Primitivism fantasies in Gauguin and his influence on modernist artists.
Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848. At the age of three his family moved to Peru, because of the political climate of France during that time, which did not allow freedom of the press. Gauguin’s father was a journalist and his mother had relatives living in Lima. During the journey the father of Gauguin became ill and died; the family lived at relatives of Gauguin’s mother in Lima until the family returned in 1855 back to France.
Grown up, Gauguin began a formal education and started working at the Parisian Bourse as a stockbroker for eleven years. During the time as a stockbroker he began to paint in his free time. In 1873 he married a Danish woman, who bore him five children. The family moved to Copenhagen in Denmark. In 1855 Paul Gauguin returned alone to Paris, where friendships with van Gogh, Pissarro and Cezanne began.
In the year 1903 Paul Gauguin dies in the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific.
Paul Gauguin was only one of four painters of the late nineteenth century who influences the early art of the modernist artists in the early twentieth century of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, André Derain and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
Primitivism in his work
Gauguin is considered as father of the modernist primitivism, who considers the romantic notion of the spirituality of native, non-western people and stresses out the fascination for less developed countries. He tried to escape and challenge European conventions in his later work of art, in which primitivism plays an important role: it portrays the fantasy, flight into nature and the return to the origins of the human being. His journey to the Marquesas Islands, in particular Tahiti influenced his work very much. Most of his works depicted motives of natives or simply the landscapes of the Polynesian countryside. In his work of art the primitive became pure and the European corrupt. He painted nude woman in order to put emphasis on the pure, sexual and deep hidden wishes.
In his painting The Spirit of the Dead Watching (1992) (underneath) he painted a naked native woman, lying on a bed. The woman lies stretched out on her stomach; her sex is covered, but still the painting portrays sexuality and sensuality. The painting might remind the viewer of Manet’s Olympia (1863) and this with a good reason.
Gauguin, as the art historian Griselda Pollock points out, makes reference to a tradition and pays his highest respect to the old master. But he also imposed his own idea into his painting: the fantasy of a primitive female body.
Manet’s Olympia, in comparison, illustrated a woman lying on a divan, who was no one other then a prostitute– a motive which was unusual and was regarded as indecent and caused furors and shocks in the Parisian salons of the time. The viewer was directly confronted to the lying woman exposing her breasts and just covering her female sex with one hand.
Gauguin on the other hand, reworks the idea of a prostitute in Manet’s Olympia: in his painting he changed the prostitute into a primitive girl, which should portray a Tahitian “spirit of the dead”and a sexual fantasy as well.
Not only Gauguin recovered Manet’s painting, but the painter Henry Matisse as well: in his painting The Blue Nude: Souvenir of Biskra (underneath) he even deepens the primitive aspect of female sexuality and exposes the female sex. The form of the figure is drawn in a very simplistic way. The way of painting helped Matisse to free the colour from descriptive functionality, which was in his works of art a major characteristic.
What happened to this representation in modern times?
Nowadays, the representation of the woman’s body doesn’t leave much place to the human imagination. Photography is a worldwide used media that aims to represent reality as such, most of the time. The most influential photographers of the time, especially in the field of Fashion photography, have a different approach. For Helmut Newton the nudity is certainly beautiful but it isn’t romantic. The so called “perfection” is in your face, and there isn’t really place for your to imagine how the situation or context might be.