default approach, with characters that are a bit gritty, with lots to say, and loads of feisty women!

  • Individual/community – I love the idea of art as social practice, and am inspired by its use in history; the happenings of the ’60s, and the all the political theatre prior, from Brecht to the ancient Greeks. In previous years, I would have firmly put my interest in this space, but over time I’ve moved more towards the hero’s journey, with social/political themes, but in a more mainstage theatre style.

Header image photo courtesy of Hannah Jacobson on Unsplash