Recently, Jon and I made a trip to Seattle to see the Gauguin special exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. It is a short term exhibit through April, 2012. The SAM has spent the last several years compiling and organizing an exhibit documenting Gauguin’s time in Polynesia towards the end of his life. They made arrangements for loans of 60 Gauguin artworks and the same number of Polynesian artifacts, including headdresses, tiki statues and decorative weapons. Apparently bringing the Polynesian artifacts into the U.S. was quite the undertaking, because all of the artifacts that contained shell, animal hair, feathers, bone and teeth had to be cataloged with their exact animal components. That can be tough when they were made 200 years ago, and since now the art form has pretty much died out.
Paul Gauguin was born in Paris, France in 1848 to a French father and a part-Peruvian mother. He spent the first several years of his life in Peru with his mother, after his father died on the trip there. They returned to France when he was 7, where he grew up and became, of all things, a stockbroker. After working for 10 years as a stockbroker, and becoming increasingly more interested in studying and purchasing fine art, the stock market crash in 1882 convinced him to leave the profession for good. He didn’t begin painting until he was in his thirties, and started out in the Impressionist movement before becoming disillusioned with the art style. He spent a period of nine weeks collaborating with Van Gogh, spending time and painting with him while both fought depression. At the end of this nine weeks, Van Gosh threatened Gauguin with a razor and then fled, culminating in Van Gogh cutting off his own ear in a brothel. Although he didn’t harbor any ill will, and even invited Van Gogh to collaborate again, Gauguin never saw his colleague again.
After the market crashed in the 1880’s and Gauguin lost his job as a stockbroker, he became increasingly disillusioned with the European scene. He began dreaming of traveling to the Polynesian islands to escape from the developed world and be a part of a simpler, less corrupted lifestyle. Unfortunately, when he arrived in Tahiti, he found a culture and people that had been devastated by 100 years of colonialism and disease. The people had almost lost their native cultural traditions and art. Gauguin proceeded to drown his sorrows by shacking up with a 13 year old girl (because that’s different than what the colonists did!), and using her as his muse. She appeared in several paintings, including The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch.
Unfortunately, as is the case with many artist muses, Gauguin fathered her child and then left her when he made the trip back to Paris. There he contracted syphilis after having sex with a prostitute. His health started to decline, and he was unable to sell many of his paintings in Paris. He went back to Polynesia, this time to the Marquesas islands, which were less developed and had maintained more of their native culture. He created several more paintings, and had several more children with his mistresses, and managed to piss off the colonial authorities when he sided with the natives on some colonial matter. Some accounts state that the colonists were also tiring of his hard drinking/drugging lifestyle and the fact that he was spreading syphilis around among the local population (what a charmer right?). He was convicted of libel and sentenced to a month in the island’s jail. Before he could begin his sentence though, he died of a heart attack coupled with an overdose of morphine. The year was 1903, and Gauguin was 54.
Anyway, I’ve digressed, because I couldn’t help much give a few more of the juicy details of his life. But if you have a chance, take the time to see this exhibit – it is worth it. It makes you wonder what more he could have contributed to the art world, had he not died so young. Of course, on the flipside, the Marquesas might have been wiped out by syphilis if he had lived much longer! I’ll leave you with one of my favorites from the exhibit – Three Tahitians.