Original Pranksters

by by Alexandra Corrigan

//September Gauguin Exhibit Invites New, Sillier Perspective on Post-Impressionists//

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="630" caption="“I think,” he bragged, “it is a pretty bit of painting.” -P.Gauguin"][/caption]

The largest collection of Paul Gauguin’s works will be showcased later this month in the Tate Modern Museum’s blockbuster: “Gauguin: From Money Man to Myth Maker.” The title deceives. Gauguin and his friends – the Post-Impressionists – are by no means former “Money Men,” but instead can now reliably command unprecedented audiences at their exhibitions and prices at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Their “myth-making” has enjoyed a uniquely exponential resurgence in interest from both scholars and public alike in the last thirty years. Why does this movement and its makers particularly fascinate, rather than the more skilled Impressionists or the wilder Modernists? Clues into their personal lives breed a new understanding that they were perhaps more ironic and tricky than traditionally assumed. And the still-growing success of their works demonstrates a particularly contemporary desire for this traditional, male-bravado inspired trickery in painting.
The exhibit begins at the Tate before venturing to the National Gallery of Art in D.C. It highlights Gauguin’s self-imposed exile, revering his self-created “myth” of the enigmatic, solitary genius. Caroline Boyle-Turner, an expert biographer on Gauguin, locates contemporary scholarship on his work, which frequently used exoticism and Christian imagery: “he was precocious with a reverence for primitive art styles.” The paintings and his personal life tell a different story than this traditional celebration of his exotic “poetic narrative.”

Gauguin and his contemporaries – including Serusier, Cezanne, and Van Gogh – all cultivated successful reputations as solitary, transcendental wunderkinds. They all left Paris to hole up in artistic communes for years in the 1880s, basically, in order to hang out, get drunk off cheap wine, and sometimes vacation at their friends’ communes. These men were young – ranging from nineteen to thirty-something years old. New research on this era’s artists’ social lives is starting to debunk their “solitary artistic genius” myth. Locally, a new exhibit at Clark University maps Degas’s influence on Picasso. Van Gogh’s newly published letters have generated huge amounts of inquiry. In the French countryside, he and Gauguin spent months with each other, huffing turpentine and fighting like siblings. Most notably, exhibitions of a group of post-Impressionists called Les Nabis and their influence shows how silly these art communes really were.
Les Nabis, a group of painterly friends, had close contact with Serusier and Gauguin. Pranksters with a little bit of money and a lot of bravado swapped each others’ esoteric ideas. They made spectacles of vague references to Eastern religions and parodies of each other’s work. Them and other post-Impressionists outside of Paris often visited each other for months, devolving into alcoholism and painting each other as absurdist biblical figures and tongue-in-cheek peasants. Paul Ranson even sold a large reproduction of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” to a Brittany museum, using his buddies as models for the disciples.
The boys shared flats in Paris so they could deliver some works to the galleries; these works, while fun, drunk art-camp exercises for them, were received as inaccessibly brilliant contemporary works. It would be absurd to think they weren’t in on this joke: Les Nabis, for one example, ironically and irreverently named their Parisian party-pad “The Temple.” A quick color sketch by Serusier nailed to their wall was the “alter,” and the sketch, “The Talisman,” reminding them to paint to the point of absurdity. The fact that it now hangs in the Musee D’Orsay with an estimated worth of tens of millions, either indicts the art world as easily deceived or speaks to the Post-Impressionists impressive art-trickery.
The hype surrounding Gauguin’s upcoming show demonstrates the impact these young men had, and the power of their tricky marketing genius. Gauguin, in particularly, irreverently used potent symbolic tropes (noble savagery, Christian imagery, etc) to pander to his friends’ irreverence and his buyers’ beliefs. Still, he subverted the figures by painting these precious subjects bizarrely and even badly. They lay flat, two-dimensional in strange and condescendingly constructed juxtapositions. While the new exhibit seeks to highlight Gauguin’s love of folklore and “primitive” tropes, the paintings really show the absurd degree he to away with capitalizing and deconstructing these stories. In “Vision After the Sermon,” one of his most famous works, he depicts a scene from the bible where Jacob wrestles an Angel. Instead, however, he paints it as if a delusional vision from a religious peasant with richly absurd colors. In another work, “Yellow Christ,” Gauguin transplants a flattened, almost comic Crucifixion scene onto workers in a hay-field. Turner-Boyle, along traditional art historian lines, describes his depictions of “religious life” in Brittany as “reverent.” Yet his exoticism of rural peasants and subtle ironic tricks no longer seem so subtle.

The Tate, anticipating the mad rush, started pre-selling tickets to its Gauguin show months ago. Despite the recession, audited socialites still sell off brand name, late 1800s wall décor for unprecedented sums (to hedge-fund managers). The sums don’t come from nowhere. The value of these works has exploded in the last twenty years. In that time, Van Gogh has sold three out of the top ten most expensive paintings ever sold – each over $100 million. Within the last ten years, a Cezanne sold for $79.2 million. Some of Gauguin’s works were estimated at $40-50 million in 2004. Fascination with Gauguin and his comrades seems to only grow; their tenuously ironic paintings do command some degree of this attention. Most successfully, however, their self-aggrandizing marketing has been their real staying power.
Young and fun rogue men, they were not naïve to the power of a painterly mystique. Painting commands, more than any other art form, a tradition of celebrity-culture intrigue both in and out of the art-world. The public develops more than simple investigations into their techniques and inspirations. Historians and spectators speculate on their everyday life, attempting to understand what kind of genius they had—and how they accessed it. Even cynics or the uninterested speculate on their self-important grandeur, and why these people deserve to be looked at.
Perhaps a contemporary desire for celebrities’ rise and fall has revitalized the fascination with Gauguin. The man, as the Tate’s exhibit reads, made myths. The only one he didn’t simply steal and subvert, though, was himself. Boyle Turner, describes his “savage in the woods” act as “completely made-up.” The precursor to Warhol’s tactics, his life became his art, delusional and completely unrelated to reality. The exhibition will house an entire room of Gauguin’s prolific self-portraits, including some depicting himself as Christ: While he suffered from syphilis, old age and poverty, he still sent back vibrant self-portraits of himself as a saintly stud, colonizing various new landscapes. The other figures, besides his buds, are depicted as plebeians compared to his architectural bone structure. Eventually, in his own state of delusional, silly and self-manufactured grandeur, he donned himself a creator of culture – Tahiti. Travelling there late in life, he sought out the “exotic” in a place already colonized by Europeans. While not spending time with his new young wives, he painted a version of Tahiti he had only just read about in a European anthropologist’s book. He marketed a false naivety, using Tahitian culture as currency. In Boyle-Turner’s words, “Well, at least he was successful. He has a cruise-ship named after him.”
So where does contemporary reverence for the celebrity painters-cum-sardonic tricksters lie? Large-scale traveling exhibits create new, younger academic and artistic ripples. Younger ideas should use contemporary savvy and irreverent attitude towards new art as a lens for the post-Impressionists. Because, at least in America, art has been what you can get away with for forty years. It’s time to question how new this idea really is.

ALEXANDRA CORRIGAN B’12 spent the summer studying and working in Gauguin’s former art colony in France.