Paul Gauguin and Baudelaire: Exotic Perfume

24 Mar

”…A langorous island, where Nature abounds
With exotic trees and luscious fruit;
And with men whose bodies are slim and astute,
And with women whose frankness delights and astounds… (Charles Baudelaire, Exotic Perfume)*

1894. Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua) - Paul GauguinPaul Gauguin, Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua), 1894

Throughout history some artists felt a need to physically step away from their surroundings; Eugene Delacroix travelled to North Africa, Vincent van Gogh to Arles, while his ‘friend’ Paul Gauguin sought inspiration on the other side of the world – on Tahiti. Gauguin desperately tried to escape the rotten European civilization, he said: Civilization is what makes you sick, and he first set sail for Tahiti on 1 April 1891. Vibrant-coloured landscape, voluptuous women, warm sea, sunny weather, exotic trees and luscious fruit all undoubtedly had a lasting impact on Gauguin’s art.

Painting Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua) is a great example of Gauguin’s vibrant landscapes. It shows that he soaked up the atmosphere of Tahiti. Gauguin painted it in 1894, either in Paris or in the small Breton village of Pont Aven. It wasn’t the most productive year of his life; he was in poor health and in debts. However, the painting illustrates Gauguin’s thought ‘I shut my eyes in order to see‘; the landscape he painted came from the memory, and no matter how exotic and vibrant Tahiti was in reality, Gauguin’s painting is deliberately more colourful.

Subject of this painting is Polynesian religion. Central place in the background is occupied by a goddess Hina. I’m not particularly a connoisseur of Polynesian mythology and religion, so I’m going to quote Richard Brettell: ‘…idol Hina, which Gauguin derived less from Tahitian or Polynesian traditions than from Indian and Southeast Asian prototypes. For this reason, the painting can be interpreted as representing a universal, non-Christian religion.’ (source) A few more figures grace the background; two women carrying food, probably fruit, on a plate, possibly in order to offer them to the goddess, then a flute-playing woman that sits below the statue of Hina, and two dancers in red-orange tunics.Behind the scene we see a long beach with yellow sand, mountains and blue sky with clouds. Three interesting figures in the foreground symbolise the three Ages of Man — birth, life, and death, which is reminiscent of the story of Oedipus and Sphinx’s riddle. Sphinx’s question was: What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?‘ And Oedipus’ reply was: ‘Man.‘ The pool is perhaps the most interesting thing in the painting. Its surface is utterly unrelated to anything that goes on in the scene; it shows nor the reflections of the sky nor the figures on the beach, but the irregular spots of orange, indigo, light blue, red, green and yellow colour. This leads us to Gauguin’s perception of art, which is based upon symbolism, on dreams and metaphors.

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Do not copy nature too much. Art is an abstraction.* (Gauguin)

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Gauguin’s ‘getaway’ from Europe and his disgust with Western civilisation represent the sentiment shared across Europe within intellectual and artistic circles, in times of ‘fin de siecle’. Gauguin wanted to escape from ‘everything that is artificial and conventional’, and hoped to live a more pure, primitive life on Tahiti. Baudelaire embarked on a somewhat similar journey, thought not willingly. He was sent to India by his stepfather in order to break his bad habits of visiting brothels, drinking, not focusing on his studies etc. Although short, the trip infused in him a sentiment for exoticism, sea and sailing, and that resulted in poems such as ‘Exotic Perfume’. I often had similar thoughts myself; about purity of life somewhere on the island, untainted by civilisation, somewhere where one could walk barefoot all day, pick fruit off the branches and eat it, really feel the rain… But, just like Baudelaire, for me the reveries about exotic lands would be better than reality of actually living there. I’m a product of European culture, and that’s something I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to deprive myself from.

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