Gauguin, self portrait, 1889  

Gauguin, Magician

Hocus pocus, sleight of hand. Starting with the most primary of colors, but mixing it up. Somehow the reds go backward and the blues move forward in space! And while he is at it, he might as well cut the painting in half. His body is at once solid form but also the void behind.

Some might call Gauguin a minor art figure, but I think that he, as much as Cézanne, is the foundation on which modernism is built. He has absorbed the Impressionists: light can flatten space. The Impressionists shatter light; Gauguin solidifies planes into flat color, but those same planes appear forward -- no they are behind. He really is a magician. Gauguin has one foot in the modern. He nods his head to the flatness of the picture plane.

Yet he clutches narrative, the same narrative that dominates western art history. Gauguin paints the traditional subjects: portrait, still life, the occasional landscape, but it is always Gauguin’s spin on these topics, especially on man’s relationship to G-d. Gauguin always raises more questions then he gives answers. In fact many of the titles of his painting are questions, the big questions.

A portrait is more then a face, it reveals the essence of the person. Gauguin’s portraits, specifically his self portraits, allow him the freedom to make judgments. Gauguin is blatant in his choice of symbols to tell the story. He dangles us between the real and the surreal. Gauguin walks between the angel and the devil.

Gauguin walks between two cultures: Europe and the French colonies. He is an outsider to both. Gauguin is intuitive; Gauguin is systematic. Gauguin bounces between the bourgeoisie and the savage beast. No, he won’t look you directly in the eye!

The savage beast won.

—Marjorie Masel
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