Tuesday, July 31, 2018

SIX: Varia

As we have seen, Odilon Redon gradually reinvented himself over the course of some twenty years. Eventually, he discarded the gloomy, sometimes alarming mode of the noirs, for a resplendent new manifestation, the vehicle of an almost orgasmic color. Even during the transition period when they chronologically overlapped, the two modes remained distinct, despite some ill-advised aftertouches aimed at “gingering up” charcoal works by adding color ex post facto.

Put another way, Redon began as a melancholic, ensconced “under Saturn,” as the traditional appellation goes. Then he turned into a Jovian. (In French the name Redon can be interpreted as re-don, a regiving. Or, as they say on Broadway, he was a “twofer.”)

In this transformation extra-personal factors played a role. Together with his nation, the artist experienced a deep pessimism in the ‘seventies, following the loss of Franco-Prussian war. Yet the following decade saw a general lightening of many artists’ palettes (as Van Gogh’s spectacular shift from the browns of the “Potato Eaters” phase to Arlesian saturated color attests).).

Looked at overall, then, Redon shows a creative bipolarism. It is as if two personalities dwelt in his body, one in the earliest phases the latter in the closing decades. For a time, cohabitation even occurred.

Avoiding the temptation to clinical labeling, which would be inappropriate, it is worth looking briefly at some comparative cases. Vassily Kandinsky’s first abstract style was gestural. After he joined the Bauhaus he remained abstract, but virtually reversed his style, which became hard-edge. 

The case of the American artist Philip Guston is even more striking. His subtle abstractions yielded to an assertive cartoonish style. Guston’s daughter suggests that he was exorcising some inner demons. As with Kandinsky, though perhaps more so, we tend to prefer the earlier work, sometimes hazarding the view that “I wish he hadn’t done that.”

A final instance is the career of Paul Cézanne. His romantic phase, typified by “The Murder” of ca. 1867 evolved into what we think of as the “real Cézanne,” exemplified by the bathers of the 1890s. This instance is different from the other two. The romantic canvases can be regarded as tyro work. Here the underlying assumption is that an artist, like art, progresses. In this way the artist’s early indiscretions can be excused, because he is just finding his way. 

Critics, dealers, and connoisseurs seem to concur in urging artists to stick to “their” style, and not to indulge in adventures. It is a little like those rock stars whose fans insist that they give concerts of favorite oldies rather than present new work, which might prove difficult.

Let us return to our subject. In Dorra, Symbolist Art Theories, please read the following pages: 1-11, 35-64, 125-52, and 185-226. These documents provide an important set of period controls for our own efforts. Note in particular G.- Albert Aurier’s 1891 presentation of Gauguin in his essay “Symbolism in Painting: Paul Gauguin.” His five criteria are ideist, symbolist, synthetic, subjective, and decorative.

Before going further, it is necessary to examine two key ideas of wide applicability. They are also particularly relevant to Gauguin.

1) Primitivism. The big MoMA show a generation ago, with its mammoth catalogue, should have been the last work, but it wasn’t. One complaint was that “primitive” art is not primitive; and it is interesting for the ideas it incorporates as well as the form. Formal stimulus was the key to the appropriation performed by Picasso and the German expressionists. -- In art history and criticism the term primitive originally meant pre-Renaissance European art. Lionello Venturi, Ernst Gombrich and others have chronicled the “taste for the primitives.” Typical objects of admiration in this trend were noted in Duccio’s “Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin,” and the Lamentation of Master of the Rohan hours (Lamentation). In privileging design and emotion over realism the primitives were regarded as preferable to Renaissance art. This new approach inverted the earlier art hierarchy. The concept was echoed in the label “Pre-Raphaelite. The whole scheme is a challenge to the idea of progress, for art may devolve instead of evolving. We cannot confidently assume that things will get better and better. They may get worse. (Note the affinitiy with the pejorative idea of decadence. --- Historians of ideas, preeminently Arthur O. Lovejoy, have identified another type of primitivism, which is oriented to social and economic conditions. In this view a more restricted environment may be better than the excess and luxury that tend to come about as a result of economic advances. The simple life is the virtuous life. There are two variants. Hard primitivism occurs when life is hard and challenging, as among, say, the Eskimos and Tuareg of the Sahara. Soft primitivism is when life is easy because of natural abundance. Arcadia (originally a district in Greece) exemplified the European type of soft primitivism. During the 18th century, however, many began to locate it in the South Pacific.

2) Multiculturalism. Like most societies, Europeans tended to ignore or caricature the cultural achievements of other civilizations. A major exception was China. During the 17th and 18th centuries Europe was gripped by enthusiasm for things Chinese that amounted to virtual Sinomania. This admiration had serious consequences in the writings of such thinkers as Leibniz and Voltaire. In art Chinoiserie was a more superficial counterpart. Few European artists had traveled to Asia, and they produced a kind of rococo caricature of Chinese art, which passed for the real thing. Probably, though, all cultural borrowing entails some degree of distortion. We seize upon features that appeal to us, discarding the rest. However, as the realities of the Qing dynasty of the Manchus became better known, the gloss wore off. Then it was the turn of India, as seen in Brighton Pavilion. Then, in the second half of the 19th century Japan became all the rage, as seen in the work of Van Gogh and other artists. All three, China, India, and Japan were acknowledged as “high civilizations.” Generally speaking, societies viewed as less evolved were not eligible for the club. Yet there was one prominent exception, up to a point. That was the Polynesian islands of the South Pacific. Beginning with the reports of the voyages of Cook and Bougainville, some came to regard the South Seas as the earthy paradise (a version of the soft primitivism discussed above. In this happy tropical setting nature provided everything, so there was no need for covetousness and warfare. (These things existed, but Europeans affected not to notice them. There was a stereotype of the sexual availability of Pacific maidens. In this belief we may perhaps detect the origins of the highly dubious practice known today as sexual tourism. At all events the South Seas combined the ideas of abundance, exoticism, and eroticism. 


Aurier notwithstanding, the conventional view is that he is not a Symbolist but a Postimpressionist. The Postimpressionist triumvirate are an oddly matched group, unified neither by style nor by meaning. It is true that Van Gogh and Gauguin were briefly an odd couple, but that does not make a movement. 

At any rate Gauguin’s standing as a Symbolist was present at the creation, so to speak. Critics regarded him as such, and he did not reject the label. More significantly, the sense that his works combine what is said with what is suggested fits the Symbolist bill

Gauguin’s career shows the power of the avant-garde to attract. Wisely or not, he gave up the day job in stock brokering. Immensely conceited, he felt that his genius authorized him to utilize others-—his wife and mistresses, his supporters, even the hapless Vincent Van Gogh-—as instruments, mere appurtenances along his way to ultimate fame and fortune. He fell into the model of the amoral genius. Wagner is the archetypal example in his day. 

Gauguin’s sexual pluralism (perhaps better described by the old term of womanizer) reflected his sense of entitlement, the special privileges that his genius afforded. Since the Renaissance there have been lecherous artists whose pursuit of women became obsessive. All the same, with such figures as Fra Filippo Lippi and Giorgione we would not detect their hypersexuality from their works. With Gauguin it was different. The eroticism, combined with exoticism, is integral to the work. In this affirmation, of course, he was assisted by the aura of the sexual availability of South Pacific women.

A series of self-portraits convey his messianic concept of the artist who “nobly” sacrifices his own material comfort for the good of humanity. Or, as Debra Silverman witheringly remarks, he saw himself as an exalted bandit.

His stays in Brittany were not originally motivated by a quest for the primitive, but were undertaken for the sake of economy and the company of fellow artists. It was a kind of exurban bohemia. Yet once he had had some experience of this least French of French provinces, Gauguin began to savor what he regarded as the archaic in the guise of customs that may have stemmed from the Middle Ages, or even earlier—from Druidic times. In his dress Gauguin affected wooden clogs, imagining that his heavy steps caused Breton primordiality to resound.

“The Vision after the Sermon” is a pivotal work. Not simply an aesthetic achievement, this canvas reflects his interest in redefining religious iconography. Despite a strong dose of cynicism, there is an authentic strand of religious quest in Gauguin. Technically he makes use of two medieval devices: broad areas of unmodulated color and cloisons, the imaginary stays at the edges of his figures.

During his residence with Van Gogh in Arles, Gauguin experienced the attractions of another French area, Provence. This was the era of the “lure of the Mediterranean.” Monet and Van Gogh reflect two aspects of this fascination, which of course many tourists have felt. For Gauguin, however, the Arles stay was but a prelude to his Real South—the nine years spent in French Polynesia.

Analysis of his Tahitian paintings shows that the style rarely features true Polynesian elements. Instead, Gauguin drew upon a stock of images he remembered or purloined from prints he had brought with him. These sources of inspiration were European, Egyptian, and Indonesian, among others. For example, “Ta Matete” with its figures aligned to the picture plane seems to derive from an Egyptian fresco of the 18th Dynasty. “Ia oriana Maria,” a path-breaking indigenization of a standard Christian theme, has two figures taken from a Buddhist relief carving at Borobudur in Java. 

At first Gauguin knew little of Polynesian lore. Much of it had in fact been erased by the work of missionaries, who strove to eradicate remains of heathendom. Yet an old monograph of a writer named Jacques Antoine Moerenhout of 1837 provided him with much information about the Polynesia pantheon and beliefs. Gauguin was much taken with the moon and creation goddess Hina. On these matters see Jehanne Teillet-Fisk, Paradise ReviewedAn Interpretation of Gauguin's Polynesian Symbolism (Ann Arbor, 1983) and the postrumous work of Henri Dorra, forthcoming from the University of California early next year.

Oddly enough, Gauguin does not seem to have made explicit use of the two major Polynesian contributions to our thinking about religion: taboo and mana. The latter, virtually the opposite of taboo, refers to a kind of pervasive sense of the sacred.

The pivotal masterpiece of those years is the big work currently on display at the Vollard Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum: “Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?” The narrative of this canvas unfolds in frieze-like fashion--from the infant on the right to the old woman on the left.

For all of Gauguin’s devotion to the female body, he was occasionally receptive to the charms of the mahu, representatives of the “third sex.” At least two paintings show mahu persons. While the artist seemed to have toyed with the idea of androgyny, the notion of a “Gayguin” seems wide of the mark. On this matter see the somewhat speculative book of Steven Eisenman, Gauguin’s Skirt.

Perhaps the accomplishment of the nine culminating years in Polynesia can be understood in terms of métissage. This expression, current among some literary scholars, stems from the French word métis, mixture. The term may apply to persons whose parents are of two different ethnicities. However, there is a cultural application as well, referring to someone who strives to blend two different cultures.

In the light of this idea Gauguin did not truly succeed in “going native.” In fact he misunderstood some aspects of the Polynesian heritage. But he did succeed in grafting substantial portions of it onto his European base, which he enriched with other components. In doing so he very significantly enlarged the scope of Symbolism by bringing in major elements of non-European origin.


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