Learning about Caribbean art, I’ve mentioned a few times how some artists espoused European Primitivism in order to better express their own cultural background. Yes, the irony abounds. Paul Gauguin, who paved the way for the later Primitivism of Picasso and co., is better known for paintings of Tahitian women than of Caribbean subjects, yet the artist had ties to the Caribbean and South America that fostered his later desire to escape to a savage land.
This painting earned Gauguin the beginnings of critical interest and accolades when he exhibited it in Paris in 1888. He had just returned from a trip to Panama and Martinique. The circumstances around its creation were haphazard. Although born in Paris, Gauguin was in many ways impressed by his Peruvian ancestry and childhood memories of Lima. He became dissatisfied with his small start painting in Breton, and wrote to his wife in 1887, “I am off to Panama to live like a savage.” Unfortunately Panama for Gauguin turned into forced labor on the Panama canal rather than a cushy paradise with help from relatives. Gauguin eventually made his way to a “native hut” on Martinique and was ready to begin painting. It was here he produced his first exotic landscapes and here he began to break away from the Impressionism of his mentor Pisarro. Unfortunately, he grew ill and had to be repatriated.
Back in Paris, Gauguin sold some paintings, including Picking Mangos to Theo VanGogh. This provided him with enough money to began painting in Brittany, a place that represented to Gauguin something inherently pre-academic. He took on the Breton’s traditional dress down to wooden clogs. His works became freer, bolder in color and more imaginative. In the self portrait above, he positions himself between two recent pieces, his painting The Yellow Christ and a ceramic mug. Over the next three years, his critical reputation grew, at least among the avant garde, but he become obsessed with traveling somewhere wilder and more primitive. As he wrote to his friend Emile Bernard, “Terrible itching for the unknown makes me do things I shouldn’t.”
Gauguin was intent on leaving behind a land made ‘rotten’ by civilization. In a letter to Bernard in 1890, he describes how “I feel I can revitalize myself out there. The West is effete at present, and even a man with the strength of Hercules can, like Anteaus, gain new vigour jst by touching the ground of the Orient. A year or two later you come back robust.” But Gaugiun was now planning to stay much longer than that. He wrote to Odilon Redon in September 1890,
“I will got to Tahiti and I hope to finish out my life there. I believe that my art, which you love, is but a seed, and in Tahiti I hope to cultivate it for myself in its primitive and savage state.”