24 Sept 2017

Paul Gauguin: Painter in Paradise

Gauguin, Voyage de Tahiti lands upon our shores as a compelling welcome distraction to an otherwise calamitous September of hurricanes, earthquakes, civil unrest and threats of WWIII. Despite its languorous title, it promises no Tropical bliss or frangipani blossoms as it whisks us away from our daily contrivance and the Autumn chill for the Paradise atolls of French Polynesia, the backdrop to the last decade in the life of anti-conformist 19th century French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) who had fled modern civilisation in order to live the simple life, immersed in nature.

(pict source)

Few of us will have been aware of Gauguin's life beyond his enchanting Polynesian portraits, and the film by Edouard Deluc attempts to remedy that. Be warned though that any hope for a smooth, fancy-free voyage across lush lands and ombré waters sprawled below heavenly Summer skies is 'compromised' as our voyage is in fact a tale of trouble in Paradise... and this means dark clouds!

Soon the landscapes of the island merge with the landscapes of a troubled mind. This is no blockbuster, no special effect in sight, no big budget, and no unnecessary pathos. It commands however a certain curiosity and sensitivity on the part of the viewer in order to appreciate such a movie. Here we have a painter's tale of Paradise lost.

'Haere Mai', oil on burlap by Paul Gauguin, via Guggenheim Museum, NYC

Gauguin, Voyage de Tahiti depicts Gauguin the artist (Koké as the locals called him) entertwined with the man himself, who had rejected the French Establishment, relinquished wife and offspring who he could no longer financially support, only to get caught up by his demons and by Establishment again thousands of miles later. This is a tale of artistic genius, moral dilemma, financial destitution, a tale of redemption and disillusion, a quest for identity and authenticity, a depiction of mysticism and a rejection of the so-called civilised world.

Paul Gauguin could have enjoyed a comfortable existence should he had kept to the conformist route he had taken as a marine merchant and a stockbroker's assistant, but then there would be no Paul Gauguin the artist. He died a pauper instead, yet rich within from the life and travel experiences he acquired along the way. His frugal livelihood contrasts with his oeuvre dotted across the world in art places and private collections, testimonies to his posthumous glory and recognition. When he relinquished his privileged upbringing and financial stability in order to embrace the artist's lifestyle, Gauguin embarked upon the exciting, harsh, morose, unpredictable, temptation-laced, financially unstable existence at odds with the traditional family life, the picket fence and the prim and proper.

This poster features 'Tehamana Has Many Parents', oil on jute canvas by Paul Gauguin

Vincent Cassel wears Paul Gauguin's role like a glove. One of the most prolific, versatile, immersive French actors of my generation, he excels at playing troubled characters with heart and soul: the known and the unknown, the modern and the period, the suave and the slick, the affable and the utterly despicable. In a nutshell, he lives and breathes and inhabits each of his roles. Cassel took up art classes to get under the artist's skin and learn the ropes like how to hold a paintbrush properly and how to apply paint. He caught the bug and ended up painting for himself in his spare time!

From the outset, the film appears to incarnate French cinéma d'auteur in the manner in which it explores the life of its main character. The methodology is by way of a close-range character study, down to the minutiae of glance, heartbeat and sigh. It strives for detail, and an intimate - intimist - soul journey, a stark-naked biopic portrayal in its varied facets that distills the character with spirit and truth, no embellishment or happy ending for the sake of it. It soaks in the atmosphere and takes us on with it.

'Orana Maria (We Hail Thee Mary)', by Paul Gauguin, via WikiArt

The film hasn't been out a week that it is already being criticised for its lack of objectivity. It conveniently - controversially - glosses over the fact that Gauguin then aged 43 fell in love (in lust?) with a 13-year old local Tahitian girl called Tehura (also known as Teha’amana), whom he then married. The girl was a juvenile! A closer look at Gauguin's biography reveals that his private life was dissolute: a life-long philanderer who contracted syphillis along the way, which he then transmitted to his conquests. Some will wave it off as an element of Bohemian territory - oh lovely!

Yet not looking at discrediting the critics, it must be added that the History of France and the world at large demonstrates that however morally wrong it was (is), the mature man-young girl 'paradigm' was (is) no rare occurrence, especially in the Arts, the Royal courts and under certain ideologies!

'Tahitian Pastorale', by Paul Gauguin, via WikiArt

Digression aside, such straightforward revelations in the film would have dented an already morally-questionable complex, flawed character but a glossing over ends up as a disservice and as an unvoluntary form of complicity. Truth hurts, so does its misrepresentation by way of a lie.

Those of us who had been blissfully unaware of Gauguin's dirty little secrets until today, are likely to be left confused, tainted, unsure as to whether still respect the artist, or dissociate his paintings from the man: respect the oeuvre but dislike (repudiate?) the man. Artist and man being intrinsically entertwined, this is simply impossible. My only surety in this is that I will never look at the portraits of Teha'amana and her virginal, innocent girl friends in quite the unbiased way I used to.

It remains that Paul Gauguin was a creative genius, the precursor of Modern Art and a visionary in his own right. His Art navigated the troubled waters of his soul in a spellbinding way. To see and think of him as a painter solely is restrictive: he was an accomplished artist whose Art encompassed printmaking, engraving, sculpture, ceramics and decorating. His creations are showcased in the most prestigious modern art galleries of the world, including Guggenheim and the Art Institute of Chicago, as further testament to his worldwide recognition.

"Gauguin was radically creative throughout his career. He never stopped experimenting with new methods, and his art continues to fascinate because it remains unpredictable, contradictory, and enormously varied in medium, form, and content." - Artist as Alchemist, the Paul Gauguin exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago (June 25 - Sept. 10, 2017)

Gauguin, Voyage de Tahiti, directed by Edouard Deluc, starring Vincent Cassel, Tuhei Adams, Malik Zidi and Pua-Tai Hikutini, out now in France.

P.S: There is an interesting parallel to be drawn between Paul Gauguin and Scottish novelist, poet and travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894): both artist contemporaries from the second half of the 19th century, travellers and adventurers, who both died in Polynesia (Stevenson in Samoa), in middle age. Stevenson documented a particular segment of his journey to France as a short story, 'Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.' If Stevenson is still fondly remembered in the Cévennes to this day, it is because - according to a local politician and historian - 'he showed us the landscape that makes us who we are.' Such a statement may well apply to Gauguin too, in relation to Polynesia.

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