Something you’ll notice about the way people who knew Gauguin tend to recall him,” wrote a young man in 1929. “They may speak of him with love or loathing: none speaks of him with indifference.”
In Paul Gauguin: A Life (Simon & Schuster, 600 pp), David Sweetman does not improve upon that description of the irascible artist. But he does do an impressive job of conveying Gauguin’s passion, unrelenting self-regard and painterly genius, which have engulfed other biographers.
The artist was born in Paris in 1848 and died in the Marquesas Islands in 1903 of syphilis, a month short of his 55th birthday His father, Clovis, a rising journalist, came from a long line of gardeners. His mother’s family, far more interesting, were Peruvian aristocrats, some of them famous. Gauguin’s grandmother was the feminist Flora Tristan, a friend of George Sand’s and well-known in European radical circles during the first half of the 19th century as author of The Emancipation of Women and Peregrinations of a Pariah. On his mother’s side, too, Gauguinwas a direct descendant of Alexander VI, that most notorious of all popes, through the pontiff’s eldest son, Juan. This means his more remote aunts and uncles included Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia.Order now
In 1883, Gauguin famously abandoned his career as a stockbroker and businessman (among other pursuits, he sold tarpaulin in Copenhagen) “to paint every day.” He painted highly regarded scenes in Britanny A productive trip to Martinique in 1887 aroused a deep hankering for the colors and sunlight of the South Pacific and solidified a desire to rid himself of bourgeois France. He eventually abandoned not only wife and family but Europe itself for Tahiti and then the Marquesas.
Gauguin’s paintings and sculptures, with their idiosyncratic mixture of sensuality, religious longings and vivid colors and forms, aroused interest throughout the 1880s and 1890s as they made their way into Parisian galleries. His first major retrospective after his death came in 1906 and was attended by Henri Matisse (who was so moved by the colors that he later visited Tahiti), Andre Derain, Raoul Dufy and other artists who gave the world Fauvism and Expressionism. As Sweetman shows, Gauguin himself always resisted pure abstraction, believing that art must be grounded in reality. Nonetheless, his influence on abstraction in this century has been considerable.
The painting is great, the life was not. Sweetman points out that Gauguin did not provide for the care and sustenance of any of the children he fathered in the South Pacific. He bought, for a bolt or so of cloth, the 12-, 13- and 14-year-old daughters of Tahitian and Marquesan chieftains to be his “wives.” Sweetman notes that he preferred “those brought up in the obedient ethos of non-European cultures, showing none of the independence of mind encouraged by even a limited Western education.” Fascinated by lines of native girls on their way to Catholic school, for example Gauguin would stop and attempt to charm them while reaching under their smocks to touch them intimately At the same time, Sweetman notes “this is not the message of his paintings, which time and again create a uniquely feminine universe in which women dominate.”
Gauguin’s last young companion abandoned her “husband”–perhaps, Sweetman speculates, because she had been repulsed by the weeping sores on his legs a result of his syphilis. He hobbled around supported by a cane that sported an obscene carving. The natives giggled when, nearly blind, he flirted with grandmothers as easily as nubile maidens, according to Sweetman. Interestingly, at least until the last months of his life, Gauguin was no champion of South Pacific natives, often taking the side of French colonists in disputes and sometimes not even making short trips to view major works of Polynesian art.
Sweetman tends to be matter-of-fact about this protean artist and personality, but the result is no lame read. Out of the material emerges a convincing portrait of a man capable of wringing impressive achievement from a life deeply flawed life. The author ends his biography with Gauguin’s revealing last letter to an old friend in Europe: “Artists have lost all their savagery, all their instincts, one might say their imagination…. I can say: no one taught me anything. On the other hand it is true that I know so little! But I prefer that little, which is of my own creation. And who knows whether that little, when put to use by others, will not become something big?”