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On Gauguin

Sculpture and Ceramics of Paul Gauguin

by Christopher Gray
Johns Hopkins, 330, 19 color plates, 390 illus. pp., $22.50

Among the plethora of lavish books on art, whose weight, size, and number of illustrations is the large wrapping of a very small gift, it is a pleasure to come upon one that is both elegant and serious. It has been impeccably produced by The Johns Hopkins Press; the black and white illustrations are fine; and although one can always ask for more color plates, the nineteen included are enough to give the look and feel of Gauguin’s sculptured surfaces.

Mr. Gray has a three-fold intention: to establish a catalogue raisonée of Gauguin’s sculpture; to interpret and emphasize the importance of his symbolism; and to establish Gauguin as a sculptor of first rank, whose work in clay and wood should be given the recognition accorded to his painting.

In the first of these tasks he has succeeded admirably. Merete Bodelson’s book, published in 1960, covered only a portion of the ceramics. Now we have a complete and careful catalogue of all the sculpture: clay, stone, bronze, and wood. Since the works in clay (whether specifically “pots” or not) were largely confined to Gauguin’s early years before his South Sea journeys, this extension is particularly important. For the first time we have a view of all the sculpture. This catalogue is meticulous and restrained, and Gray argues matters of dating and attribution with great care. He is exhaustive in his discussion of the techniques of firing and glazing, and his description of the different woods Gauguin employed. One admires his thoroughness and hesitates to take issue with his conclusions. I would only suggest that he has been too cautious in his judgments on some of the doubtful works. Gauguin could not, for example, have reproduced the two undistinguished African figurines, nor could he have been guilty of perpetrating the standing Figure with Egyptian Head. These, and some others, are not merely instances of those temporary lapses from which even great artists suffer; they are stylistically impossible for Gauguin.

Back in the days when the history of modern painting seemed simple, and the road from impressionism to modernism a straight four-lane highway down which Cézanne, Seurat and Van Gogh drove side by side with Gauguin, his role was clear. He was a decorator with a sense of color and fluid contour, but not much sense for form; a simplifier and stylizer; an intuitive artist, self-taught, unsubtle, and strong. More recently, along with an interest in the symbolism of the Eighties and Nineties generally, and an increasing concern with the symbolic meanings of modern art as a whole, Gauguin’s ideas have been scrutinized in some detail. The intentions of such “program pictures” as Whence Do We Come, or Nevermore have been analyzed, and less obvious “programs” discovered or suspected in pictures like Fa Iheihe or The I dol. Gray continues these researches into iconographic meanings with great subtlety, pointing out the component symbols of the pendant reliefs, Soyez Amoureuses and Soyez Mystérieuses, discovering the sources in legend of the I dole à la Perle, finding the reasons for the inclusion of apparently purely decorative elements in The Martiniquaises Black Venus, and others.

Gauguin, says Gray, is a symbolist, and his art is pervaded with three fundamental elements of symbolism: “First, its basic idealism; second, the idea of correspondences and equivalents; and third, the use of imagery to achieve sensuous richness.” This is of course correct. Everything Gauguin wrote about his artistic intentions, from his Copenhagen letter of February 1885 on the quality of lines either sad or gay to his “a little mysterious” advice from the Marquesas to Charles Morice is imbued with symbolism. He did indeed talk constantly of the music in painting and the painter as a poet, and often (particularly in the Brittany years) followed his own advice: “Art is an abstraction. Don’t paint too much from nature.”

But what importance are we to give to Gauguin’s theoretical explanations? He was only a few years younger than the impressionists, but since he began late his art belongs with the reaction against impressionism. So do his ideas, and those ideas were hardly his own. The directly expressive qualities of lines and colors belong to the times, and were most clearly formulated by Seurat; the “musical” effects of painting were common critical coin (as Gray points out), and referred simply to what we would today call its “abstract” possibilities. There is nothing to suggest that Gauguin had any real interest in music as an art; nor that when he referred to the painter as a poet he meant any more than that both were something other than craftsmen. No one would expect Gauguin to be an original thinker; he was a painter—and a sculptor—of magnificent intuitive skills and sensitivities, and the absolute courage of his artistic convictions.

As an artist, he produced masterpieces out of a comparatively small stock of themes and poses which he borrowed from everywhere and mixed with fine abandon—Greeks, Japanese, Impressionist, Japanese, and primitive. His symbolist thinking was of much the same sort, as Gray in effect points out. One wonders then how valid it is to try to find a consistent program in even the most ambitious works. “The subject matter of this piece is obscure,” if this must be often repeated, as Gray finds it has to be, it suggests not that meanings have been lost but that they were “obscure” to start with. As Gauguin himself pointed out in discussing some of his most important paintings, his subjects developed as his compositions unfolded. Unlike Puvis—i.e., unlike traditional allegory—it was not all thought out in advance; the growing work suggested its own direction as the artist contemplated what inspiration had set down. In the recognition of this creative process, as much as in his new uses of contour, surface, and arbitrary color, Gauguin, as he said, opened a road to the future. Moreover, this was the general nature of the symbolist period to which he belonged. Not only Mallarmé preferred suggestion to explicit statement. The undetermined symbol that seems to allude to much but can never be pinned down is common to the best of Redon, Munch, and Ensor; where precision is attempted, as in Holder, Klimt, and such Gauguin disciples as Bernard and Denis, the symbolist style fails. That word “mystery” of which the symbolists were so fond, and of which Gray makes so much in Gauguin, must be taken both idealistically and literally. Mysterious reality, hidden behind vain appearance, is never revealed, but only hinted at by depicted symbols that are effective only as they themselves remain mysterious. Does this mean that we should not try to fathom the artist’s intention, as Christopher Gray has done here with such detailed respect? Rather, simply, that we should recognize that modern artists are not allegoric logicians, and do not work with humanist collaborators whose directions they can follow. For Gauguin, says Gray, “the visual image had primacy over the word.” It is not so much that the image precedes the idea, but rather that it becomes the idea, and that we cannot look behind it for what it “really means.” “I paint my pictures…to my fantasy according to the moon and find the title long afterwards.”

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