”Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Having presented the questions so handsomely, in his greatest painting, it hardly seems to matter that Paul Gauguin had none of the answers.
To look for allegorical meanings in Gauguin’s greatest work appears to be an invitation to embark on a fool’s errand. Gauguin’s implication that his title was a mere afterthought is somewhat hard to swallow in the light of events leading up to and immediately following the execution of the painting. Knowing noting of its genesis, or even of its content, we can still admire the organization of color, line and pattern in ”Where Do We Come From?” and still marvel at its glowing topical light. Still, a nagging question remains which is what exactly are is the viewer looking at? That question is best answered through some biographical data on Gauguin to know where did Gauguin come from? What was he? and Where was he going?
By the time Gauguin decided, belatedly, and irrevocably, to devote his life to art, the most controversial innovation in the history of painting, impressionism, had won a measure of acceptance. The disturbance that it once caused now seems altogether disproportionate to the small measure of radicalism the style really embodied. The much misunderstood aim of impressionism was the achievement of a more credible realism, and the adherents of the style were more concerned with evolution than revolution.
Gauguin’s was another story. After a brief flirtation with impressionism, he began to grope toward was he called a synthesis of form and color; an idea that was then in the air and that soon was to crystallize in the artist Maurice Denis’s definition of a painting as a flat surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order. The notion was more revolutionary than would first appear. After having confused itself with sculpture for centuries, painting was about to reassume its own identity as a two dimensional art. If Paul Gauguin was not the sole inventor of the concept, his Tahitian canvases were its most persuasive argument. When first shown in Europe, they were held to be incomprehensible by all but a few of the more perceptive critics.
This was understandable. In the course of a few short years, and largely through the efforts of a single man, painting had undergone a complete metamorphosis. It would never again be quite the same. Gauguin’s contemporaries found his colors bizarre, his drawings crude, and his forms flat an unconvincing. They were not yet able to concede that paintings could exist on their own terms, independent of both external reality and established conventions. However, no such hesitation impeded public acceptance of the content of Gauguin’s pictures, which were taken to be literal illustrations of Tahitian life and mythology. Posterity has chosen to see the particualr in the universal and to cast its image of Tahiti in Gauguin’s mold.
Since Gauguin’s death in 1903, much has been llearned about the indigenous arts of the South Pacific that was not known in his time. The enormous idols dominating ”The Feast of Hina” and ”Where Do We Come From”, were the products of Gauguin’s fanciful approach to the Tahitian scene and its mythology, and that effigies in other paintings had no real counterparts in tahitian sculpture but were derivations and composites of Indian, Javan, and ancient Egyptian religious art. Still, the notion endured that the remainder of Gauguin’s Tahiti, the idyllic settings peopled by childlike, unspoiled beings, may be taken as a literal transcript of what the artist found in the colony.
By the time Gauguin reached Papeete in 1891, the Eden he had sought, his quest for living statues from man’s primeval age, had long since vanished. The thatched roofs he envisioned had been replaced by corrugated iron and the natives were happier eating in Chinese restaurants than harvesting the gifts of nature. The living statues, their wonted postures, libidinous and drunken, were anything but statuesque. Diseases of a varities were so prevalent that the native population was in danger of extinction. Nevertheless, despite the grotesque mayhem, there is nothing in his paintings to indicate that the island was anything less than a paradise on earth.
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