I. The Gauguin myth in the age of media hype

The process by means of which certain artists—certain modern artists particularly—attain a mythical status that transcends all aesthetic considerations is one that is so familiar to us that we hardly any longer pay it much attention. It is now taken for granted as one of the facts of modern cultural life. This does not mean that the myths themselves have lost their power to influence our thinking about art, but precisely the contrary. Both the myths and the process of mythmaking are now so firmly established in our consciousness that they continue to exert an influence even when the effort is made to discount their effect and rid our minds of their disfiguring fictions.

Yet it is only on a certain kind of artist that such a mythic status can be conferred. Great achievement in art is not itself a sufficient condition; at times, indeed, it is not even a necessary condition. It is life, not art, that confers the status I speak of, and not just any life, of course, but one in which an extreme degree of nonconformity or suffering or violence or saintliness or promiscuity or sheer human oddity is seen to be inseparable from the artistic vocation itself. Matisse, who was probably the greatest painter of the twentieth century, was never a suita ble candidate for the role—too bourgeois in appearance, for one thing—whereas it fit Picasso to such a degree that he came finally to see his own life entirely in its terms. Cézanne, with his banker father and uneventful love life, was never a candidate either, though he was a greater painter than either Van Gogh or Gauguin, who now stand for us as the very archetypes of the mythic artist.

It was the writers of popular fiction who transformed the lives of Van Gogh and Gauguin into these archetypes.

It was the writers of popular fiction who transformed the lives of Van Gogh and Gauguin into these archetypes, thereby changing forever—even for those who resist the fictionalization—the way their art would enter our lives. As the protagonists first of widely read novels—Lust for Life and The Moon and Sixpence—and then of the trashy movies based on them, these two painters acquired an aura that has lent itself to an ever increasing vulgarization with each passing decade. Moreover, it is this vulgarization and not their intrinsic artistic merits that has so greatly transformed the market value of their pictures. Now not even the art museums can any longer be counted upon to act as a bulwark against such a sweeping distortion of artistic values.

It is certainly owing to this mythic aura and the vulgarization it has brought in its wake that it has lately proved to be so easy to divide the short, tragic career of Van Gogh into a series of isolated agons, each of which could be packaged as a separate, highly pro-motable exhibition melodrama. And since it is now the tendency of the museums to market the materials of high art, wherever possible, as if they belonged to the realm of popular culture, we can probably expect to see even worse things in the future. Thanks, for example, to Mrs. Huffington’s ghastly biography of Picasso, who can doubt that we shall soon see this artist accorded the ultimate degradation—a television docudrama miniseries certain to be the purest and most lurid soap opera.

Because of all this, it was with a certain feeling of dread that some of us greeted the announcement of a major Gauguin exhibition—a show destined to be mounted on the blockbuster scale—and there was nothing about the initial promotional atmosphere surrounding the announcement to allay our worst expectations. At a posh press luncheon in New York months in advance of the actual opening of the exhibition in Washington, the featured speaker—the one who caused, and was expected to cause, the biggest stir—wasn’t a scholar or connoisseur who could shed new light on an artist already so familiar to us, though such experts were briefly heard from, but a movie actor, Donald Sutherland, who had been invited (hired?) to explain to the company assembled at Le Cirque—writers, publicists, museum officials, and AT&T executives (the sponsors)—what it had felt like to play Gauguin.

In the event, Mr. Sutherland conducted himself with exemplary dignity and tact, but the quality of the actor’s presentation, however admirable’, is not the point, of course. It was his presence on such a program that struck entirely the wrong note—wrong, because it was the responsibility of the art museums organizing the Gauguin retrospective not only to place their primary emphasis on the artist’s aesthetic achievement but to make every effort to separate his name and his work from the kind of vulgarization that had already done so much to distort the nature of that achievement. By choosing instead to exploit the Gauguin myth at the very outset of their campaign to win maximum media attention for this exhibition, the museums made yet another contribution to undermining the standards that it is their primary function to uphold.

Was it even necessary for the museums to make this obeisance to crass commercial interests? Certainly not as far as the public was concerned. It is my impression, anyway, that nothing in the world—nothing short of a total news blackout, that is—could nowadays have kept a major Gauguin retrospective from being one of the most popular exhibitions of our time. The likelihood is that it was not the public but the sponsor of the exhibition—in this case, AT&T—who needed, or at least wanted, this approach in order to be certain that its costly role in the event would receive the requisite visibility. None of us is so naive as to believe that corporate sponsorship of art exhibitions—or any other cultural programs, for that matter—is ever entirely cost-free. But too little attention, I think, is given to what the actual cost might be both to the cultural institutions which receive the funding and to the public which is supposed to be the primary beneficiary of the sponsor’s largess. In the case of public television, for example, we have seen the whole idea of a “noncommercial” medium give way to one in which it is now taken for granted that commercial messages—and sometimes quite elaborate ones—will now be the norm. We seem, alas, to be moving in that direction in the museum world, too. Hence the featured presence of Donald Sutherland at a press lunch for a Gauguin exhibition, for in the advertising business making use of show-business celebrities to plug a company name has long been a standard practice. For museums to lend themselves to this practice is not a happy augury.

II. Separating the art from the legend of the artist

When we turn to the actual exhibition—the largest, apparently, ever to be devoted to the artist’s work—we are reminded, alas, that it was Gauguin himself who was the first to set this process of mythification in motion, and this makes the task of separating the art from the legend of the artist at once more difficult and more imperative.1 As Françoise Cachin writes in her splendid essay for the catalogue of the exhibition: “The hero of his own history, [Gauguin] also saw himself as the hero of painting of his age, which seemed to him decadent.” It is important to keep this notion of the decadence of the age firmly in mind in thinking about Gauguin, for it is one of the keys to the artist’s desperation as well as to his achievement. It can be said, of course, that every great modern painter has seen himself as “the hero of painting in his age, which [seems] to him decadent,” and to the extent that this is true, Gauguin was certainly one of the principal figures who created this role for the modern artist. It is a role, moreover, that manifests itself in the work as well as in the legend. For the pressure to make every painting—every drawing and print and sculpture, too—count as a radical revelation; the horror of backsliding into something merely familiar and already accomplished; the sense of engaging in a fierce competition not only with one’s contemporaries but also with one’s predecessors and one’s posterity; above all, the determination to make of art something absolute and ideal, something from which all the chaff of common experience and conventional feeling has been once and for all time expunged, leaving only the purest aesthetic essence, or what Gauguin himself often called “the abstract,” to be experienced in the created object: in all this we are made to feel not only the harrowing and all but impossible nature of the task that the artist set for himself but the role that each fresh assault on the creative enterprise was obligated to play in bringing that task to a triumphant realization.

Not every attempt at the task succeeded, to be sure—not in Gauguin’s case nor in anyone else’s; but the unremitting pressure is there, all the same, even in the paintings that aren’t exactly masterpieces, the paintings that remind us, over and over again, that with Gauguin the will to be a certain kind of artist was at times even more important than either talent or vision in enabling him to accomplish what he did. In the work of almost no other modern painter of comparable stature, indeed, are we made to feel so emphatically or so often the presence of the artist’s will in determining the momentum of his development, the audacity of his ideas, and the quality of even his greatest pictures. This, too, was a matter in which Gauguin served as a model for the future.

It is this sense we so often have in Gauguin of the creation of art as an act of will that leaves us wondering, even in the face of his greatest achievements, if there wasn’t, after all, something rootless and self-determined and artificial in what this renegade from bourgeois life set out to accomplish. Of course it was in the nature of the Symbolist aesthetic that Gauguin so passionately espoused to embrace artifice and indirection as the instruments of revelation, and he was in this respect completely faithful to the spirit of Rimbaud and Mallarme. Yet this impulse to accord to the artist’s will a kind of sacred priority cost Gauguin something as a painter. It is only in an exhibition on this scale that we can see how much remained wwdeveloped and wwresolved in his work—that we can see the profusion of ideas that were never pursued and the array of possibilities never explored. There are paintings here—and they tend to come earlier rather than later, from the Quarry in the Vicinity of Pontoise (1882) to Fatata te mouà (1892)—out of which other painters, and I mean other great painters, might have made entire careers (and in some cases actually did). That fear of lapsing into the kind of decadence he most despised won for Gauguin his many artistic victories, but did he entirely escape the shadow of the decadence he so greatly dreaded? As a painter, I don’t think he did. Which is why, I suppose, that in the end painting alone could not satisfy his aspiration. The last paintings of Gauguin are by no means his best or most original work: that is another lesson of this vast exhibition. In the end he had to turn to words—and to the kind of printed images that are much akin to words—to make his final avowals. The sheer exertion of will could no longer make the art of painting its most direct or satisfactory instrument.

The last paintings of Gauguin are by no means his best or most original work.

Still, Gauguin emerges from this exhibittion as a greater painter than some of us, at least, had thought him to be in the past. He was not what I would call a natural painter. He never commanded the kind of fluency we find in Pissarro and Monet and Degas and Picasso and Matisse. He could take nothing for granted, and there was never anything relaxed or easy in his work—not even in the Impressionist pictures, which sometimes have the character of a lesson to be mastered, a test to be met before he could be released to pursue a vision of his own. He is also an artist who tends to look better and stronger when seen, as he is in this retrospective, in isolation and on a great scale than he usually does in the company of his contemporaries. While his ideas were sometimes profound and even prophetic, his art—dare one say it?—was sometimes shallow, aesthetically shallow in a way that Cézanne’s, for example, never was. All of which makes Gauguin an odd kind of classic—an artist who can never quite be relied upon to be great, but who was great often enough to make his place among the masters a persuasive proposition if not always an absolute conviction.

Is it finally possible to separate the art from the legend of the artist? I am not sure that it is. For Gauguin will always remain the painter-laureate of all those members of the middle class, wherever they may be, who harbor the illusion that what is “primitive” or distant or alien—whether it is found in faraway islands and what is now called the Third World or in the underclass of our own society or in our own most cherished fantasies—is somehow more real and certainlyless decadent than the common realities of bourgeois life. That this standard of the real is, in the end, itself an illusion does nothing to diminish its appeal, and while that appeal persists Gauguin will remain its poet.

  1.   “The Art of Paul Gauguin” was shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington from May I to July 31, and is currently on view—September 17 to December 11—at the Art Institute of Chicago. It moves to the Grand Palais in Paris from January 10 to April 20, 19S9. The curators of the exhibition arc Françoise Cachin, director of the Musée d’Orsay; Claire Freches, curator of painting at the Musée d’Orsay; Richard Brctcll, formerly curator of European painting at the Art Institute of Chicago and now director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Art; and Charles Stuckey, formerly on the staff of the National Gallery and now curator of twentieth-century painting and sculpture at the Art Institute. The 519-page catalogue produced by this team of curators is available in hardcover at $59.95 and in paperback at $29.95.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 Number 2, on page 1
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