For all his questing, boastful talk, Paul Gauguin lived a blighted life. It came to a premature end 100 years ago in the Marquesas islands in a two-storey hut Gauguin had dubbed the “House of Pleasure.” By the last few months of his life, it reeked so badly from the rotting sores on the artist’s ulcerated leg that hardly anyone would go near him. Vaeoho Marie-Rose, his pregnant, 14-year-old Marquesan “wife,” had left him nine months previously to return to her father, a Marquesan chief.
In the House of Pleasure were a harmonium, a violin, some of Gauguin’s own pictures, a prized collection of 45 pornographic photographs, and various reproductions of western and oriental art. A multi-panelled carving above the entrance to his studio announced: Soyez amoureuses et vous serez heureuses (“Be amorous and you will be happy”).
One shudders to think what kind of amorousness Gauguin thought he was capable of at the time he carved it. He had a laudanum habit. He had deliberately taken an arsenic overdose five years previously, which failed to kill him. He suffered eye infections and fainting fits, and he had heart trouble. He was destitute. Rats had gnawed his roof and many of his works had been eaten by cockroaches. A favourite – albeit abandoned – child had died in Denmark. And the cause of Gauguin’s eventual death was slow-moving syphilis, which he probably contracted from a prostitute in Martinique on his very first “exotic” adventure in 1887.
The 100th anniversary of the awful end to Gauguin’s mostly thwarted life is being celebrated in Paris with a blockbuster exhibition of his Tahitian paintings. It is, despite all the misgivings one may reasonably have about the man, a beautiful, vivid show. Something about Gauguin continues to be compelling, although it is very hard to say what.
While there is so much in Gauguin’s art to talk about, there is little to hold aloft as indisputably great. In Tahiti, where he painted and carved his best works, he honed a remarkable synthesis of styles and influences. The result was a flickering interplay of robust innovation and flimsy derivation. Nonetheless, the innovations and something about Gauguin’s mood, his rhetoric, his desire to get back to a tabula rasa, were influential for some time after the artist’s death. Even today, when the rhetoric sounds hollow, it is hard to deny the works’ peculiar, dreamy beauty.