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Gauguin’s Arcadia

Gauguin in the South Seas

by Bengt Danielsson
Doubleday, 336 pp., $7.95

The speculations of Diderot and Rousseau, followed by the discoveries of Captain Cook, seemed at last to give some precise geographical location, some substance, to those dreams of Arcadia which for so long had haunted the imaginations of Western man. The shortest excursion to the countryside round Paris and London, or even Rome and Athens, was enough to show how far this was from being the paradise of erotic leisure so beautifully and so treacherously portrayed by Virgil and Giorgione. But elsewhere that paradise existed. “May the day come (and come soon perhaps)” wrote Gauguin—rather tactlessly—to his wife in 1890, “when I will go to bury myself in the woods on some South Sea Island, and live there in ecstasy, peace, and art, surrounded by a new family, far from the European struggle for money. There in Tahiti, in the silence of beautiful tropical nights, I will be able to listen to the sweet murmuring music of the movements of my heart in loving harmony with the mysterious beings that surround me. Free at last, with no money troubles, I will be able to love, to sing and die.”

IF THE STYLE is self-conscious and rhetorical, echoing Baudelaire and Pierre Loti, the sentiment and the belief are sincere enough. But there was another side to the tropics, that side which, an achronistically, we might call Lawrentian—full of dark gods and primitive forces, more savagely real than the effete religions of Western Europe or the cult of commerce which seemed to be taking their place. The lure was appealing enough for any homme moyen sensuel; for a half-starved and unsuccessful painter it was irresistible: There was the cheapness of living and, besides, the fact that “Vincent [Van Gogh] was right: the future belongs to the painter of tropics which have not yet been painted, and we need something new as a subject for the stupid buying public.” And so, after infinite difficulties, Gauguin finally arrived in Tahiti on June 9, 1891. To find what? That not a single one of his expectations was justified. Missionaries, Protestant and Catholic, grotesquely fighting among themselves for the souls of the natives whose beautiful bodies they at least united in trying to conceal; grasping traders and colonial administrators; drunken and diseased sailors—all these ensured that the Golden Age would once again have to be relegated to the past. Great Pan was dead, the old beliefs forgotten. The cost of living was almost as high as in Paris, and “the stupid buying public” was even more bewildered by pictures of the tropics than it had been by those of Brittany. Gauguin found all this out quickly enough, and then proceeded to depict with unparalleled power the Golden Age he had failed to discover, the dark gods that none of his new acquaintances had ever heard of. It is through him more than through anyone else (who now reads Pierre Loti?) that the Tahitian legend has been handed down.

Mr. Danielsson’s very fascinating book adds a great deal to the reconstruction of this ironical story, but its general outlines have long since been familiar, No attention should be paid to the blurb writer’s extraordinary comment that the Gauguin here presented is “more human, more complex, and more noble than the near-saintly figure perpetuated in previous books,” for in fact every new detail now unearthed shows the artist in an even more unpleasant light than had hitherto been suspected. We find him vindictively appealing to the authority of an administration he despised in order to hound the petty thieves among those natives whom he was corrupting at least as assiduously as any tradesman; cynically exploiting the rivalries of Catholics and Protestants; and, as “the climax of his political career,” taking time off from infecting fourteen-year-old Polynesian girls with syphilis and fathering his bastards on them in order to address a Catholic rally called to protest against the dangers of Chinese immigration and the consequent threat to racial purity. Mr. Danielsson’s comment on all these episodes seems as inescapable as it is just:

The sad but incontrovertible conclusion is that from first to last Gauguin served only the vested interests of his reactionary employers and sought with great loyalty to further their often dubious ends.

And yet he was a great artist “and I know it. It is because of that that I have endured so much suffering: to follow my road—otherwise I would consider myself a brigand. And indeed many people do consider me to be just that.” As romantic novelists have long realized, the life of Gauguin raises in its most acute from the age-old question of the artist’s relation to social morality. But even that problem is relatively simple compared to that of the relationship between his life and his art; and it is because of the nature of this problem that many readers will be bound to feel that, irrespective of the great and undeniable merits of this book, the concept of an artist’s biography which leaves out most of his art is an unsatisfactory one. How sad, in fact, that writers of scholarly monographs now take so little trouble to investigate the lives of their subjects, and that the serious biographers are so little trained in the history of art! It is not just that Mr. Danielsson has “abstained from all discussion of purely aesthetic and stylistic matters”: It is that we are never made to realize adequately that for Gauguin his art must have been a part of his life, and the most important part at that. For all his reprehensible behavior he really was the martyr to art that he proclaimed himself, and unless this can be made clear to us—and this is impossible in any book which deals at greater length with his seductions and his journalism than with his pictures and sculptures—we are simply not getting an “accurate and complete account of his life.” Accurate, perhaps, but certainly not complete. Even if Mr. Danielsson does “not feel qualified” to discuss the pictures at length (though, in fact, his few comments are almost always to the point), why should it have been necessary to omit nearly all those letters of the artist to his friends in France which help to throw light on his beliefs and ambitions, letters at least as important to him, surely, as his bickering with the colonial authorities? In almost total isolation Gauguin was consciously revolutionizing the art of painting, and despite the mystery with which he liked to surround his achievements (a mystery which was, in itself, part of his artistic creed), he did, again and again, set down his beliefs on paper. No account of the man can claim to be complete which does not even refer to these sometimes cryptic but always heartfelt statements.

SUCH CRITICISM of the very principles on which this biography is based would not be necessary were it yet one more trashy addition to the “romance of Gauguin.” In fact it is sober, thoughtful, compassionate, and well-documented. The letters, writings, and pictures of Gauguin are in a notorious state of confusion, and—almost incidentally to his main purpose—Mr. Danielsson has unearthed enough new material about all three aspects of his strange personality for this book to be required reading for scholars as well as a delight for the more general public, which will rightly admire his narrative skill and powers of description. And yet it is impossible not to voice one more disappointment. Because of his standing as an anthropologist and his long residence in the South Seas, Mr. Danielsson is in a unique position to elucidate in a relatively simple manner many of the problems raised by Gauguin’s use of imagery: Yet here too he is unnecessarily reticent. Like other authorities he points out how, in the absence of surviving traditions, Gauguin relied extensively for his inspiration on the Voyage aux Iles du Grand Océan written by Jacques Antoine Moerenhout in 1837, and, in the light of this, he makes some valuable interpretations of a few pictures, often correcting previous translations of their titles. Yet how much more we would like to know about the strange idols, masks, and ceremonies that figure in so many of Gauguin’s Tahitian pictures and sculptures! For all his professed skepticism he was throughout his life haunted by religious imagery, and it is surely no coincidence that so many of those who were in close touch with him—Bernard, Sérusier, Filiger, the Nabis—were themselves religious men. It would be of absorbing interest to try to understand how far the artist was seriously trying to reconstruct long dead cults and how far he was merely—as seems more likely—making use of discarded and heterogeneous symbols to suggest a vaguely numinous effect. No mere art historian confined to the libraries of Europe and America is nearly so well qualified as Mr. Danielsson to help us with these problems. Or again, to what extent did Gauguin’s understanding of tribal art grow in sophistication during his years in the South Seas, and how far did it differ from the conventional views of the average European official? That too is a legitimate question for an art historian to pose to such an anthropologist as Mr. Danielsson. Yet it it is not seriously explored in this book, despite the occasional observation of interest.

Gauguin in the South Seas is useful and serious, but the hopes raised by the author’s reputation and his obvious gift for research are never quite fulfilled. And this reviewer at least will not be daunted by the riposte that it is his duty only to criticize what is in front of him rather than regret the book that might have been.

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