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