Paul Gauguin’s Intimate Journals
(Art/Books Publishing Ltd, 2019)
In his final days, post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin undertook one last significant endeavor: to reflect on his life through personal journals, to be published only after his death. This witty memoir-like collection is a facsimile of the first English translation, originally published in 1921 as a limited edition. While sharing thoughts on a wide range of topics, with a particular focus on the merits of Polynesian women, Gauguin reveals himself to be a captivating storyteller, quirky, funny, and lighthearted. Through Gauguin’s writing and the sketches included therein, the journals provide more context for his immense body of work, its place in the art-historical canon, and the man who created them.
Rejecting the bourgeois stability career and family provided, Gauguin pursued artistic dreams that were global in scope. The notion of “primitivism,” rooted in Romanticism’s fascination with distant cultures and lands, represented a possible utopia or paradise for colonial powers in the late 19th and early 20th century. For Gauguin, European culture was steeped in the “hypocrisy of civilization,” and to counter this, he turned to so-called “primitive” cultures for inspiration, living and working among the Celtic community in Brittany, the Caribbean people of Martinique, and the Polynesian people of Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, where he had settled at the end of his life. Rousseau’s notion of the noble savage contributed to this preoccupation with the “primitive.” The Enlightenment-era philosopher posited that the original man was free from sin, desire, and therefore, the concept of morality; a “primitive” man was inherently a good man. Through the myth of the noble savage, Western cultures projected their collective shame and desire—particularly the sexual and self-interested kind—onto so-called uncivilized people as justification for repressing those feelings. Much of Gauguin’s oeuvre illustrates this ethos. His well-known Tahitian scenes and landscapes as well as the less familiar sculptures and prints all seem to represent his imagined vision of an ideal, simple society not yet tainted by colonial explorations. From the naked, full-figured bodies of brown-skinned women and the plump, dour, and simple washerwomen and Breton girls to his appropriation of symbols and sculptural techniques, Gauguin’s imagery tended to project his fantasies of free and uninhibited living onto his subjects as justification to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh; he assumed they did. Although this mindset is present in Gauguin’s writings, the musings he shares humanize him, giving the misogyny and racism he casually expressed visually more context.
Throughout the entries, Gauguin insists that this collection is “not a book,” dropping little justifications as to why these stories are different: these stories are not serious like books, or he is not a writer in the traditional (serious) sense. He often includes extraneous commentary and asides as he reminisces about events in his life. Reflecting on the infamous incident in Arles when van Gogh suffered a nervous breakdown and tried to cut him with a razor, Gauguin notes the contradiction between van Gogh’s talents as a painter and his extreme moods and quirks, writing:
One thing that angered him was to have to admit that I had plenty of intelligence, although my forehead was too small, a sign of imbecility. Along with all this, he possessed the greatest tenderness, or rather the altruism of the Gospel.
During the visit, van Gogh showed signs of paranoia and jealousy, and frequently overspent their common money. After avoiding a potentially deadly confrontation with van Gogh on the street and learning that his friend had cut off his ear after their confrontation, Gauguin wonders if he could have done more to prevent van Gogh’s self-harm. In retelling the commotion that ensued afterward, including the arrival of the police, Gauguin demonstrates a tenderness and care that highlights the humanity of both men in a trying situation.
In the bed, lay Vincent, rolled up in the sheets, humped up like a guncock; he seemed lifeless. Gently, very gently, I touched the body, the heat of which showed that it was still alive. For me, it was as if I had suddenly got back all my energy, all my spirit. Then in a low voice, I said to the police superintendent: “Be kind enough, Monsieur, to awaken this man with great care, and if he asks for me tell him I have left for Paris; the sight of me might prove fatal to him.”
He also shares the full text of a positive review of his own work by critic Achille Delaroche, who says about Gauguin’s tropical scenes, “It was only logical, therefore, that he should have exalted for our visual delight the riches of this tropical vegetation where a free life of Eden luxuriates under the happy stars.” To provide a fuller picture of his critical reception, Gauguin also includes commentary from a letter written to him by the critic August Strindberg, who he once asked to write the preface to a catalogue featuring his work. “Here it is: I cannot understand your art and I cannot like it,” Strindberg writes.
I have no grasp of your art, which is now exclusively Tahitian. But I know that this confession will neither astonish nor wound you, for you always seem to me fortified especially by the hatred of others: your personality delights in the antipathy it arouses, anxious as it is to keep its own integrity.
The journals reveal his desire for fame and critical recognition alongside his insecurities and selfishness, sense of loyalty to friends, and his sincere desire to advocate for the same exotic “primitives” he simultaneously admired and grossly fetishized. When he details how French colonial law enforcement mete out punishments depending on the target (“I wish merely to beg you to investigate for yourselves the character of the natives here in our Marquesan colony, and the behaviour of the gendarmes toward them.”), provides strong opinions on the artistry of Degas (“Degas has contempt for theories of art, he has no interest in technique.”), or describes the charms of Maori women (“the Maori woman, even if she wanted to, could not be dowdy or ridiculous, for she has within her that sense of decorative beauty which I have come to admire in the Marquesan art after studying it.”) offers insight into his worldview and the art he would go on to create throughout his prolific career. In our current moment of cultural reckoning, does it matter that Gauguin’s views were so retrograde, even for the historical context? Reproduction of his journals cannot help answer that question; however, their availability adds to our understanding of Gauguin’s “genius” and the creative vibrancy of the people with whom he lived and worked.