Gauguin and the promise of paradise - review by Sue Prideaux

Sue Prideaux

It All Began with a Book

Gauguin and the promise of paradise


In 1888, Vincent van Gogh invited Paul Gauguin to live and paint with him in the ‘Studio of the South’, the Yellow House in Arles. To decorate the house for his guest, he painted his second Sunflowers series, for which he is so famous. Van Gogh was besotted with everything Japanese. His invitation to Gauguin had included a portrait of himself in the guise of a Japanese bōnze (a monk). The frighteningly austere image shows his head shaved, his cheekbones so sharp they practically break the skin, and an intense stare that foreshadows the ear-cutting to come. Van Gogh was skeletally thin. He was a hopeless cook. When Gauguin arrived in late October, he quickly took on the shopping and cooking. ‘He knows how to cook perfectly’, van Gogh wrote wonderingly. He put on weight, but the eyes remained mad; he was already far down the road leading to the asylum. His brother, Theo van Gogh, was Gauguin’s art dealer and gallerist. Theo had rented the house for him in Arles after coming to realise he could no longer stand his crazy brother disrupting his life in Paris. Knowing Gauguin to be penniless, Theo proposed paying him a monthly allowance to go and live with Vincent.

Both van Gogh brothers were in the vanguard of Japonisme. Vincent had brought a large number of Japanese prints (over a hundred) down to Arles. Gauguin studied them greedily and they had a lasting effect on his art, their fragmented treatment of time and space so different to the unifying conventions of the Renaissance.

In van Gogh’s mind, Arles was a stopping point, a halfway house. The Studio of the South was to be merely a precursor to a Studio of Japan – he planned to travel to the country with twelve disciples (all painters) to live in a vaguely religious community. Van Gogh furnished the Yellow House with twelve chairs, to be occupied by his twelve potential disciples. Only two were ever occupied, by Gauguin and himself. These chairs were the subjects of his two famous chair portraits.

Van Gogh’s passion for Japan was stoked by reading Madame Chrysanthème (1887) by Pierre Loti, the nom de plume of Julien Viaud, a French naval officer who wrote bestsellers telling ostensibly true tales of enjoying a nubile girl in every port as he sailed around the world in the service of his country. Loti, who may have been gay, managed to weave a sentimental love story out of each exotic location he visited. Japan, India, China, Polynesia: each provided background colour to novels whose plots tended to run along the same Barbara Cartland-ish lines. Arriving in an unspoiled arcadia brimming with voluptuous ‘nymphs’ of unbridled sexual skills and appetite, Loti would marry one of them. Somehow, he always ended up marrying a girl of thirteen or fourteen (the age of consent in France and the colonies was thirteen, so nobody raised an eyebrow). The nymph would then fall desperately in love with him. Alas! The ship must sail! Loti must abandon his fragrant bride! Heartbroken, she invariably declined for love of him and died in whatever was the picturesque fashion of her nation. Poor Madame Chrysanthème committed ritual suicide in the Japanese tradition. If the story seems familiar, that is because the book was the inspiration for the opera Madame Butterfly, hugely popular then as now, though it is packed with racism, eurocentrism and misogyny.

Van Gogh was not alone in taking Loti’s fantasies for fact. They were commonly seen as such. Loti’s books were widely admired, hugely successful and made him a celebrity. He loved to be photographed swanking about in Eastern robes or in naval uniform, topped with outrageous foreign headgear. His garden follies included a Japanese pagoda and a mosque. Henry James called him a man of genius. His book La Livre de la pitié et de la mort (1891) is said to have influenced Proust. In 1891, he ascended to the realm of the immortals through election to the Académie Française, an honour never accorded his contemporary Zola, who described the real poverty and social injustice of the time. When Loti died in 1923, he was given a state funeral, which is more than Zola ever got.

Van Gogh lent Madame Chrysanthème to Gauguin to encourage him to join him in Japan. They discussed it over long evenings. Theo committed to financing the venture. But all went wrong at Christmas 1888 when Van Gogh cut off his ear and departed for the asylum. Gauguin went back to Paris – but the idea of painting in a more exotic location had been planted in his mind.

The following spring brought the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Around the legs of the newly erected Eiffel Tower sprang grass huts, pagodas, stupas and even a life-sized plaster cast of part of the temple of Angkor Wat. Gauguin gazed at the exotica like a child in a sweet shop. He was entranced by the rituals enacted by troupes of ‘native’ dancers. He sketched the art, collected postcards of artworks and even swiped a plaster statue from the temple replica.


With the Expo, the idea of a ‘studio of the Tropics’ took over from the idea of a studio of Japan. In response to the enticing pamphlets strategically placed around relevant Expo sites, Gauguin applied to the Emigration Society, which had the power to pay the fares to French colonies of ‘useful’ emigrants and provide them with jobs. Gauguin applied to travel to Tonkin, now northern Vietnam, home of the Khmer art that had so enchanted him. He wished to fill the lowliest possible office job there to leave himself plenty of time for studying the temples and monuments. Turned down as not being ‘useful’, he switched his intended destination to Madagascar. Theo again pledged financial support, but less than a month afterwards he went mad. He died in an asylum in January 1891, six months after poor Vincent had shot himself in the stomach and died.

Now Gauguin had to find the money himself. A group of painter-disciples were ready to follow him to the tropics. They included Emile Bernard, Charles Laval and Paul Sérusier, and they called themselves Symbolist-Synthesists. Gauguin saw Bernard as the most stimulating talent.  He really wanted to paint with him. But in a letter to Gauguin, Bernard refused to go anywhere but Tahiti. He had read Loti’s Le mariage de Loti (1878), in which Loti sails to Tahiti and marries a fourteen-year-old Tahitian girl named Rarahu, who suffers the usual fate. Tahiti, Bernard pointed out excitedly, was awash with willing nymphs who did nothing but sing and dance and make love, and if you had a gun you could live there for nothing, shooting wild game, fishing in the lagoon and picking fruit from the tree.

‘Rubbish,’ Gauguin wrote back, ‘Don’t you realise that Loti peddles fantasies?’ Gauguin was one of the few to see through Loti’s books, having travelled to the places Loti wrote about when he was a teenager serving in the French merchant navy. Bernard responded by sending Gauguin the government handbook for emigrants, a work concocted of fantasies, lies and a lot of Loti, designed to encourage citizens to go out to the young colony as merchants, administrators, magistrates and gendarmes, their job to exploit and subjugate the local population, thus destroying the very way of life the booklet hymned. Bernard was insistent. Gauguin gave in.

To raise money for the journey, Gauguin organised a sale of his art at auction. It was preceded by a rumbustious fund-raising banquet attended by anybody who was anybody in the Symbolist world, presided over by the august figure of Mallarmé. The guests included Jean Moréas, author of the impenetrable Symbolist Manifesto of 1886; Albert Aurier, the critic who would write the first important essays on the art of Gauguin and van Gogh; Charles Morice, a poet and critic who never made the front rank in either field but knew everybody and was helpful in promoting Gauguin’s art; the Symbolist painter Eugène Carrière, whose dreamy pictures would inspire Picasso’s Blue Period; and Rodin, endlessly working on The Gates of Hell, the crowning figure of which, The Thinker, symbolised for them all the tortured subjectivism of modern life.

A flurry of articles in the press described Gauguin as the leader of the Symbolist-Synthesists. This made Bernard furious. He thought the title belonged to him. On the eve of the sale, he stormed into the saleroom, publicly denounced Gauguin as an imposter and flounced out of his life forever. His promising talent was never fulfilled and for the rest of his life he nurtured envy and bitterness against Gauguin, whose own response to the tribute was to say that he ‘hated to hear the word synthesist and it gave him a cold sweat to be called a symbolist’. It was his belief that ‘programmes and manifestos place senseless restriction on the freedom of expression that must be the first condition of any creative artist’.

On 1 April 1891, Gauguin departed alone for Tahiti, his destination a result of the influence of a bad book on a credulous mind. There he found the French colonial administration so unjust, cruel and corrupt that he founded his own satirical magazine and became editor-in-chief of a newspaper exposing cases of injustice and denouncing individual administrators. Threatened with prosecution, he eventually fled to Hiva Oa, another French colony, where again he took up the defence of indigenous rights, earning himself a prison sentence for ‘defamation of a gendarme’.

Gauguin introduced the sunflower to Polynesia. He sent to France for sunflower seeds and wherever he lived he planted them in his garden, in memory of his good friend Vincent.

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