Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 5)

Taking plein air painting to new extremes, Gauguin sought exotic locations in which to paint, looking for the perfect "paradise" to depict in his artwork.  This infused his art with vibrant colors far from the soft pastels of the Impressionists.  Everything seemed brighter and more strikingly vivid in the South Seas, Martinique, and Tahiti: crimson rocks, gold trees, and violet hills—so different from the industrial mire of London and the other Modern cities which had defected from their pastoral purity and been turned into colorless, characterless metropolises.  But hints of the old Romantic atmosphere could be found in the exotic locations of French Polynesia (among other places).
Met in these places by not just color and atmosphere, Gauguin found operating within this new hemisphere an entirely new culture and an apparent simplicity of life (noble savage).  When the artist went to Tahiti, it changed his style and his art.  He instantly took to painting the natives and depicting them in their environment and their culture.  Since everything in their exotic location was so full of color, and since he found their culture so rich in Romantic purity, the artist painted his Tahiti scenes with utterly vivid colors—some of the most vivid ever to enter into the history of Western art.  His canvases are resplendent with color, but even this was not enough.  The enchanting experience of living within this quixotic environment became Gauguin's subject matter, in all of its magnificence and profundity.  His paintings became about the wonder of exotic Tahiti and the poignancy of life among the native peoples.  He would start with subject matter (such as portraits of the natives) and then "shut his eyes in order to see."  This visionary approach resulted in such famous products as this painting of a scene By the Sea (Fatata te Miti, as it is titled), from 1892.
In this work of art, the painter is not concerned with creating a real sense of space but focuses on flat, colorful shapes and contour lines.  Gauguin simplified the shapes he observed as part of his technique to convey the uncomplicated purity of this society.  We can hardly tell where we are in this painting, only gleaning impressions of flowers, plants, and wavy water lines.  The rich colors depict Gauguin's image of an earthly paradise, utterly unique from anything our minds could have imagined.  And yet within this wondrous world are still some familiar elements of brooding uncertainty.  The horizon line atop the far right-hand corner of the work fades into the distance, undefined, and gradually growing darker.  The farthest figure out in the water is a hunter with a spear, carrying with him the notions of killing and mortality.  The woman diving into the water toward the middle of the work seems to be more falling forward than purposely diving in.  She stumbles ahead into the future and will eventually fall into the water to be buried under its surface (again, symbolic of death).  Even within such a wonderland, Paul Gauguin found some ancient and grim truths sneaking onto the scene like a snake in the grass, and these more philosophical concepts fueled much of his later Symbolist artwork.

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