Paul Gauguin

Why I Believe in God by Chris Hall

Paul Gauguin,  The Yellow Christ , 1889.

Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ, 1889.

“Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense.  It is like the religious search for God.” - Gerhard Richter.

“Art is not a substitute religion: it is a religion (in the true sense of the word: 'binding back', 'binding' to the unknowable, transcending reason, transcendent being).  But the church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental, and of making religion real – and so art has been transformed from a means into the sole provider of religion: which means religion itself.” - Gerhard Richter.

For most of my life I can honestly say that I have experienced more bad than good.  My life has been marked by suffering in such a way that if I am ever fortunate to finally meet with some success, I fear I may never be able to enjoy it.  Often times it seems to me that my life ledger is grossly out of balance.  In such circumstances, how does one carry on?  Who do we hold accountable for disastrous fate?  Even Van Gogh threw in the towel eventually and clocked out of this mortal coil.  I think I carry on out of some kind of animalistic urge, akin to what Schopenhauer describes as “The Will.”  It is a stubborn kind of thing, and it has prevented me from doing harm to myself in my weaker moments.  At times like this, when I am at my worst, when it feels as if all my inner being is on fire and stuck in a perpetual, howling scream, I suddenly I remember why I believe in God.  Only someone with total omnipotence and omnipresence would have the dedicated time and strength to commit to making my entire life one living Hell.  This is why I say, believe in God, but do not trust.

“...Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition.” - Graham Greene.  

“Art is the highest form of hope.” - Gerhard Richter.

But there is another reason why I believe in God.  I trace it back to my youth and the old romantic in me.  It is buried deep, and sometimes I have to dig for it, but I know that a more benevolent God can be found in Nature and in Art.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed, as Saint Augustine suggests, squarely in the hands of mankind.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed on the electric chemistry of my brain.  John Milton tells us in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”  This is true, to an extent, but this does not account for the undeniable amount of bad fortune that has has been my lot, only my reception of it.  I have many questions about life, suffering, and the fate of mankind.  Reading, writing, making art are my attempts at trying to find answers to these questions, though I confess I have, for the most part, come up empty handed.  Many of my questions remain unanswered.  At least the process is cathartic, and has, at times, given me peace.  Perhaps the process of making art is God's mercy.  Perhaps God is trying to redeem us through Art.

Paul Gauguin,  Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ , 1890.

Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ, 1890.

“Now there are no priests or philosophers left, artists are the most important people in the world.”   Gerhard Richter.

Considering some of Richter's other comments on the connection between religion and art, namely that art is a religion, I think it might be safe to say that in the quote above, Richter is suggesting that artists could, and perhaps should, take on the role of both priest and philosopher.  In the West at least, I feel that there has been a growing doubt in the power of organized religion to solve our modern woes, and a growing doubt that an omnipotent, omnipresent, and benevolent God may exist at all.  If these people are like myself, they may have questions that they would like answered, or at least would like the solace that can only be found in beauty.  Artists, then, can take up the role left behind by priests and philosophers.  I think this might be a noble calling, maybe even more noble than using art as a political prop, but certainly more noble than using art as an entertainment tool, or an advertisement for a product.

Henri Rousseau by Chris Hall

Henri Rousseau,  Self Portrait of the Artist with a Lamp , 1900.

Henri Rousseau, Self Portrait of the Artist with a Lamp, 1900.

Henri Rousseau was a French Post Impressionist painter who worked in the so called “Naive” or “Primitive” style (I don't care for these terms, as they imply a negative connotation to me).  Rousseau was known by his nickname, “Le Douanier,” meaning “the Customs Officer,” for his occupation as a toll collector for the government.  Rousseau always aspired, in vain, to win the recognition of the conventional, Academic Art establishment.  For his efforts he was ridiculed in the press and by critics, who were prejudiced toward him because of his lack of a formal arts education.  Toward the end of his life, his work was appreciated by fellow art outsiders Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh, and would be held in high esteem by future generations of avant-garde artists, most notably the young Pablo Picasso.

Rousseau was a late bloomer and picked up the paint brush for the first time around the age of 40.  He was encouraged in his painting by his neighbor, the artist Felix Clement, who managed to obtain a license for Rousseau to make copies of art at the Louvre and other galleries.  In 1884 Rousseau submitted his work to the official Salon, but was rejected.  They found his paintings to be childlike and naive, lacking perspective and proportion.  But this would be only the first rejection, in a long career of many rejections from the traditional art establishment.

In 1886, Rousseau submitted work to the first Salon des Independants.  Rousseau would participate in the Salon des Independants every year between 1886 and 1910, except the ones in 1899 and 1900.  Anyone could participate in the Salon des Independants, as long as they paid the exhibition fee, and it quickly became a refuge for revolutionary and under-appreciated artists.  Rousseau's work would hang along side many other struggling artists, namely Georges Seurat, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent Van Gogh.

In 1888, Rousseau's first wife, Clemence, died at the young age of 37, of tuberculosis.  The memory of her would figure greatly in much of his future work.  In Promenade in the Forest of Saint-Germain, which he finished in 1890, Clemence is seen alone in the woods where they once liked to go on Sunday walks.  Her hand covers her heart, signifying passion or love, and the branch above her head, which is conspicuously cut off, might signify death.  Clemence is looking back with longing, but she must go on alone, leaving behind Rousseau and the children.  Promenade in the Forest of Saint-Germain was shown at the Salon des Independant, but because of its special meaning, it was not listed for sale.

Henri Rousseau often painted exotic jungle scenes populated with strange plants and animals.  While Rousseau did serve in the Army during the French incursion in Mexico, he was left stateside during the affair.  In fact, Rousseau never left France during his entire life; he was inspired to make his jungle paintings from his frequent visits to the Paris Zoo and the botanical gardens.  In 1890's there was a growing interest within the European public for exotic scenes from the tropics.  The late 19th century was the height of colonialist imperialism, and people were curious about the overseas territories that they felt belonged to them.  The darker aspects of colonialism, its exploitation of people and resources, was then unknown to most people back home.

Rousseau's first jungle landscape, Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) was exhibited in 1891 in the Salon des Independants, and found a small, receptive audience.  Simultaneously, Paul Gauguin was making art in Tahiti, and British author Rudyard Kipling was publishing the first of many stories and poems about India.  Despite the public's new interest in exotic subject matter, the critics were particularly savage, and once again ridiculed his work for what they perceived as an amateurish style.  In response, he would abandon the jungle landscape genre for some time.

In 1893, Rousseau asked for permission to retire early from the Customs House to paint full-time.  He was 49.  Rousseau's superiors and fellow workers had long supported him in his pursuit of painting, giving him the lighter work and  allowing him to paint while on the job.  His resignation was accepted and Rousseau moved with his family to the Montparnasse district in Paris, where he quickly established a studio.  Montparnasse, with its cheap rents and bohemian culture, would soon become famous for its population of young, struggling artists from around the world.

During all of the 1890's Rousseau continued to seek official patronage.  In 1893 he wrote a letter to the President of the Republic seeking assistance, and was rejected.  In 1898 he offered his painting, The Sleeping Gypsy, to the mayor of Laval for a considerable sum of money.  His offer was rejected.  In the same year, he submitted his plans for the decoration of the Vincennes Town Hall, and was rejected.  Two years later, in 1900, Rousseau offered to paint the Asnieres Town Hall, but was once again, rejected.

Rejected by the official art establishment and continually rebuffed in his attempts to find patronage and public commissions, Rousseau soon began to run into financial problems and he accumulated debts.  To make ends meet, he took up work as a part-time salesman for the Le Petit Journal, offered drawing lessons, and occasionally worked as a street musician.  Rousseau was a talented violinist and even managed to have a waltz he wrote for his first wife, Clemence, published by the Literary and Musical Academy of France. 

One day in 1908, a young Pablo Picasso was out shopping at the Père Soulier when he came across a stack of canvases being sold as work to be repainted over.  One of the paintings was a work by Henri Rousseau.  Picasso loved the painting and bought the canvas for five francs.  He did not see the work as amateurish and childlike, he saw it as charmingly nonconformist, as something unsullied by academia.  Rousseau had always tried to establish himself as a traditional painter, yet it was Picasso and the avant-garde artists, those rebelling against the academic tradition, who ended up championing his work.

Picasso tracked Rousseau down and introduced him to his social circle.  Some in his circle thought the untrained Rousseau a joke, a bumbling, old, naive curiosity, but Picasso and his friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, held genuine affection for him and his work.  Later that year, Picasso even hosted banquet for him in his honor.  Rousseau had always considered himself to be a traditional painter, not an avant-garde iconoclast.  Despite the constant rejection and ridicule, he tried hard to impress himself into academic and bourgeois society.  Still, Rousseau was happy that someone, finally, appreciated his work.  Rousseau would die shortly thereafter, in 1910, but his work would live on to become influential to several generations of avant-garde artists, including Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky, the Surrealists, and the poets Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath.

Early Influence: Edvard Munch by Chris Hall

Edvard Munch was a Norwegian painter and printmaker born December 12, 1863.  The themes of much of his work include love, anxiety, infidelity, sexual humiliation, and separation in life and death.  His work is viewed as an exemplar of the fin-de-siècle anxiety and apocalyptic attitudes of the time as they show not physical reality, but psychological reality.  

Munch believed himself born into a cursed family.  Munch’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, and his sister Sophie died of the same in 1877.  Munch himself was often ill and spent a lot of time away from school.  Supported by his father, who was a medical officer in the military, the Munch family grew up poor, and they frequently moved from one small apartment to another.  Mental illness also ran in the family.  Another of Munch’s sisters was diagnosed at a young age, and Munch would later spend 8 months in a hospital in 1908.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Munch needed art to help explain suffering.  Munch would write, “In my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.”  Munch’s choice to be an artist was not supported by his father or his community, who frowned upon his bohemian and non-traditional ways.  Munch began by painting in a more Impressionist style, and based on his talent his secured a scholarship in France, where he would see the work of Gauguin and Van Gogh.  Both became very influential on his work. His new work showed signs of what would be later called Expressionism.  His stated goal was "the study of the soul, that is to say the study of my own self.”  At first Munch sold very little, but managed to make a little money by charging entrance fees to people who just wanted to see his controversial paintings.  He was also a little loath to part with his work, which he called “his children,” because he viewed his whole body of work to be a single expression.  In order to make sales he began transcribing his work into wood-block prints and lithographs.

In 1893 Munch painted The Scream, generally thought to represent the universal anxiety of modern man.  Concerning the genesis of the work Munch would write:  

"I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature."

He later described the personal anguish behind the painting, "for several years I was almost mad… You know my picture, 'The Scream?' I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again."

Munch met with some success, particularly in Berlin with his Frieze of Life exhibition in 1902.  Of this time in his life Munch would write in his journal, "After twenty years of struggle and misery forces of good finally come to my aid in Germany—and a bright door opens up for me."  Life seemed to be finally going well for Munch, and he even almost married the wealthy and “liberated” Tulla Larsen, but Munch’s self-destructive and erratic behavior caught up with him and he began to spiral out of control.  There were heavy drinking, fights with other artists, and even an accidental shooting that lead to Munch losing the use of his middle finger on this left hand.  

In the autumn of 1908, Munch began to hallucinate and hear voices.  His anxiety and depression, compounded by heavy drinking, finally forced him to enter a hospital under the care of Dr. Daniel Jacobson, who prescribed for him a new form of electroshock therapy.  He stayed in the hospital for 8 months before being released.  Meanwhile, Munch’s work was beginning to be appreciated abroad.  He had a show in the United States and even conservative Norway started to warm to his work.  Munch could finally return to Oslo and support his remaining family.  As shown in his 1909 painting The Sun, Munch’s Dark Night of the Soul was over.  

After his stay in the hospital, many felt Munch’s work changed.  Art history would show that much of his great work was behind him.  World War I saw Munch’s loyalties divided.  He loved France, but many of his friends were German.  He nearly died in the Spanish Influenza pandemic, but would survive to make more art for two more decades.  In the 1930’s Hitler’s Germany declared Munch’s art to be degenerate, and removed his work (82 of his paintings) from all their museums.  His German patrons, many Jewish, lost their fortunes and some their lives when the Nazis came to power.  Fortunately for Munch, he began to find new patrons in Norway.  Most of Munch’s work would avoid the flames and would be sold back to Norway.  

In 1940, the Germans invaded Norway and the Nazi party took over the government. Munch was 76 years old.  Norway’s Nazi puppet government offered Munch the figurehead position of its Honorary Board of Norwegian Artists. Munch refused and the Board was dropped.  With nearly an entire collection of his art in the second floor of his house, Munch lived in fear of a Nazi confiscation.  Munch died near Oslo in January of 1944.  He was 80.  Munch bequeathed his estate and all the paintings, prints, and drawings in his possession to the city of Oslo, who would erect a museum for him in 1963.  In a strange twist of fate, the Nazis in Norway hijacked Munch’s corpse, and instead of a simple burial in a family plot, Munch was given a state funeral with gigantic Nazi insignia and flags, giving the people of Oslo the impression that Munch was a Nazi sympathizer, which he clearly was not. 

Edvard Munch was very influential on my own work as a young artist and student.  I would honor his approach to painting as path toward self-examination and discovery.  I was not interested in physical realism, but psychological realism.  I would even emulate his style, using his sinuous, radiating line work and his apocalyptic color in some of my paintings.  Although Munch informed much of my early work, I would like to think I have grown away from making work based solely on my own reality.  I still create artwork for my own self-discovery, but I also want to be critical of my times as well.  Hopefully this new work will fare better than Munch’s work after 1909.  

"Art" by Herman Melville by Chris Hall

Paul Gauguin,  The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) , 1888.

Paul Gauguin, The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888.

Art

by Herman Melville

In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.


Melville is, of course, referencing the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel, a strange story found in Genesis 32: 22-32.  I’ve always loved Herman Melville’s writing.  Perhaps best known for his novel, Moby Dick, his writing is peppered with scatological and dark humor, only to suddenly shift to something highly philosophical or spiritually transcendent.  How right he is about art requiring the use of opposites . . .  humility and pride, instinct and study, love and hate, audacity and reverence.  The process of making art can be quite a struggle.  In the visual arts it can be reflected in physical technique (use of warm and cool colors, for example), studio practice thought and attitude, philosophy, and subject matter.  It might not be a full contact sport, but making art is definitely a form of wrestling.  Incidentally, did you know that Art was an Olympic sport for the seven games between 1912 and 1948?  

Gauguin: Imagined Paradise by Chris Hall

A successful businessman, Gauguin soon rejected bourgeois values to paint full-time.  His family, his wife of eleven years and their five children, rejected his new lifestyle and asked him to leave.  Like his friend Van Gogh, Gauguin was susceptible to depression, and he had on at least one occasion attempted suicide.  Despite his desire to become a success in the Paris art world, in 1891 Gauguin sailed to Tahiti, in order to escape European civilization with “everything that is artificial and conventional.”  

Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From?  Who Are We?  Where Are We Going?, 1897

Gauguin seeks a romanticized paradise in Tahiti, but he quickly finds the realities of living as an artist abroad overpowering his imagined paradise.  Imported art supplies are expensive, the locals were willing to model for him in exchange for gifts, but they do not accept him, and no one in Tahiti will buy his work.  Despite living frugally, he suffers from financial worries and attempts suicide by drinking arsenic in 1897. Finding Tahiti too expensive, he leaves for the Marquesas Islands.  Soon Gauguin gets into legal trouble for taking the natives’ side against French colonialists and on 27 March 1903 Gauguin is charged with libeling the Islands’ governor.  He is fined 500 francs and sentenced to three months in prison.  Upon appeal, he had his sentence reduced to 500 francs and one month in prison.  On 8 May 1903, before he could serve his time in prison, Gauguin dies from a morphine overdose at the age of 54.  

Paul Gauguin, c 1895

Paul Gauguin, c 1895

While Gauguin was a little more successful in the Paris art world than his friend Van Gogh, he never really broke through.  Acknowledgement of the importance of his work would come after his death.  Both Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s work would come to heavily influence the next generation of Modern artists, including both Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

In an effort to devalue his work, much has been made about Gauguin’s life abroad.  Deconstructionalists are now looking at his life and work through the lens of post-colonialism and feminism.  Some have even argued that despite his championing of native rights against colonialist incursion, his presence on the island alone is enough to condemn him.  Others have made much about Gauguin’s abandoning his family.  He never abandoned his family, he was asked to leave, and even then, he kept in contact with them until his death.  In many ways Gauguin was a terrible man, his temperament, excessive drinking, and bullying of his friends are recorded, but perhaps the one thing that we can find to irrecoverably stain Gauguin’s life is his taking of an underage mistress while living on Tahiti.  Yes, we can find this deplorable, but I do not think it is enough to damn the work he produced.  While the artist’s life and the artist’s work sometimes inhabit the same time and place, it is important to remember that they are in fact, two different spheres.  You can’t simply damn the artwork for the sins of the artist.

Below are some of my favorite works by Paul Gauguin.  Click the image to enlarge.