Aug 20, 2012

What can Gauguin teach you about writing?

Self-portrait, 1888

I am a great artist and I know it.
Letter to his wife, Mette (Tahiti, March 1892)

Well, here we are without the slightest doubt in the presence of a virgin creature with savage instincts. With Gauguin blood and sex prevail over ambition.
-- Van Gogh 

He is Gauguin, the savage who hates the burden of our civilization, a sort of Titan… who prefers to see the sky red
-- August Strindberg

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was a French Post-Impressionist painter. He was born in Paris to Clovis Gauguin, a journalist, and Alina Chazal, daughter of Flora Tristan, a feminist and proto-socialist who came from a prominent family in Peru. In 1850, the Gauguins left France for that South American country. Clovis would die would die en route to Peru; Alina, Paul and his sister would stay with Paul’s uncle in Lima for four years.

Paul’s mother would go out wearing the traditional one-eyed veil of Lima, a style that allowed women to flirt, gossip and walk the streets alone without fearing for their reputation. In Spanish, they were called las tapadas limeƱas, “covered-up women of Lima.” British critic Waldemar Januszczak, then working for Channel 4, speculated that “this must have been the first of the colorful female costumes that were to haunt [Gauguin’s] imagination.”


Gauguin would return to France at the age of seven. Though Peruvian Spanish was by then his first language, he learned French and excelled in school.
At seventeen he would join the merchant navy, sail the world for three years and then join the French navy to sail for two more. Not one to waste a perfectly good pair of sea legs, Gauguin would spend a good deal of his time cruising the Pacific.

Les Alyscamps, 1888
There was, however, an eleven-year intermission between the two exploratory periods in Gauguin’s life. Having spurned the oceans for the Paris Bourse, Gauguin would become the image of a successful businessman, marry a Danish woman, beget five children and move to Denmark where he failed to sell French tarpaulins to Danes he couldn’t speak to.

It was Paul’s wife, Mette-Sophie Gad, and her family who asked him to leave after 11 years. Gauguin had decided to paint full-time and the Gad clan would have no truck with artists and such. This would mark the beginning of Gauguin’s Polynesian adventure. Tahiti offered the backdrop for his violently sensuous pictures of a paradise which was mostly in his head, and his alleged trysts with the supposedly innocent and uncomplicated Tahitians spice up the legends around Gauguin, the man. Sexuality in the former French colony drew from a forceful palette: village elders would point out a passing woman to Gauguin and tell him, grab that one. Or so he wrote in his book Noa Noa.

So, what can Paul Gauguin teach you about yourself as a writer, and how you should follow your instincts?    
“Many people say that I don't know how to draw because I don't draw particular forms. When will they understand that execution, drawing and color (in other words, style) must be in harmony with the poem?”

Being vague – allowing gaps for the reader’s imagination to fill in – letting a few dream quanta pervade your writing is not a bad thing. Maybe you’re not like me, but my favorite books all hint at greater mysteries, greater worlds outside the text, and stop short of explaining everything. This is why I find most literature intended for mass consumption to be patronizing and dull.

Gauguin faced a dilemma which all artists must solve on their own: Should I follow my own star, or look to others for a roadmap? There’s no easy answer. At the time of creation you can’t compromise. You can’t have it both ways. Lots of people will find your writing unimpressive. So be it. By trying to accommodate every opinion you become a nobody. Better that the deliberate imprecisions in your work should offend and repulse than go ignored. Excellent art mesmerizes the viewer, the reader; great art is polarizing, at least when it first emerges.

Fata te miti, 1892

“How do you see this tree? Is it really green? Use green, then, the most beautiful green on your palette. And that shadow, rather blue? Don't be afraid to paint it as blue as possible.”

There’s nothing so intensely personal, intimate and self-transcendent as the act of artistic creation. It beats sex in that regard. (And I almost feel sorry for people who don’t understand that.)

You have your secrets, a hidden trove of pictures and ideas that work as a personal lens, and this lens distorts the world. We arrive at personal truth by means of distortion and we rejoice when someone sees the world as obliquely as we do. Such a limitation makes you special. Yes, each human being is a constellation of fact, tall tales and small miracles. Only you can pick your colors. Surrender that choice if you will, replace your lens with somebody else’s, but it won’t make you happy.

Nevermore, 1897

“No one wants my painting because it is different from other people's — peculiar, crazy public that demands the greatest possible degree of originality on the painter's part and yet won't accept him unless his work resembles that of the others!”

The market resembles Scylla and Charybdis, the sea monsters that made life hell for sailors on the Strait of Messina. You had to face one or the other; sacrifice and hardship were givens.

Choose your doom wisely. You know you’re going to get punched in the face anyway, so concentrate on doing what you love best. Over the years I’ve come to believe that people know what they want but not what they need. It’s an indictment on our culture that the words ‘mind-blowing’ and ‘awesome’ so often leap from the mouths of overexcited patrons of commerce-as-art. Not only does this point to an ever-present wish for transcendence but also to the repudiation of the twin values of depth and subtlety that used to characterize at least a part of western culture.

Unchecked, mass moves onto barbarism with surprising speed. When you outsource thinking at the expense of your individuality, you give up a lot of power. Aphrodite and Eris, Passion and Discord – you could call them the mothers of harmony. Ultimately the market rejects both for convenient simulacra, and it takes a lifetime to see through the ruses of pseudo-culture. To know real blood from Kensington gore. Yet there’s a little seed of the authentic in every story, no matter how badly one tells it.  

Deux Tahitiennes, 1899

I am a great artist and I know it. It's because of what I am that I have endured so much suffering, so as to pursue my vocation, otherwise I would consider myself a rogue — which is what many people think I am, for that matter. (…) You tell me I am wrong to stay away from the artist[ic] center. No, I am right; I've known for a long time what I am doing and why I am doing it. My artistic center is in my brain and nowhere else, and I am strong because I am never thrown off-course by other people and because I do what is in me. – Paul Gauguin

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times. 

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