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RAYMOND J. STEINER
THERE’S NOT MUCH in Paul Gauguin’s Intimate Journals that I find of great value, and other than sharing with him a general agreement that art has strayed too far afield from its pre-historic spiritual roots, cannot highly recommend it. Not that Gauguin ever quite attained his dream of returning to some primitive state where mind, soul, and art were not, as it was in his (and continues to be, in our) time, separate concepts. I’m certainly not alone in believing that he died before he could paint his way to his goal. Although Cézanne, whom Gauguin professed to admire, held similar beliefs about art and its need to return to its origins, he never much cared for Gauguin — or his work. Cézanne, reserved and staid, viewed him as something of a braggart. In his blunt manner he complained to Emile Bernard that Gauguin — along with many of the post-impressionists — were “not painters,”* and to Karl Ernst Osthaus that they made “things easy for themselves.” Strong opinions. He may have held them because they did fail to bring their art back to some pristine purity untouched by the modern world — as he himself failed to accomplish. The idea of “unlearning” what was being taught at the écoles and salons of France was in the air, bruited about amongst the young bloods of the time. Bernard stated the problem more elegantly in his paraphrasing of Cézanne’s ideas: “Art, which originally was the language of divine aspirations, has become progressively artificial and deceitful over the centuries, just like the vulgar man.” A lofty sentiment — and well beyond the reach of most to do anything about it. A resolute Provençal realist as much as he was at times a muddy-headed idealist, Cézanne explained to Joachim Gasquet, the son of his schooldays friend Henri Gasquet, that the endeavor — no matter how well intentioned — was doomed. To Joachim’s “Why?” he answered, “Because, unfortunately, I’m no longer innocent. We are civilized…It’s impossible to be primitive today. We can’t be; we are born with a certain facility.” Gauguin’s Intimate Journals (as did his work) certainly bore out Cézanne’s astute observation. As much as he tried to justify his bedding down teen-aged Tahitians as just another way of returning to primitivism, Gauguin was still “civilized” enough to know that giving into his sexual drives had little to do with making spiritual art. Though van Gogh — also on the same “back to nature, shun civilization” wavelength — once admiringly pointed out to him that he “painted with his penis” — that is, ignored all the “academic” stuff — Gauguin’s penis/paintbrush all too often suffered complete disconnect from both mind and soul. Regardless of his flair for those quasi-homiletic texts affixed to his paintings, there was always more sensuality than spirituality in his work. Little wonder that Cézanne never went out of his way to hide his anger at his self-styled disciple. There is, however, in the final pages of my copy of Intimate Journals (Crown Publishers, New York, 1936, with a Preface by Emil Gauguin and translated by Van Wyck Brooks), an observation with which I most heartily agree. On page 252 Paul Gauguin notes, “It seems to me that just now the lower genius sinks, the higher talent rises.” If his statement was true when he wrote this ca. 1903, it seems to me to be hardly less so today. He also wrote a sentence earlier, “I also believe that some day some learned man will discover the exact difference in weight between genius and talent.” Would that this had come to pass!
Raymond J. Steiner
*This, and the following quotes are taken from Conversations with Cézanne, edited by Michael Doran, translated by Julie Lawrence Cochran, with an Introduction by Richard Shiff (University of California Press, 2001)