FIGAROVOX / TRIBUNE - On the occasion of the superb exhibition of the National Galleries of the Grand Palais "Gauguin the Alchemist", Le Figaro Hors-Series brings to life the complex figure of this rebellious artist to all disciplines. Michel de Jaeghere delivers a portrait of a resolutely unconventional painter.
Michel De Jaeghere is director of Figaro History and Figaro Hors-Série.
He has been, all his life, in search of the living source.
The one who would lavish on his work the energy that seemed incapable of infusing an exhausted world.
That which would enable him to seize the spark, to embrace life itself, delivered from the refinements, derisory refinements of civilization.
It was she that he had sought in the roughness of the Breton landscapes as in the wildness of the forgotten islands. She had heard how to enliven the bright colors of her canvases as the simplified silhouettes of her vahines, the skein of forms of lush vegetation, strewn with disturbing idols, like the tormented faces of her figurines. carved wood.
He did not believe that one could be satisfied with being, at the school of Baudelaire, "the painter of modern life". To light the show of his contemporaries the fire of his inspiration. He had sought ever further, deeper, until he lost himself.
No doubt he admired Raphael. "It is the Lord," he said, passing by the Louvre before his pictures, as Peter, in the night of faith, had said to the disciple whom Jesus loved. Nevertheless, he was convinced that a painter could not escape this dilemma: to be revolutionary or plagiarist.
He knew and revered the art of those who had preceded him to the extent of extending his admiration to Ingres. He did the opposite to escape the sterility which seemed to him to be related to the condition of heir. His break with the Impressionists had no other origin. He turned his back on them as soon as they were out of business, praised by the very people who had first treated them with all the names of birds. It seemed to him that their successors were doomed to become firefighters.
His friends were sorry to see him every day, during the calamitous exhibition of his works at Durand-Ruel who followed, in 1893, his return from Papeete, walk his large bony face, his silhouette of a sailor without crew among the idlers who laughed sillyly at his clumsiness, laughed at his frank colors and his naivety.
They saw him impose a useless ordeal, sacrificing himself to an irrelevant masochism. Undoubtedly he deplored a commercial failure that destined him to misery, and gave to the sacrifice he had made of his life, his family, his respectability, his comfort to continue the chimera of imposing itself as a creator, a bitterness singular. But he also mysteriously reinterpreted the public's lack of understanding of his conviction that he had really made something new.
He had taken to the Marquesas a collection of photographs of ancient sculptures, Japanese prints, paintings by Rembrandt, Raphael, Michelangelo, Holbein and Manet. But it was not for him masters to imitate. Rather, he was a traveling companion, with whom he planned to keep his imagination awake because they would offer him an opportunity to test and discuss with them until he quarreled with them.
The paradox is that he found fulfillment of his form by leaving his century to know only
that virgin nature which seemed to him only capable of letting life spring in him in his unpredictable vigor, his first freedom, but that his conception of beauty consisted precisely in moving away from the truth of nature in his paintings.
To look for it elsewhere, in a sublimation that turns its back on the servile reproduction of the real. Who recreates a dreamlike vision, roaring, capable of translating his own emotions, much more than the spectacle that had aroused them. There is something deceiving about his Papuan art, his Titan manners, his affectation of simplicity. He had only succeeded at the end of an immense effort, of a long apprenticeship, in giving barbarous appearances to the exhausting search for a civilized man.
It seemed to him that the way opened in the fifth century BC, in the time of Pericles, and which led to copy nature, to express the sublime by making it perfect or by multiplying its expressiveness, now led to a dead end.
That we had, on that side, decidedly told everything, done everything, and that the very revolution that his Impressionist friends had accomplished by breaking down the light was only a matter of sprinkling with touches of fresh colors, simple artifice, a reality already a thousand times represented.
He had managed to create a world. A poetic universe like no other, where the good savage moved in a transfigured nature, that would seem recreated under the influence of illicit substances: an artificial paradise whose power is strangeness, and whose colors blaze like those of a stained glass window glowing with evening light. The result is sometimes surprisingly beautiful.
Should we silence him? He paid himself by a rupture, a sacrifice. Gauguin had found his own mark only by imposing on the ax his subjectivity. He had repudiated the precautions, the nuances, and the chiaroscuro taught by the experience of centuries, to bring out on the canvas savage beauties of primitive art.
The step was hopeless. It says a lot about the crisis of a civilization which is no longer capable of demonstrations of force except by breaking with its disciplines. Who finds a remedy for his loss of vital energy only in the recourse to brutality, strong foods, violently spicy dishes.
In this way he opened the way to outrages that would make 20th-century art the scene of immense destruction, in which iconoclasm would soon dispute it with a taste for scandal to replace the dream of expressing the poetry of things with surprise, the unfinished, informs him. Eventually, the invasion of the navel, the cult of the nothing, the performance, the big anything of the contemporary art.
Gauguin is credited, like so many others, with having invented modern art, and for once, that's true.
Like Cezanne, he made the painting shine in all its decorative splendor, even if it was by means of a rather crude, slightly coarse process, by inventing an absolutely new art. The misfortune is that it was at the price of a deconstruction of forms that both freed them from the shackles of conventions that had become stifling, but whose liquidation would free the art of painting constraints that had made it reach highs. That there would remain, after them, only to destroy the figuration before giving up, step by step, about the subject. Aporia where the genius of Picasso would be consumed, where Nicolas de Stael would be smashed.
"Gauguin the alchemist," proclaims the title of the splendid exhibition that illuminates our autumn by burning his paintings on the walls of the Grand Palais. He was, indeed, the one who last blazed the painting into an apocalypse of gold, purple, and fire, before it was inexorably transformed into lead.
- Tahiti and the Marquesas, in Gauguin's footsteps
- Gauguin, a genius in all its forms at the Grand Palais