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Paul Gauguin

Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ (1889). A time will come when people will think I am a myth, or rather something the newspapers have made up.

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848-06-071903-05-09) was a French Post-Impressionist painter.

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  • La peinture est le plus beau de tous les arts; en lui se résument toutes les sensations, à son aspect chacun peut, au gré de son imagination, créer le roman, d'un seul coup d'œil avoir l'âme envahie par les plus profonds souvenirs; point d'effort de mémoire, tout résumé en un seul instant. — Art complet qui résume tous les autres et les complète. — Comme la musique, il agit sur l'âme par l'intermédiaire des sens, les tons harmonieux correspondant aux harmonies des sons; mais en peinture on obtient une unité impossible en musique où les accords viennent les uns après les autres, et le jugement éprouve alors une fatigue incessante s'il veut réunir la fin au commencement. En somme, l'oreille est un sens inférieur à celui de l'œil. L'ouïe ne peut servir qu'à un seul son à la fois, tandis que la vue embrasse tout, en même temps qu'à son gré elle simplifie.
    • Painting is the most beautiful of all arts. In it, all sensations are condensed, at its aspect everyone may create romance at the will of his imagination, and at a glance have his soul invaded by the most profound memories, no efforts of memory, everything summed up in one moment. Complete art which sums up all the others and completes them. Like music, it acts on the soul through the intermediary of the senses, the harmonious tones corresponding to the harmonies of sounds, but in painting, a unity is obtained which is not possible in music, where the accords follow one another, and the judgement experiences a continuous fatigue if one wants to reunite the end and the beginning. In the main, the ear is an inferior sense to the eye. The hearing can only grasp a single sound at one time, whereas the sight takes in everything and at the same time simplifies at its will.
      • Notes Synthéthiques (ca. 1884-1885), ed. Henri Mahaut, in Vers et prose (July-September 1910), p. 52; translation from John Rewald, Gauguin (Hyperion Press, 1938), p. 161
Breton Calvary: The Green Christ (1889)
  • Life at Papeete soon became a burden.

    It was Europe, the Europe which I had thought to shake off — and that under the aggravating circumstances of colonial snobbism, and the imitation, grotesque even to the point of caricature, of our customs, fashions, vices, and absurdities of civilization.

    Was I to have made this far journey, only to find the very thing which I had fled?

  • D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?
    • Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
    • Title of painting, 1897
Fata te miti (1892), In order to produce something new, you have to return to the original source, to the childhood of mankind.
  • Many people say that I don't know how to draw because I don't draw particular forms. When will they understand that execution, drawing and color (in other words, style) must be in harmony with the poem?
    • Letter to Charles Morice (July 1901), from French Paintings and Painters from the Fourteenth Century to Post-Impressionism, ed. Gerd Muesham [Frederick Ungar, 1970, ISBN 0-8044-6521-5], p. 551
  • Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge — and has to content oneself with dreaming.
Mahana no atua (1894)
  • Comment voyez-vous cet arbre? Il est bien vert? Mettez donc du vert, le plus beau vert de votre palette; — et cette ombre, plutôt bleue? Ne craignez pas la peindre aussi bleue que possible.
    • How do you see this tree? Is it really green? Use green, then, the most beautiful green on your palette. And that shadow, rather blue? Don't be afraid to paint it as blue as possible.
      • Said in conversation with Paul Sérusier as quoted by Maurice Denis, "L'influence de Paul Gauguin," in Occident (October 1903) and published in Du symbolisme au classicisme. Théories (1912), ed. Olivier Revault d'Allonnes (Paris, 1964), p. 51

The Writings of a Savage (1990)Edit

An anthology of writing by Gauguin [Paragon House, ed. Daniel Guérin, trans. Eleanor Levieux, ISBN 1-55778-272-5]

Mme. Ginoux in the Cafe at Arles (1888). One may wonder if any painter in the last century put more meaning into his sense of color than Gauguin.
  • I must confess that I too am a woman and that I am always prepared to applaud a woman who is more daring than I, and is equal to a man in fighting for freedom of behavior.
    • Le Sourire (Tahiti, August 1899), p. xxvii
  • A great sentiment can be rendered immediately. Dream on it and look for the simplest form in which you can express it.
  • Nature has mysterious infinities and imaginative power. It is always varying the productions it offers to us. The artist himself is one of nature's means.
Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers (1888)
  • I am leaving in order to have peace and quiet, to be rid of the influence of civilization. I want only to do simple, very simple art, and to be able to do that, I have to immerse myself in virgin nature, see no one but savages, live their life, with no other thought in mind but to render, the way a child would, the concepts formed in my brain and to do this with the aid of nothing but the primitive means of art, the only means that are good and true.
    • Quoted in the interview "Paul Gauguin Discussing His Paintings" by Jules Huret, printed in L'Écho de Paris, (1891-02-23) p. 48
  • I am a great artist and I know it. It's because of what I am that I have endured so much suffering, so as to pursue my vocation, otherwise I would consider myself a rogue — which is what many people think I am, for that matter. Oh well, what difference does it make. What upsets me the most is not so much the poverty as the things that perpetually get in the way of my art, which I cannot carry out the way I feel and which I would carry out if it weren't for the poverty that is like a straitjacket. You tell me I am wrong to stay away from the artist[ic] center. No, I am right; I've known for a long time what I am doing and why I am doing it. My artistic center is in my brain and nowhere else, and I am strong because I am never thrown off-course by other people and because I do what is in me.
    • Original: Je suis un grand artiste et je le sais. C'est parce que je le suis que j'ai tellement enduré de souffrances. Pour poursuivre ma voie, sinon je me considérerai comme un brigand. Ce que je suis du reste pour beaucoup de personnes. Enfin, qu'importe! Ce qui me chagrine le plus c'est moins la misère que les empêchements perpétuels à mon art que je ne puis faire comme je le sens et comme je pourais le faire sans la misère qui me lie les bras. Tu me dis que j'ai tort de rester éloigné du centre artistique. Non, j'ai raison, je sais depuis longtemps ce que je fais et pourquoi je le fais. Mon centre artistique est dans mon cerveau et pas ailleurs et je suis fort parce que je ne suis jamais dérouté par les autres et je fais ce qui est en moi.
      • Letter to his wife, Mette (Tahiti, March 1892), pp. 53-54
  • A young man who is unable to commit a folly is already an old man.
    • Manuscript, known as "Cahier pour Aline" (ca. 1892-1893), p. 68
Tahitian Women on the Beach (1891), A young man who is unable to commit a folly is already an old man
  • Your Nordic blue eyes looked attentively at the paintings hanging on the walls. I felt stirrings of rebellion: a whole clash between your civilization and my barbarism. Civilization from which you suffer. Barbarism which for me is a rejuvenation.
    • Original: Votre œil bleu du nord regardait attentivement les tableaux pendus aux murs. J’eus comme le pressentiment d’une révolte : tout un choc entre votre civilisation et ma barbarie. Civilisation dont vous souffrez. Barbarie qui est pour moi un rajeunissement.
  • In art, there are only two types of people: revolutionaries and plagiarists. And in the end, doesn't the revolutionary's work become official, once the State takes it over?
    • Letter published in Le Soir, (1895-04-25), p. 107
The Swineherd, Brittany (1888)
  • Copying nature — what is that supposed to mean? Follow the masters! But why should one follow them? The only reason they are masters is that they didn't follow anybody!
    • Quoted by Eugène Tardieu, "Interview with Paul Gauguin," L'Écho de Paris, (1895-05-13), p. 108
  • In order to produce something new, you have to return to the original source, to the childhood of mankind.
    • Quoted by Eugène Tardieu, "Interview with Paul Gauguin," L'Écho de Paris, (1895-05-13), p. 110
  • A time will come when people will think I am a myth, or rather something the newspapers have made up.
  • As I wanted to suggest a luxuriant and untamed type of nature, a tropical sun that sets aglow everything around it, I was obliged to give my figures a suitable setting.

    It is indeed the outdoor life — yet intimate at the same time, in the thickets and the shady streams, these women whispering in an immense palace decorated by nature itself, with all the riches that Tahiti has to offer. This is the reason behind all these fabulous colors, this subdued and silent glow.

    "But none of this exists!"

    "Oh yes it does, as an equivalent of the grandeur, the depth, the mystery of Tahiti, when you have to express it on a canvas measuring only one square meter."

    Very subtle, very knowing in her naïveté is the Tahitian Eve. The riddle hiding in the depth of her childlike eyes is still incommunicable to me.

    • Diverse Choses, notebook (1896 - 1898), p. 137
  • My eyes close and uncomprehendingly see the dream in the infinite space that stretches away, elusive, before me.
    • Original: Mes yeux se ferment pour voir sans comprendre le rêve dans l'espace infini qui fuit devant moi.
      • Letter to André Fontainas (March 1899), pp. 184-185
  • No one wants my painting because it is different from other people's — peculiar, crazy public that demands the greatest possible degree of originality on the painter's part and yet won't accept him unless his work resembles that of the others!
Nevermore (1897), It is extraordinary that anyone could put so much mystery into so much brightness.
  • You have long known what I have tried to establish: the right to dare everything; yet the difficulty I have had finding enough money to live on has been too great, and my capacities have not produced a very big result but the mechanism has got underway nevertheless. The public does not owe me anything because the pictorial work I have done is only relatively good, but the painters who benefit from that freedom today do owe me something.
    • Letter to Georges-Daniel de Monfreid (Marquesas Islands, October 1902), p. 214

About Paul GauguinEdit

We Shall Not Go to the Market Today (Te Matete), 1892, oil on canvas
  • Gauguin interests me very much as a man — very much. For a long time now it has seemed to me that in our nasty profession of painting we are most sorely in need of men with the hands and the stomachs of workmen. More natural tastes — more loving and more charitable temperaments — than the decadent dandies of the Parisian boulevards have. Well, here we are without the slightest doubt in the presence of a virgin creature with savage instincts. With Gauguin blood and sex prevail over ambition.
  • Œuvre étrangement cérébrale, passionnante, inégale encore, mais jusque dans ses inégalités poignante et superbe. Œuvre douloureuse, car pour la comprendre, pour en ressentir le choc, il faut avoir soi-même connu la douleur et l'ironie de la douleur, qui est le seuil du mystère. Parfois, elle s'élève jusqu'à la hauteur d'un mystique acte de foi; parfois, elle s'efface et grimace dans les ténèbres du doute. Et, toujours émane d'elle l'amer et violent arôme des poisons de la chair. Il y a dans cette œuvre un mélange inquiétant et savoureux de splendeur barbare, de liturgie catholique, de rêverie indoue, d'imagerie gothique, de symbolisme obscur et subtil; il ya des réalités âpres et des vols éperdus de poésie, par où Gauguin crée un art absolument personnel et tout nouveau; art de peintre et de poète, d'apôtre et de démon, et qui angoisse.
    • His art is strangely cerebral and passionate, uneven still, but poignant and superb in its very unevenness. A sorrowful work, for to understand it, to feel the shock of it, we ourselves must know sorrow and the irony of sorrow, which is the threshold of mystery. It sometimes rises to the height of the mystical act of faith; sometimes it obliterates itself and grimaces in the gloom of doubt. It always emanates the bitter and violent aroma of the poisons of the flesh. There is a dazzling and savory mixture of barbaric splendor, Catholic liturgy, Hindu reverie, Gothic imagery, and obscure and subtle symbolism; there are harsh realities and distraught flights into poetry, through which M. Gauguin creates an altogether new and personal art — the art of a painter and poet, of an apostle and demon, an art which instills anguish.
  • ll est extraordinaire qu'on puisse mettre tant de mystère dans tant d'éclat.
    • It is extraordinary that anyone could put so much mystery into so much brightness.
      • Stéphane Mallarmé, after seeing an exhibition of Gauguin's work in November 1893; cited by Gauguin at the heading of chapter I of Noa Noa (1893) and in a letter to André Fontainas (March 1899); also quoted in Charles Morice, Paul Gauguin (H. Floury, 1920; digitized by the University of Michigan, 2007), p. 220
  • What is he, then? He is Gauguin, the savage who hates the burden of our civilization, a sort of Titan who, jealous of the creator, makes his own little world in his spare time, a child who takes toys apart in order to build others from the pieces, one who denies and defies, who prefers to see the sky red rather than blue like the rest of us.
  • Jamais je n'ai voulu et je n'accepterai le manque de modelé ou de graduation. C'est un non-sens. Gauguin n'était pas un peintre, il n'a fait que des images chinoises.
    • I have never wanted and never will accept the lack of modeling or gradation: it's an absurdity. Gauguin was not a painter; he only made Chinese pictures.
      • Paul Cézanne, quoted in Émile Bernard, Souvenirs sur Paul Cézanne (Société des trente, 1912; digitized by University of Michigan Press, 2007), p. 35
  • I advised him to go to New Orleans, but he decided it was too civilized. He had to have people around him with flowers on their heads and rings in their noses before he could feel at home.
  • Gauguin's work is symbolic, and he himself is a myth. He rejected the values of bourgeois society and of a machine civilization. His gesture had its sordid side, but retrospectively it seems to have been appropriate, coming at a time when the world was preparing for annihilating wars. It was not a useful example: we cannot all go and live on South Sea islands, and, as I have said before in this connection, modern man carries his civilization like a pack on his back, and cannot cast if off. But he can nevertheless protest against the burden, and state the real values of life.

    So Gauguin did, in paintings that are symbols of eternal truths, images of great beauty and serenity.

    • Herbert Read, "Gauguin: Return to Symbolism," Art News Annual, XXV (1956)
  • The last thing that Bonnard and Vuillard and Matisse wanted to do was paint portentous allegories about the destiny of mankind, as Gauguin did.
    • John Russell, The Meanings of Modern Art (Museum of Modern Art, 1975, ISBN 0-870-70477-X ), p. 10
  • The popular fancy that Gauguin "discovered himself" as a painter in Tahiti is quite wrong. All the components of his work — the flat patterns of colour, the wreathing outlines, the desire to make symbolic statements about fate and emotion, the interest in "primitive" art, and the thought that color could function as a language — were assembled in France before 1891.
  • One may wonder if any painter in the last century put more meaning into his sense of color than Gauguin.
    • Robert Hughes, "Paul Gauguin," in Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists (Viking/Penguin, 1991, ISBN 0-394-58026-5), p. 152


Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897)

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