Arts & Culture: I've always loved the work of Eug?ne Henri Paul Gauguin. As a post-impressionist artist he sought to distinguish his work from the popular art movement of his predecessors, but an examination of his life experiences also reveals much about the direction his work took. For instance, as a child he lived several years in Peru. This culture was to greatly influence his art and his later life decisions.
One of his most famous works (pictured above ) is titled, "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" It is a complex composition painted while he was living in Tahiti where he went to live after leaving his Danish wife and five children behind in Coppenhagen. His works of that period are filled with exotic portrayals of the native population characterized by exaggerated body proportions, animal totems, geometric designs and stark contrasts as well as quasi-religious symbolism. The cultural elite of Europe were enthralled with the images of raw scenes from faraway places, and this style of art became known as Primitivism.
"This is Gauguin's ultimate masterpiece -- if all the Gauguins in the world, except one, were to be evaporated (perish the thought!), this would be the one to preserve. He claimed that he did not think of the long title until the work was finished, but he is known to have been creative with the truth. The picture is so superbly organized into three "scoops" -- a circle to right and to left, and a great oval in the center -- that I cannot but believe he had his questions in mind from the start. I am often tempted to forget that these are questions, and to think that he is suggesting answers, but there are no answers here; there are three fundamental questions, posed visually.
"On the right (Where do we come from?), we see the baby, and three young women - those who are closest to that eternal mystery. In the center, Gauguin meditates on what we are. Here are two women, talking about destiny (or so he described them), a man looking puzzled and half-aggressive, and in the middle, a youth plucking the fruit of experience. This has nothing to do, I feel sure, with the Garden of Eden; it is humanity's innocent and natural desire to live and to search for more life. A child eats the fruit, overlooked by the remote presence of an idol - emblem of our need for the spiritual. There are women (one mysteriously curled up into a shell), and there are animals with whom we share the world: a goat, a cat, and kittens. In the final section (Where are we going?), a beautiful young woman broods, and an old woman prepares to die. Her pallor and gray hair tell us so, but the message is underscored by the presence of a strange white bird. I once described it as "a mutated puffin," and I do not think I can do better. It is Gauguin's symbol of the afterlife, of the unknown (just as the dog, on the far right, is his symbol of himself).
I cannot but wonder why the artist used the dog as a symbol of himself, but I love that he did, interjecting himself in this form, in more than one of his works. I also would have loved to have been a fly on the wall on the day that Gauguin's fellow artist Vincent Van Gogh lost the lobe from his left ear. Some historians think that the ear was actually sliced off by Gauguin with his epee, during an argument between the two. Others contribute Van Gogh's mutilation to a seizure.
By Ruth Mitchell