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Defining Paul Gauguin

Like his friend Van Gogh, the work of Paul Gauguin went mostly unappreciated until after his death. He was part of the Symbolist movement, exploring various metaphors in an effort to paint the absolute truth- he painted landscapes, portraits, and human conversations and interactions, as well as making wood carvings engravings of indigenous figures. His appreciation for simplicity in depictions of landscapes and interactions encouraged wider appreciation of nature, the pastoral, and indigenous art. Gauguin also experimented with Synthetism, a style in which form and colour play equal roles. His work, despite being relatively unknown during his lifetime, went on to inspire Primitivism and avant-garde artists like Picasso and Matisse.

The Fire By The River Bank, 1886

His interest in Cloisonnism—a style of painting with bold and flat forms separated by dark contours—was another precursor for Primitivism. The name evokes cloisonné, a medieval enameling where wires are soldered to the body of a piece, filled with powdered glass, and then fired. Gauguin used this style to amplify the main subjects in his paintings; and the style went on to influence Primitivist art in Europe.

Maternity, 1899

Paul Gauguin’s influences came from around the globe. He ran into financial trouble in France; after discussions with his friend Emile Bernard, who had just finished reading Le Mariage de Loti (an account of the tryst between a European man and his Tahitian mistress), he set his sights on Tahiti.

Gauguin was fascinated by descriptions of Tahitian religious traditions which had been lost due to acculturation, and he began carving wooden sculptures of local idols as well as Christian figures, inspired both by his residences in Tahiti and his travels around French Polynesia and Martinique.

Back in Paris, Gauguin put together a travelogue called Noa Noa. The project was first conceived as a narrative of his perceptions of Tahiti, but became something more complex and mysterious, full of references to Tahitian creation myths and ancient Maori culture. Gauguin designed ten woodblock prints for Noa Noa; they bear little relationship to his romanticised autobiographical text, and they don’t follow a sequence. However, the themes —love and fear, creation and death, day and night— are in keeping with the majority of Gauguin's Tahitian work.

Auti Te Pape (The Fresh Water is in Motion), 1893-94

The variety of stylistic and cultural influences in Gauguin’s work make him difficult to categorise, but this is an important part of appreciating him as an artist; he influenced 20th century modern art not in spite of his bold experimentation with colour, form and style, but because of it.

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