Paul Gauguin (1853-1890)
Referring to the painting entitled Vision After the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel Gauguin says: “To me in this painting the landscape and the struggle exist only in the imagination of these real people and the struggle in this landscape which is not real and which is out of proportion.” This is a classic statement describing the illusion of P-B in a religious context. What can we do to escape this illusion? “A return to a simpler, cruder, more archaic style, both of life and of art, was what Gauguin now sought.” He was correct to seek simplicity, to reject religion-driven delusion, and to mistrust the ‘reality’ defined by the senses. Where did his chosen path take him?
First, he began to rely on his art to lead him to reality. His artistic expression became his “spiritual practice” much as other seekers use meditation to seek the reality of the present moment. He grew to distrust the intellect and verbal expression somehow sensing that not only would the mind not assist him in his search but that it might be an obstacle. “Do you see how useless it is for me to understand the value of words? With all the sincerity possible, I have tried to translate my dream without the aid of literary devices.” He was seeking the NOW which can often be realized in the “flow” of artistic expression beyond the illusion of space-time.
Next, Gauguin began to realize the importance of self-reliance. This realization is expressed in his painting entitled The White Horse. “Such an interpretation is given validity by Gauguin’s quotation in his Intimate Journals of Degas’ remark about him like the lone wolf—hungry but free.” He always insisted on expressing his own worldview in his own unique way.
This same painting also indicated his sense of the interdependence and interrelationship of all aspects of creation. “This painting also presents an idyll, a pastorale where man and beast co-exist in harmony with nature. The harmony is stressed by the stream and waterfall running through the center of the painting and the trees, with their branches encircling the free and naked riders and their mounts.”
Gauguin obviously trusted his intuition or he wouldn’t have been able to turn his back on a life of security and take the risks that he did. He could have lived a comfortable life in the midst of an emerging industrial society. But what would he have sacrificed for material gain? He instead went in search of his True self among the peasants of Brittany and the people of Tahiti.
As an artist, what else was Gauguin trying to express and how did he express it? He felt that “our modern intelligence, lost as it is in the details of analysis, cannot perceive what is too simple and too visible.” First, he simplified his life. Unfortunately, for his wife and four children this meant that he abandoned them. And unfortunately for him, he was mesmerized by the ages-old process of romanticizing the aboriginals in far-off places or cultures that were as yet untouched by “civilization.”
Secondly, he intuitively knew that his intellect (analysis) was not going to lead him to the truth of the beauty he sought to express. So, he rebelled against convention, both the paradigm of his culture, the dominance of left-brain thinking and the complexity of the industrial age. And yet, controlled as he was by his false-self, he tried to escape his suffering but created just another illusion in which to contain his art. Nevertheless, he was a relentless seeker after truth through his artistic expression. He was headed in the right direction however he was not driven by a profound narrative. His life like that of his friend Van Gogh was destined to end in despair.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.