November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Miklós Horváth/Gauguin then & now

 

Ia Orana Maria Aka Hail Mary, Paul Gauguin

 

Gauguin

and The Postmodern Narrative

The Reception of The Myth Maker

in Belgium and in London

 

By Miklós Horváth

While in 1889, Paul Gauguin received a negative reception from the Belgian audience, this year he was celebrated as a legend builder and a myth navigator at Tate Modern, London. The distinctive reception of his works raises the following questions: Why was Gauguin so disregarded in the 19th century, and why now is the exhibition of his painting being reported by The Times and The Guardian as “the show of the season” and as a “brilliant event”?

Tate Modern

The Tate exhibition, which opened in September 2010 and closed in January 2011, presented Gauguin’s work by focusing on myth and the construction of narrative in his life and art. The work on display gave a glimpse into the artist’s methods, and into a lifestyle as dreadful, dark and bizarre as it was full of a revolutionary visual language. Revolutionary in that no other 19th century artist so uniquely intertwined Symbolism, Primitivism, Fauvism and Expressionism. Gauguin became a stylistic innovator, a fabulous story teller, and “a weaver of intimate psychological dramas that got under the skin and delved into the minds of his subjects”, as Richard Dorment wrote in The Telegraph.

The 20th century’s postmodern and postcolonial literatures were very much engaged with story-telling and myth-making. Novelists were interested in what made a narrative, what one’s private story stood for, and how it contributed to the history of a community or a nation. The stories of the protagonists of such novels are often handcuffed to their national history. The protagonists tell not only their own stories, but also narratives that almost always relate to the national ‘grand narrative’.

With this idea – that the protagonist of a novel with his or her own story is a representation of the history of a community or a nation – postmodern narrators and exhibition curators often derive their themes under such a banner, as the Tate Modern exhibition pronounced Gauguin a mediator and a myth-navigator who introduced the Western World to the beauties of unknown cultures and mythical traditions. As it is widely known today, our knowledge of Tahiti and its inhabitants is heavily influenced by Gauguin’s narrative and his paintings.

As mentioned above, myth-making is a narrative strategy. It is used in prominent contemporary literature, such as Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, and Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie. These novels are engaged with cultural representations and story-telling; and they will be used while discussing Gauguin as a myth maker. It is in the similarity between postmodern narrative techniques and Gauguin’s hybrid 19th century narration that they changed the way 21st century viewers receive Gauguin’s paintings.

Without an understanding of the postmodern narrative, which stands for otherness and promotes diversity, it would be difficult to discuss Gauguin as a Myth creator. It is also very important to note that in the late 19th century this postmodern narrative technique was unknown. Thus, Gauguin received a negative reception at Les Vingt in Belgium. The audiences, often with a peasant’s mentality for things outside their immediate environs, were unable to understand Gauguin’s worldly aesthetic. Their parochialism limited them to understand and accept only their own views, and they were unable to consider, let alone comprehend, other ‘ideologies’. In Silas Marner, George Eliot gives an enthralling description of such people. She says that the world outside the peasants’ own direct experiences was a region of vagueness and mystery: “… to their untraveled thoughts, a state of wandering was a conception as dim as the winter life of the swallows….”

The authors of postcolonial and postmodern books usually develop one or two distinctive interpretations of cultures and nations by one or two protagonists in their narratives. Wide Sargasso Sea, for example, provides two interpretations on the Caribbean culture. One is given by the protagonist Antoinette, a Creole girl who tells of her childhood in the Caribbean. The other is given through the lens of an Englishman, Rochester. In Midnight’s Children, the protagonist Saleem Sinai tells of the history of India after the British rule in 1947. He was born on the stroke of midnight when India became independent; therefore, his circumstances fulfilled a special position: he embodies the identity of his nation. He becomes the voice of his nation.

Gauguin is also known as a legend builder. He honed his reputation as a rebel and libertine, telling his own tale of a specific culture to his contemporary audience. He brings together the Tahitian religious belief and his own personal experiences. He conjures up the remote and exotic world of Tahiti for western ears.

Although Antoinette, Saleem Sinai and Gauguin all become mediators of specific cultures or nations, they all are also aware there are countless interpretations of cultures and nations. Antoinette knows she can only evoke fragmentations of the past, and that she cannot recall them in their plenitude. Saleem Sinai was born on the stroke of midnight when India became independent; therefore, in his own words, he is “mysteriously handcuffed to history, [his] destinies indissolubly chained to those of [his] country”. Later in the text, readers are informed that one thousand and one children were born within the frontiers of the state at the same time, which means that there are many personal histories contributing to the national narrative.

By the time he’d reached his mid-30s, Gauguin had set sail and circumnavigated the globe several times, leaving behind a lucrative financial career, and leaving his Danish wife and five children with her parents in Copenhagen. This man had experienced life in the Americas, Europe and Oceania, and had gathered data which was selectively used. He did not want to build a grand narrative, but to add a collection of fragmentations of varied histories and cultures, instead.

Gauguin knew that his narrative was only one possible fable among many. He felt he was a kind of alien mediator who incorporated unfamiliar words and expressions from the Tahitian language into his paintings, which preserved a definite distance between European views and the tropical scene.

In the late 19th century these narrative structures were not widely known or understood. For that very reason Gauguin received a negative reception at Les Vingt in Belgium in 1889. A fine arts critic, Elise Eckermann, wrote about Gauguin’s critical reception in Belgium in 1889 and 1891, saying that a cartoon published in Le Patriote illustré was mocking one of Gauguin’s paintings: Among the mangoes at Martinique.

Amongst the Mangoes Martinique, Paul Gauguin, 1887

More than a century later, Gauguin’s reception dramatically changed. In 2010, The Guardian termed the exhibition a “brilliant” event; The Times called it “the show of the season”. Thanks to our understanding of the postmodern narrative, which challenged attitudes towards “otherness”, including cultural and racial diversity, we can appreciate the Gauguin who gave us new perspectives on the value of understanding foreign cultures. Thanks to Gauguin, the eyes and imaginations of the Western World were opened to the power and beauty of other cultures, and to the so-called primitive arts.

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About the author:

Miklós Horváth is an undergraduate student at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, and Leiden University, in The Netherlands, where he received an Erasmus Scholarship to study. His trip to England to see and research the Gauguin exhibit was underwritten by grants from: Pro Renovanda Cultura Hungariae: Students for Science, National Union of Students in Hungary, and the ELTE Student’s Union.

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2 comments

1 Joseph Lindsley { 06.29.11 at 7:49 pm }

This is the marvel of Ragazine; the reaping of thoughts far and wide; the wonder of a Gauguin never seen before…Amongst Mangos….. after the brilliance of the first painting shown; both sandwiched and related to the narrative of the essay, from the light to the darker mood of the latter. A double journey as it were through Gauguin and the journey taken by by Miklos Horvath through the essay. Wonderfully done.

2 Jessie Carty { 06.29.11 at 8:17 pm }

Absolutely engrossing article!