In February 2015 Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo, (When Will You Marry?) sold for a record $300m making it the most expensive painting to go to sale.* Since then only Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi has broken that record for approximately $450m reinforcing Gauguin as an unquestioned historical master. Even if these values seem obscenely inflated it begs the question, what is behind the Gauguin phenomena and is it driven purely by aesthetic value?
Perhaps his radical approach to painting is not the whole story. The romantic notion of travelling to far away places and abandoning the banal urbane helps to define him in the popular psyche. The fact that it necessitated rejecting European painting styles is conveniently overlooked.
Nevertheless, his artistic influence is omnipotent – saturated colour in flattened unmodulated arrangement, still lives with semi nude figures adorning countless dental waiting rooms and b&b’s is endemic. Even Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) is as much Gauguin’s primitive as it is Cezanne’s cubist.
It seems to be the combination of breaking with artistic tradition while severing cultural convention that completes the Gauguin myth – l’enfant terrible, l’avant gardiste. This is the heady and intoxicating formula for imitation. Gauguin is the default – the template for all the ‘me toos’ to follow his every being as ‘the artiste’ as wanderer mystic. The beatniks, the hippies, would-be bohemians et al have there origins somewhere in Gauguin.
But we conveniently forget the other side to Gauguin. Before he ever painted he had already lived a life as a successful Parisian stockbroker and investor. By 1877 he had made a great deal of money through speculating and shares. Having served in the merchant marines in his formative years he had already travelled the world. Of Hispanic Peruvian descent, he preferred to speak Spanish over French. He had attended the exclusive boarding school of Petit Séminar de la Capelle-Saint Mesmin. In other words he wasn’t an innocent idealist but rather, a well travelled Parisian intellectual. But the stockbroker turned Sunday painter got serious and, following the Paris Bourse market crash in 1882, took to his hobby full time.
And when he voyaged to French Polynesia (Tahiti and later the Marquesas islands) he was surprised to discover the far reaching effects of Western colonization including introduced species such as rats and cats. He had suffered from syphilis, malaria, a persistent ankle injury and depression. Deep in the jungle of paradise he OD’d on arsenic in a failed suicide attempt. This isn’t our popular romantic image of Gauguin but rather that of a dark and lonesome outcast. Wasn’t Gauguin the romantic who escaped to paradise? But the legend lives on and the plethora of movies and literature does not abate.
Recent release for Gauguin followers of all persuasions
Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti (2017)
Directed by Edouard Deluc starring Vincent Cassel
*updated sale price: