Do great artists have a divine right to behave piggishly in the unswerving pursuit of their art? Do they have a divine right to take advantage of their friends’ affections, their cash, even their homes? Do they have a divine right to subjugate all personal relationships to their own personal karma? In most people’s eyes, Paul Gauguin lived the archetypal artist’s life. He was a monomaniac, determined and exploitative. He turned his back on society, was misunderstood, didn’t care a fig. His work was undervalued and often reviled. But the truth is that Gauguin was far from archetypal. Most artists live much more humdrum lives. And if our image of most artists’ lives is more than somewhat romantic, even our image of Gauguin himself is about to come in for a bashing. For David Sweetman’s spiffing new biography, Paul Gauguin: A Complete Lie, gives the lie to many of the more febrile myths which surround that great surrogate savage.
Most of the myths derive from Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, which was a crummy book because it reduced a very complex life to ludicrous simplicities. Gauguin was an oxymoron personified. He did not, for example, ditch his wife and children and forget them. Far from it. He missed his children dreadfully, and almost to the end dreamed of reuniting his family. He was not a conventional businessman who was suddenly bedazzled by Art; he came from quite a distinguished, though latterly impoverished, political and artistic background. He did not ignore criticism and reject all social pressures: he desperately sought adulation and worked doggedly at his own public relations. He strove constantly, as Pissarro put it, to ‘get himself elected a man of genius, and how skilfully he went about it’. He was not oblivious to money and material wealth. On the contrary, he worried about money incessantly, and much enjoyed the good things in life when he could afford them; many of his most bitter rows with his wife were about dosh – typical family fracas.
Gauguin was, in other words, in many ways much more ordinary than the mythology surrounding him would have us believe. But he was also, of course, a driven man, a monumental egotist, a genius. And it is this constant conflict between his conventional wants and his irresistible demon that Sweetman brings out so well. Eschewing all the established wisdom – he does have a slightly irritating tendency towards smug self-congratulation every time he demolishes a widely held misapprehension – Sweetman has gone back to basics. He has carried out an immense amount of original research, personally visited almost everywhere Gauguin lived, and condensed it all into a nimbly written, engagingly readable book.
Gauguin, like most of us, dreamed of a simple life where he could do what he liked – in his case paint – without complications, responsibilities or interference. He was repeatedly drawn to Brittany and Tahiti, the places which inspired his finest canvases and both at that time fairly isolated, unspoilt, primitive. But not totally isolated, unspoilt or primitive. So they did not quite fulfil the dream – probably because he never truly wanted the dream fulfilled. He went away, as Pissarro implied, to impress his fellow artists, not to spurn them. Like his relationship with his wife and children, it was another internal contradiction, another way in which he tore himself apart.
None of this detracts from Gauguin’s standing as a heroic romantic and an artistic colossus. On the contrary, had he been as he is generally portrayed – just an ambitious, blinkered narcissist – he would have been a lesser man, and a lesser painter. His struggles with his conscience, with his loneliness and with his poverty imbue both him and his works often with nobility, often with greatness.
David Sweetman provides the keys to understanding Gauguin’s apparently self-contradictory, picaresque life. Yes, great artists are indeed different from you and me, but not because they are selfish screwballs. To paraphrase Hemingway, they have more talent.