Tahitian Faces (Frontal View and Profiles) Paul Gauguin
Date: ca. 1899 Style: Primitivism Media: Charcoal on laid paper Dimensions: Sheet- 16 1/8 x12 1/4 in. (41x 31.1 cm)
Location: The Met Fifth Avenue, New York City, NY, USA
Paul Gauguin is an interesting person to know about because personally, I find him relatable when it comes to coming to terms with one's own existential crisis. I say this because he had abandoned his former life as a stockbroker by the time he began traveling regularly to the south Pacific in the early 1890s. Gauguin was a man who was one of the most significant French artists to be initially schooled in Impressionism, but he broke away from its fascination with the everyday world to pioneer a new style of painting broadly referred to as Symbolism. Gauguin even famously worked one summer alongside Vincent Van Gogh in the south of France, before turning his back entirely on Western society.
While traveling on his own along the South Pacific, he developed a new style that combined everyday observation with mystical symbolism. This style was strongly influenced by the popular, so-called "primitive" arts of Africa, Asia, and French Polynesia. Gauguin's rejection of his European family, society, and the Paris art world had led him to venture out into the land of the "Other". His pilgrimage has come to serve as a romantic example of the artist-as-wandering-mystic.
Gauguin sought the kind of direct relationship to the natural world that he witnessed in various communities of French Polynesia and other non-western cultures. He treated his paintings as a philosophical meditation on the ultimate meaning of human existence, as well as the possibility of religious fulfillment and answers on how to live closer to nature.
Gauguin's naturalistic forms and "primitive" subject matter would embolden an entire, younger generation of painters to move decisively away from late Impressionism and pursue more abstract, or poetically inclined subjects, some inspired by French Symbolist poetry, others derived from myth, ancient history, and non-Western cultural traditions for motifs which they might refer to the more spiritual and supernatural aspects of human experience.
Gauguin was one of the key participants during the last decades of the 19th century in a European cultural movement that has since come to be referred to as Primitivism. The term denotes the Western fascination for less industrially-developed cultures, and the romantic notion that non-Western people might be more genuinely spiritual, or closer in touch with elemental forces of the cosmos, than their comparatively "artificial" European and American counterparts.
While in Tahiti, Gauguin departed from his Symbolist style in order to paint portraits of Tahitian women, whose beauty, form, and lack of shame at their partial nudity fascinated, attracted, and inspired him. Gauguin's painterly vision of the islands was an abstract and romantic one. The culture and its people were exoticized, sexualized, and otherwise exaggerated by a painter who was in search of a viable alternative to what he perceived to be Western society's own cultural shortcomings. Among the most impressive of Gauguin’s surviving drawings,Tahitian Faces (Frontal View and Profiles), is likely a preparatory study for the subjects in his 1899 painting Two Tahitian Women. The drawing has a strong sculptural effect due to both the masklike appearance of the blank eye sockets and the artist’s use of the stumping technique, in which he smudged the charcoal contour lines to model the head.
In the beginning of this piece, I wrote that I and maybe others, could relate to Gauguin's existential crisis. He was a man who felt imprisoned in his society, his world. There were existentialist such as Albert Camus who argued that figuring out one's existence is absurd. Camus defined the absurd as the futility of a search for meaning in an incomprehensible universe. According to him, Absurdism arises out of the tension between an individual's desire for order, meaning and happiness. I'm sure that if Camus were to judge Gauguin, he would laugh because for him, Gauguin's choice to abandoned his settled life and creating a new one, would be a rediculous resort to finding a meaning in life. Yet this is where a viewer of Gauguin's artwork can think of their own opinions of what Gauguin chose to do with his life. For some people, abandoning the life that makes you feel like an outsider, can seem like a fair and selfless choice while for others, its selfish and chaotic. Doesn't everyone ever imagine being a stranger in a new town or city and creating a whole new life at least once in their life? I have but for me, I quickly pushed it to the back of my mind because it seemed scary and lonely but I'm sure for someone out there, that idea seemed desirable and perfect.
Other works by Paul Gauguin.