Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was living in the French colonial capital Papette on the island of Tahiti, when Sigmund Freud published his first major psychoanalytic treatise, The Interpretation of Dreams, in 1899. As the author of this excellent biography Paul Gauguin an Erotic Life, Nancy Mowll Mathews states that "it is hard to imagine two cultural figures more evocative of the symbolistic milieu at the end of the nineteenth century, particularly the contemporary fascination with the role of sexuality in human creative acts." She adds too that in order to create this account of Gauguin's erotic life, it was impossible to ignore the stunning parallels between Gauguin's behaviour and beliefs and the psychoanalytic theories expounded by Freud that have shaped notions of personality to this day.
This is the tack the book pursues, and Gauguin's life offers exceptional opportunities for freudian interpretation¨from the loss of his father before his second birthday, to his frequent depiction of such phallic symbols as snakes and birds, to his insistence on the health benefits of sexual freedom, to his untimely death from syphilis in 1903 at the age of fifty-four. Sex and violence worked separately and, very often, in combination and Gauguin made excellent use of these twin drives in developing his greatest works.
What the author has done in order to write this book is to gather as much evidence as possible and then draw conclusions that are revealing and plausible. It is a good approach and sets out to enter into a dialogue with the reader so as to forge a new understanding of Gauguin and his behaviour. In doing so Nancy Mowll Mathews has produced perhaps the most realistic personal biography of Gauguin¨even though she has stated at the outset that "this is not a biography."
It is. Everything is covered including Gauguin's restless search for new motifs outside and away from Paris where he discovered, first in Brittany, then in the Caribbean in 1887, and eventually in Tahiti in 1891, new inspiration that his genius moulded for a craving public. There is too fascinating discussion of his overt presentation of sexuality and aggression in his creative productions like Mano Tapapan (Spirit of the Dead Watching¨1891), and its related explanatory text in the pseudo autobiographical Noa Noa (1893).
Gauguin was intelligent, witty, and productive¨but not spiritual or scholarly. He used his privileged status as a well-born European male to seduce and intimidate those around him in order to achieve personal and professional goals. He was a liar too and often distorted the state of his health, finances, and employment, in order to elicit favours from those around him. The correspondent who received the most exaggerated version of his life was his wife Mette, towards whom he felt guilt and anger, yet from whom he had an almost childish craving for sympathy.
Paul Gauguin came to expect as his due the influence he exerted over others by sheer physicality. Alternately seductive and bullying in his manner, he capitalised on the power of his body not simply to reap physical pleasure but also to compel others to carry out his wishes in the larger professional areas of his life. His method of dealing with most people and situations was first to cajole and persuade them, then, if not meeting with success, to threaten and menace. He courted the attention of younger men, and did not hesitate in physically abusing both men and women. Yet is seems he experienced very little actual love. He is known to have fathered at least ten children and only his wife, Mette, can be said to have been an object of his love. In his mentions of Polynesian liaisons, the young ages of his vahines (whores) indicated his titillation with the subject of sex with adolescents.
In the end, however, it is the art that makes Gauguin's exotic life worth investigating and reading about. His personal biography and his struggle for prominence in the art world can therefore only ever be the subtext of any biography. His discovery of the sexual and socially tolerant climate of Tahiti, which encouraged the flowering of his erotic imagination, unfortunately also coincided with the onset of syphilis. The disease attacked Gauguin's body, crippling his legs and causing internal hemorrhaging. Finally in 1903 his body gave out. Now, a hundred years later, if we modify this enormously talented artist's myth with a more human and believable narrative we can only do so with a genuine appreciation of the artist's imagination and the mythic persona with which he reinvented himself.
No one reading this book will miss the author's personal disapproval of Gauguin's abusive behaviour toward his wife and others close to him. She says so. But equally no reader will doubt the enormous admiration she holds for what the artist produced. It was Gauguin's ability to create an erotic art from his inner life, rather than life itself, that is the secret to understanding both the artist and his extraordinarily sensual creations. ˛