Some Second thoughts on PAUL GAUGUIN

tm. © 2008

by Paul Henrickson. Ph.D

Émile Schuffenecker (December 8, 1851 - July 31, 1934) was a French Post-Impressionist artist, art teacher and art collector. A friend of Paul Gauguin and Odilon Redon, and one of the first collectors of works by Vincent van Gogh, Schuffenecker was instrumental in establishing the Volpini exhibition, in 1889. His own work, however, tends to have been neglected since his death—and even worse, recent season campaigns in the media have reactivated resentments virulent since the late 1920s, when Schuffenecker was suspected to have imitated the work of other contemporary artists, among them, Van Gogh.[citations needed] Still a contentious issue, it has not been established whether he produced forgeries. Meanwhile, serious scholarly research at least has provided the base for a sober art historical approach to Schuffenecker's life and work. I do not know who the author of the above may be, but part of what he describes offers me a good starting point for discussing the work of Gauguin. Schuffenenecker we are told was a friend of Paul Gauguin and while nothing here is said about the nature of the friendship it is reasonable to suppose he may have said something in Gauguin’s presence about art that ignited a series of conflicting doubts and expectations in what was, probably, already a rebellious mind. Some do not readily accept society’s description of the parameters of reality.

Emile Schuffenecker Paul Gaugin was the son of a French journalist and a Peruvian Creole, whose mother had been a writer and a follower of Saint-Simon, he (PG)was brought up in Lima, joined the merchant navy in 1865, and in 1872 began a successful career as a stockbroker in Paris.
Nancy Mowll Mathews traces the themes of sex and violence through the artist's life, from the near-murderous quarrels of his grandparents, to his abusive treatment of his wife, to his sexual encounters in French Polynesia in the 1890s. The book examines how Gauguin used

these complex themes in his art and writings and how he carefully presented his "erotic life" in the autobiographical treatises "Noa Noa" (1893) and "Avant et Aprà s" (1903). The central drama of Gauguin's adulthood--his marriage to Mette Gad Gauguin--is assessed in detail, and with the inclusion of some of Mette's previously unpublished letters, both sides of the Gauguin marriage are presented for the first time. Mathews also provides fascinating new insights into understanding Gauguin's relationships with men and women and the roles that sexuality and aggression played in shaping his art. She also illuminates his homosocial, if not homoerotic, relationships with Vincent van Gogh, Emile Schuffenecker, and Charles Filiger. Gauguin's genius resided not only in his forging of new artistic paths, Mathews concludes, but in his ability to bring his sexual fantasies alive for a large audience. Illustrated. In 1874 he saw the first Impressionist exhibition, which completely entranced him and confirmed his desire to become a painter. He spent some 17,000 francs on works by Manet, Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, Renoir and Guillaumin. Pissarro took a special interest in his attempts at painting, emphasizing that he should `look for the nature that suits your temperament', and in 1876 Gauguin had a landscape in the style of Pissarro accepted at the Salon. In the meantime Pissarro had introduced him to Cézanne, for whose works he conceived a great respect---so much so that the older man began to fear that he would steal his `sensations'. In a travel website I came across an anonymous analysis of the importance of Gauguin’s work . One of a type I had expected to find, but did not, in comments made by art critics/historians reminding us that while in the 1830’s-40’s several painters had gone to exotic places such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia for the inspiration offered by far off romantic places. It was Gauguin, however, who had incorporated more of what was there to be had . The important comment in this report was that the significant inclusion by Gauguin was that of technique, not of the subject matter…although he also had emphasized that. My main question in this regard is what specific way is the adaption of broad areas of color, the elimination of much subtle gradation of form an “advance”? Doris Cross, a Santa Fe artist whom I had known well for more than twenty years one , with some detectable and mysterious pride who described herself as a “destructuralist”. “Hhhmm”, was my response, hearing in this announcement reminiscences of certain political and social science left-wing attitudes (we must change society to fit our needs sort of rhetoric). Doris had begun her conceptual destruction work in Cedar Falls, Iowa where she had been hired by The University of Northern Iowa to be the artist in residence. She had wanted my insight so she invited me for dinner which turned out to be a normal-size portion of green beans appropriately boiled. But since Doris had real problems in the requirements for translating thoughts into words I left for home a couple of hours later greatly perplexed. “What is that woman talking about?”.

Some years later when she once again took up residence in my home in Santa Fe the work had developed significantly so that I was able to see, in the formation of the graphic elements she had laid before me she was, indeed, destroying the cultural intent of the dictionary columns she systematically dissembled, but additionally, she was rearranging them so that the end result was a new product. In fact, it was a significantly enriched product which contributed to the broadening of cultural enrichment, While she denied knowing anything of classical thought many of her dictionary columns appear to make reference to them. When I mentioned this to her, her reaction was mixed. The view that her work might be considered in line with the development of Western thought was very alien to her, quite contrary to her political evaluations, yet, the image of having her efforts accepted even on

that basis was difficult to turn down. The point of this anecdote is to point up that very often, indeed, the stated aims of an artist are not comfortably congruent with his production. Matisse’s work has been of no interest to the hardworking industrial mechanic desiring no intellectual challenge from the objects surrounding him in his home. That man understands, to some extent, Rembrandt’s “Man in a Golden Helmet,”

Rembrandt Van Rijn “Man in a Golden Helmet”

And Gauguin’s expectation . which I doubt he had, that the Polynesians would want to hang any of his products on the walls of their grass huts would have been vain indeed. In short Western Art as a creative force and intellectual playing field is inevitably directed toward those ends of redefinition of concepts already a part of that culture. Like a magnet the magnetism of western thought has drawn and divorced Doris from her prejudiced Near Eastern background which had been transplanted to New York City some generations earlier from The Soviet Union. It might appear that having successfully eliminated the Romanoffs and group as cultural determinators the Jewish rebel group still found it necessary, or, at least, desirable, to leave and to practice destructuralism elsewhere. Not unlike locusts which will travel from field to field devouring as they go.

Would the remarkable influence of Gauguin on Matisse be proof of an “advance” or simply an indication that perceptive and creative artists can be influenced by absolutely anything at all. The word “change” may be a more appropriate term

than “advance”.






passion flower

When one reads statements from art commentators that nature is not geometric one MUST question the writers perceptiveness, or their honesty, or their extreme desire to exercise power over others….and all this becomes possible because of ignorance of the listener….a willing ignorance for the most part…due…in part to the social reluctance to publicly disagree…an example of where being socially correct (read politically correct) becomes the route to social dominance for some and subjection for others.

The square was the ideal shape for Albers’ "Homage’s," series. Squares were mathematically related to each other in size, perfect for superimposition, shapes that never occur in nature [emphasis is mine]--thus assuring its man-made quality. By “Pierre” in:

Quite honestly, I can fully understand “Pierre”’s reluctance to further identify himself, for having, in merely 20 words, stated an untruth about nature, but glorified apotheosized extremely elemental understandings…understandings that a preschooler comprehends when placing a square form into a square depression….and since when has it been difficult to assure a man-made quality? This sort of presentation is not only insulting, it is dangerous for those who do not understand that the “devil is the father of lies”. This sort of attitude has allowed the oral history division of the Smithsonian to be “ballot-stuffed” with the personal reminiscences of very ordinary mentalities such as Paul Brach that are subject to ego-maniacal afflictions, and our prestigious institutions such as Colby in Maine which has a wing of its museum devoted to the work of Alex Katz whose work is notable for its aesthetic poverty.
Was the building of the wing integral to the gift? AK: Building the wing was a condition of the gift, otherwise there wouldn’t have been enough room to house the collection. These works represent what I’ve been doing during 50 years of painting-this is a sizable body of work.

One must ask the question concerning the relative aesthetic value their might be between the 27 works attributed to Jan Vermeer and the “sizable body of work” by Katz housed in a wing

of its own? , or, to express the matter another way does the work of Christian Krohg deserve a wing of a college museum?

All of the above comments are only touching hesitantly on some aspects of attitude I am only beginning to unravel. The answer, I believe, lies in the observation that the material Katz offers his viewers both in subject matter and in its organization is notably limited. The often appearing explanation that Katz has simplified a complex world which is stated as though it were an obvious and necessary virtue and that, in the tradition, perhaps, of Matisse has made images available to what some identify as “the common man” . Personally, I never have met and I certainly hope I never will, ever meet a man so common as to find the Katz images a fully satisfying experience.

Yet, in all fairness to Katz it can be said without qualification that while his art production has its limitations, his approaches to propaganda favoring his work seem to have no limitations. Like most artists, Paul Gauguin often looked forward to audience approval. As I told one opera singer friend of mine, Maralin Niska, as an opera singer she should be pleased that even were she to give a mediocre performance on an evening the audience ,( most audiences, I know of), are sufficiently polite and concerned to give some expression of appreciation for the effort. I understand that Italian audiences are somewhat more outspoken when it comes to expressing their disapproval. Artists, on the other hand, painters and sculptors are somehow expected to endure criticism whether it is just or unjust and the time lapse often makes any comment obsolete.

In addition to these somewhat ancillary problems there is the very real problem of having to process the visual information one gets from something newly observed into a comprehensible mental arrangement. This process of de-anesthetizing experience and reordering it into comprehension involves a whole new set of learning tools and approaches to thought. It might be thought of as related to, but not the same, as alphabetical letters, into sounds, into mental images which is what takes place with, for example, the word C A T eventually, but not necessarily finally into .


How might an image by Hans Hoffman, for example, get finally integrated into the Western system of image making without its having a preexisting concept such as “cat” to which it might become attached? There not being a pre-existing thought image available for us to comfortably end our need for understanding (i.e. closure) we, then, must create one. This is, as I see the problem, the problem.

My present approach to understanding the work of Paul Gauguin, which is, not so by the way, as I understand it, also the pathway to an education based on aesthetics. In turn, I see an aesthetically based education as superior to an education based on written or oral language. Additionally, it must be granted that all cultures, from no matter where they originate, employ images, that is, preordained and codified images, as enforcers of acceptable social behavior. As for Paul Gauguin, I would without any doubt whatever, state that as a sensate being he had quite fully developed his awareness of light differences (between inside and outside), temperature differences (between inside and outside) and the extraordinarily palpableness of tropical flesh. This last factor may be only an expression of the need for or hunger for what western civilization denies except in its more exotic and exaggerated forms. What the Pacific island societies excel in where western societies do not is in the area of primary-level attraction. An educated reader might refer to the word pheromone as an indicator and it is possible that the theory behind odor acceptance/rejection may have something to do with other expressions of observable human behavior. The role that Gauguin’s Creole mother may have played in his ultimate interest in Polynesia and his having impressively reduced the complexity of Western imagery to more elemental forms


Albrecht Durer: The Four Horsemen

Gauguin had some

precursors pointing in that direction not least of whom was Honoree


who preceded him by about a generation.

Above are 8 photographs of Micronesians I tool more than forty years ago. Three of the people were Kusaieans already on Guam which, even then, was significantly more technologically advanced than the smaller and more remote Micronesian islands. The young boy with the red loincloth was on Ulithi as were the old men with tattoos. The last three were Palauans and Anna, who was the manager-hostess of the only hotel on the island had

greeted me as her guest by curiously clutching my crotch. As a well-bred Bostonian I simply ignored the advance….but I remember it well. As these photographs represent the islands some forty years after Gauguin had died I still feel comfortable in maintaining that the degree of sensual awareness these people express could well have been the type Gauguin found so moving. The one word I think might well describe the attitude is “blunt”. If there is anything that comes across from the work of Gauguin from this period it is, I believe, that quality of “bluntness”. There is no rudeness here, but neither is there refinement. It does seem to me that Gauguin was, as I maintain every creative artist does, attempting to bring all the various aspects of his experiences of the outside world and those of his instinctual yearnings for a self-realization together into as comprehensive a whole as he found it possible. This form of knitting together is a form of therapeutic process for both the artist and for those who try to understand his work.

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