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Promenades of an Impressionist By James Huneker Characters: 11197

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The key-note to the character of Paul Gauguin, painter and sculptor, may be found in his declaration that in art there are only revolutionists or plagiarists. A brave speech. And a proud man who uttered it; for unless he wished to avoid its implications he must needs prove his sincerity. In the short, adventurous, crowded life vouchsafed him, Paul Gauguin proved himself indeed a revolutionary painter. His maxim was the result of hard-won experiences. He was born at Paris June 7, 1848-a stormy year for France; he died at Dominique May 9, 1904. His father was a native of Brittany, while on his mother's side he was Peruvian. This mixed blood may account for his wandering proclivities and his love for exotic colouring and manners. To further accentuate the rebellious instincts of the youth his maternal grandmother was that Flora Tristan, friend of the anarchistic thinker Proudhon. She was a socialist later and a prime mover in the Workman's Union; she allied herself with Père Enfantin and helped him to found his religion, "Mapa," of which he was the god, Ma, and she the goddess, Pa. Enfantin's career and end may be recalled by students of St. Simon and the socialistic movements of those times. Paul's father, Clovis Gauguin, wrote in 1848 the political chronicle on the National, but previous to the coup d'etat he left for Lima, there to found a journal. He died of an aneurism in the Straits of Magellan, a malady that was to carry off his son. After four years in Lima the younger Gauguin returned to France. In 1856 a Peruvian grand-uncle died at the extraordinary age of one hundred and thirteen. His name was Don Pio de Tristan, and he was reported very rich. But Paul got none of this wealth, and at fourteen he was a cabin-boy, feeble of health but extremely curious about life. He saw much of life and strange lands in the years that followed, and he developed into a powerfully built young sailor and no doubt stored his brain with sumptuous images of tropical scenery which reappeared in his canvases. He traversed the globe several times. He married and took a position in a bank. On Sundays he painted. His hand had itched for years to reproduce the landscapes he had seen. He made friends with Degas, Cézanne, Pissarro, Renoir, Monet, Guillaumin, and Manet. He called himself an amateur and a "Sunday painter," but as he was received on terms of equality with these famous artists it may be presumed that, autodidact as he was, his versatile talent-for it literally was versatile-did not escape their scrutiny. He submitted himself to various influences; he imitated the Impressionists, became a Neo-Impressionist of the most extravagant sort; went sketching with Cézanne and Van Gogh, that unfortunate Dutchman, and finally announced to his friends and family that "henceforward I shall paint every day." He gave up his bank, and Charles Morice has said that his life became one of misery, solitude, and herculean labours.

He painted in Brittany, Provence, at Martinique, in the Marquesas and Tahiti. He had parted with the Impressionists and sought for a new ?sthetik of art; to achieve this he broke away not only from tradition, even the tradition of the Impressionists, but from Europe and its civilisation. To this half-savage temperament devoured by the nostalgia of the tropics the pictures of his contemporaries bore the fatal stamp of the obvious, of the thrice done and used up. France, Holland, Spain, Italy-what corner was there left in these countries that had not been painted thousands of times and by great masters! The South Seas, Japan, China-anywhere away from the conventional studio landscape, studio models, poses, grimaces! At Pont-Aven in 1888, between trips made to Martinique and Provence, Gauguin had attained mastery of himself; Cézanne had taught him simplicity; Degas, his avowed admirer, had shown him the potency of the line; Renoir's warm colouring had spurred him to a still richer palette; and Manet had given him sound advice. A copy of the Olympe, by Gauguin, finished about this time, is said to be a masterpiece. But with Degas he was closer than the others. A natural-born writer, his criticisms of the modern French school are pregnant with wit and just observation. What was nicknamed the School of Pont-Aven was the outcome of Gauguin's imperious personality. A decorative impulse, a largeness of style, and a belief that everything in daily life should be beautiful and characteristic sent the painters to modelling, to ceramics and decoration. Armand Seguin, Emile Bernard, Maurice Denis, Filiger, Serusier, Bonnard, Vuillard, Chamaillard, Verkade, O'Conor, Durio, Maufra, Ranson, Mayol, Roy, and others are to-day happy to call themselves associates of Paul Gauguin in this little movement in which the idolatry of the line and the harmonies of the arabesque were pursued with joyous fanaticism.

Gauguin in an eloquent letter tells of his intercourse with Vincent Van Gogh, who went mad and killed himself, not, however, before attempting the life of his master. Mauclair has said of Van Gogh that he "left to the world some violent and strange works, in which Impressionism appears to have reached the limit of its audacity. Their value lies in their na?ve frankness and in the undauntable determination which tried to fix without trickery the sincerest feelings. Amid many faulty and clumsy works Van Gogh has also left some really beautiful canvases." Before Gauguin went to Tahiti his Breton peasants were almost as monstrous as his later Polynesian types. His representations of trees also seem m

onstrous. His endeavour was to get beyond the other side of good and evil in art and create a new synthesis, and thus it came to pass that the ugly and the formless reign oft in his work-the ugly and formless according to the old order of envisaging the world.

In 1891 and 1892, at Tahiti, Gauguin painted many pictures-masterpieces his friends and disciples call them-which were later shown at an exhibition held in the Durand-Ruel Galleries. Paris shuddered or went into ecstasy over these blazing transcriptions of the tropics; over these massive men and women, nude savages who stared with such sinister magnetism from the frames. The violent deformations, the intensity of vision, the explosive hues-a novel gamut of rich tones-and the strangeness of the subject-matter caused a nine days' gossip; yet the exhibition was not a great success. Gauguin was too new, too startling, too original for his generation; he is yet for the majority, though he may be the Paint God of the twentieth century. Cut to the heart by his failure to make a dazzling reputation, also make a little money-for he was always a poor man-he left Paris forever in 1895. He was sick and his life among the Marquisians did not improve his health. He took the part of the natives against the whites and was denounced as a moral castaway. In 1904 he wrote Charles Morice: "I am a savage." But a savage of talent. In reality he was a cultivated man, an attractive man, and a billiard player and a fencer. Paint was his passion. If you live by the pen you may perish by the pen. The same is too often the case with the palette and brush hero.

Though Paul Gauguin failed in his search for a synthesis of the ugly and the beautiful, he was nevertheless a bold initiator, one who shipwrecked himself in his efforts to fully express his art. With all his realism he was a symbolist, a master of decoration. A not too sympathetic commentator has written of him: "Paul Gauguin's robust talent found its first motives in Breton landscapes, in which the method of colour spots may be found employed with delicacy and placed at the service of a rather heavy but very interesting harmony. Then the artist spent a long time in Tahiti, whence he returned with a completely transformed manner. He brought back from those regions some landscapes treated in intentionally clumsy and almost wild fashion. The figures are outlined in firm strokes and painted in broad, flat tints on canvas that has the texture of tapestry. Many of these works are made repulsive by their aspect of multicoloured, crude, and barbarous imagery. Yet one cannot but acknowledge the fundamental qualities, the lovely values, the ornamental taste, and the impression of primitive animalism. On the whole, Paul Gauguin has a beautiful, artistic temperament which, in its aversion to virtuosity, has perhaps not sufficiently understood that the fear of formulas, if exaggerated, may lead to other formulas, to a false ignorance which is as dangerous as false knowledge."

All of which is true; yet Paul Gauguin was a painter who had something new to say, and he said it in a very personal fashion.


I once attended at Paris an exhibition devoted to the work of the late Count Toulouse-Lautrec. There the perverse genius of an unhappy man who owes allegiance to no one but Degas and the Japanese was seen at its best. His astonishing qualities of invention, draughtsmanship, and a diabolic ingenuity in sounding the sinister music of decayed souls have never been before assembled under one roof. Power there is and a saturnine hatred of his wretched sitters. Toulouse-Lautrec had not the impersonal vision of Zola nor the repressed and disenchanting irony of Degas. He loathed the crew of repulsive night birds that he pencilled and painted in old Montmartre before the foreign invasion destroyed its native and spontaneous wickedness. Now a resort for easily bamboozled English and Americans, the earlier Montmartre was a rich mine for painter-explorers. Raffaelli went there and so did Renoir; but the former was impartially impressionistic; the latter, ever ravished by a stray shaft of sunshine flecking the faces of the dancers, set it all down in charming tints. Not so Toulouse-Lautrec. Combined with a chronic pessimism, he exhibited a divination of character that, if he had lived and worked hard, might have placed him not far below Degas. He is savant. He has a line that proclaims the master. And unlike Aubrey Beardsley, his affinity to the Japanese never seduced him into the exercise of the decorative abnormal which sometimes distinguished the efforts of the Englishman. We see the Moulin Rouge with its hosts of deadly parasites, La Goulue and her vile retainers. The brutality here is one of contempt, as a blow struck full in the face. Vice has never before been so harshly arraigned. This art makes of Hogarth a pleasing preacher, so drastic is it, so deliberately searching in its insults. And never the faintest exaggeration or burlesque. These brigands and cut-throats, pimps and pickpurses are set before us without bravado, without the genteel glaze of the timid painter, without an attempt to call a prostitute a cocotte. Indeed, persons are called by their true names in these hasty sketches of Lautrec's, and so clearly sounded are the names that sometimes you are compelled to close your ears and eyes. His models, with their cavernous glance, their emaciated figures, and vicious expression, are a commentary on atelier life in those days and regions. Toulouse-Lautrec is like a page from Ecclesiastes.

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