Plínio Palhano

When the young Picasso got to Paris in 1900, his purpose was to enhance his knowledge and maintain contact with its vanguard. With his sharp eyes and brain, he absorbed and incorporated everything in his works: the unmistakable loveliness of a drawing by Toulouse-Lautrec; the expressionist brushstroke and color of Van Gogh; the Post-Impressionism in vogue; the geometry of the pictorial space of Paul Cézanne and plus: he met a sculptor, Paco Durrio, in a coterie of exiled Spanish artists, who showed him paintings by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and supplied him with a copy of the first issue of Noa Noa, in which the former reports his experiences in Tahiti. At the request of Gauguin, Durrio had been a faithful guardian of those works, while the artist took his long trip to Polynesia. Afterwards, he carefully followed the retrospective exhibition of the savage Gauguin, with about two hundred paintings, in 1906 at the Salon d´Automme, which was a revelation, not only to Pablo Picasso but also to Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy, André Derain and other artists who were struck by the light of Tahiti reflected in his works.

To them the sense of European beauty was being put in check: the primitive world would be a new source to be explored by art. Hence the interest of the artists at the beginning of the XX century by both the African art and the art of Oceania. Picasso collected African sculptures, which influenced him up to the point of culminating in the famed painting Les Demoiselles d´Avignon (1907), origin of Cubism.

His shinning paintings, engravings, ceramics and sculptures reveal a matchless creative genius who thought art could rebel against the European contaminations and find, in the traditions of Oceania, a world which would free and give rise to a generation of artists who would broaden all the previous conceptions: in order to realize this ideal, he intended to set up a collective studio in Polynesia, which he would call "Studio of the Southern Seas."

By showing new ways, he was, in several respects, a revolutionary in painting. He applied, wonderful techniques, for his time, to his engravings and introduced into ceramics the elements of shape, color and matter, making it different. He made a fusion of sculpture and the technique of ceramics. In wood carving, he exposed the magical Maori world. As a pioneering one, Gauguin, before reaching Polynesia, visited other places, spreading ideas from which artistic movements were born.

It was thus on his trip to Martinique (1887), after Impressionist experiments, and to Brittany - where he sketched his future style - and on the Sea Island (French Antilles), basis for his forthcoming paintings. On that island, Gauguin and Charles Laval - a disciple he met in Port-Aven - performed similar works in subject-matters (tropical landscapes) and techniques. Over six months, he produced twelve landscapes, such as: Tropical Vegetation, The Lake, At Sea, in a realism of the characters represented in the landscape, in more open and intense colors, showing the painting´s matter far away from the Impressionists pictures he had turned out: Interiors of the Artist´s House in Paris (1881), The Snow, (1883) and Gauguin in Front of his Easel. In Martinique he reminded of his passage through Peru (at age one to seven, with his mother Aline Gauguin, the daughter of Flora Tristán, and his sister Marie), feeding his powerful imagination, in a remembrance of the light and the people, which would make him go further, intend a releasing trip and "be reborn far from the human species", as were the journeys to Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands.

Back to Port-Aven, surrounded by admirers from Paris, where he had worked out his theories, he shares the authorship of the Synthetism with Émile Bernard. Later on, Bernard brought out in the open Gauguin had taken hold of his concepts, which awoke bitter feelings in the painter´s soul. Actually, they had a common vision of both the objective world and the free abstraction of color. Hence the signification they gave to their works turned out in Brittany as if they were inspired in stained glasses: pure colors separated by marking lines. This technique was used not only by Gauguin in his important and parting work Vision after the Sermon (1888), but also by Émile Bernard in his Breton Girls in the Field (1888).

Only Gauguin´s passage by the School of Port-Aven, at which he received teachings, at the outset of his career, by Camille Pissaro, one of the most outstanding and purest Impressionists, in Brittany, would be enough to identify him as a creator, innovator and revolutionary of the late XIX century, for he broke with his own Impressionist theory of light absorption, paving the aesthetic ways and assembling a group of disciples who were important to herald the new ideas he proposed.

Sérusier was one of those disciples who after receiving a rapid painting lesson - a little before Gauguin´s departure from Port-Aven to Arles, in October 1888, to meet Van Gogh - painted The Talisman. Enthused, he took it to Paris and showed it to his colleagues who attended the Académie Julian. All of them were enraptured by the innovation and quitted the old academic lessons, thus forming a group composed of Édouard Vuillard, Marurice Denis, Félix Valloton, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Sérusier. They were known as "the Nabis", from nabi: prophet in Arabic, name given by Sérusier, who knew that language, as well as Hebrew. Sérusier told Gauguin the leadership he had as a master, but the latter - a free and self-reliant artist - showed no interest: his only interest was to keep on working.

When Gauguin´s artistic personality was defined, his old masters and companions started to look at him more carefully. Picasso did not see him anymore as a hard-working student of the techniques of collection of light, but as someone who had a wrong vision, mainly after his trip to the strange world of Tahiti, making him to use the exotic to praise his works. The master introduced him into the artistic world, making him participate in the 4th, 5th and 6th Impressionist exhibitions from 1879 to 1881, without the approval of Monet and Renoir. Pissaro, in the course of time, looked askance at that disciple of the new school. From Paul Cézanne, Gauguin acquired six paintings, when he had fair profits at the Stock Exchange of Paris, and led a high life, which he, afterwards, left for his paintings. The works influenced him by suggesting geometric blocks: the style of Cézanne. "I wanted to make Impressionism both stolid and enduring as the art in the museums." He always asked Pissaro after Cézanne, his activities, and, in a letter, he suggested some homeopathic medicine should be given him so that he revealed his last pictorial secrets." Gauguin´s charge left Cézanne uneasy; he thought Gauguin was going "to pilfer" his "little sensations" he kept with reserve and perseverance: he considered Gauguin and Van Gogh to be mad artists. The support of the Impressionist painters came unexpectedly from a far-off friend: Edgar Degas, who had not made up his mind as to Gauguin´s works, but used to say he had "something" that led him to acquire several of his paintings.

Gauguin was esteemed among writers. One of them, Stéphane Mallarmé, together with his followers, placed him as the most important representative of the Symbolist painting, holding dinners with toasts in his honor, supporting him, in February, 1891, at the Hôtel Drouot auction shop. By request of Charles Morice, Mallarmé asked Octave Mirbeau to write an article on Gauguin for an exhibition to be held to raise the works price, and, as a part of the plan, Gauguin was obliged to acquire one of his own paintings.

Before leaving definitively to Oceania, he performed in Paris one of his most significant sculptures, entitled Oviri (The Savage, 1895). This work was created in the middle of his innovations in ceramics, moulded straight in clay and burnt afterwards, then receiving soft enamels for a second baking, leaving the greatest part of the statue in raw clay. Inspired by the Maori mythology, it stands for a savage woman, with animal features, grasping her "young" as if she were killing or smothering him out of protection, in a symbolism of death and rebirth, maybe the death of the civilized Gauguin to be reborn as a savage. "Wonderfully ambiguous", as a critic would say. Picasso took time to absorb Oviri, which boosted him to get in touch with non-European primitive civilizations.

Gauguin, a polemic artist, innately indomitable and imperative, shook his time and the future generations by accomplishing free works grounded on his own theories, without worrying about the public opinion, which happened, for example, to the extraordinary painting, done in Tahiti, Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Watches, 1892), based on the legend of the bad spirit who lived in the jungle and used to bother the careless Tahitian natives. Gauguin established a comparison between this work and Olympia by Édouard Manet, which he loved so much for its being a landmark in the European painting by breaking with the traditional representations of imagined goddesses. He took it along with him to the studios where he stayed because of the frankness found in its eyes, also found in Olympia, a street girl, the figure on the left representing the tupapau, plus his pictorial effects, however such a parallel has not been accepted by some Parisian critics. The same parallel was drawn by Gauguin between Olympia and some of his paintings. One of these comparisons took place in Paris on his first return from Tahiti, when he performed Anna, the Javanese (1893), in which there is the same confrontation between the model and the onlooker. The key to these works was the transformation of his vision as a civilized man into a new vision: a savage conception. As he used to say about himself: "I´m a savage of Peru", proud of his supposed Incan forefathers.

Ia Orana Maria (We Salute you, Mary), completed in 1892, represented Mary as an Eve in paradise: Mary turned into a native brown-skinned vahine (woman) with the baby Jesus: the Angel´s Annunciation, the whole landscape in a tropical woodland. Catholicism disapproved of the painting: the representations did not fit the traditions of the Church.

After his first trip to Tahiti (1891-1893) - with a production of sixty-six paintings and his mind absorbed in the universe he likened to an Eden far from the bustle of Paris which still interested him -, he retakes his work, desirous that everyone could see the rich plastic observations he had achieved and confident of the sought-after success he quite often made known to this wife, thus thinking of making up for his failed marriage with Mette Gad Gauguin.

He proposes an exhibition to the art dealer Durand-Ruel, who transfers the proposal to his sons Joseph and George: his investments were in the United States, inasmuch as he aimed at gaining that market. The exhibition was held on November 09, 1893, with the participation of Charles Morice, who looked to its publicity in the press. Forty-two works were displayed, with modern, white and blue windows to Gauguin´s liking, to differ from the ones of the Official Salon. He met his goal: a polemic stirred the artistic and intellectual world of Paris. He worked hard to get his fame, but he was distressed about the lack of favorable comments by the painters he held in high regard. Most of the criticism was on the exoticism and sex supposedly exploited from the Maori culture. The works Vahine no te Tiare (Woman with a Flower), first painting done in Tahiti with a native model, Man with a Hatchet (1891), Hina Tefatu (The Goddess of the Moon and the Genious of the Earth, 1893), Ta Matate (The Market, 1892), Aha oe Feji? (How are you Envious? - 1892), Vahine no te vi (Woman with a Mango, 1892), Tahitian Pastoral, 1893, Merahi Metua no Teha´amana (Teha´amana has many Forefathers, 1893), Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Watches, 1893) were not enough to convince the public, the critics and the artists who had opposite opinions. However, he intended to go on with his huge work despite the short period of life left to him - his health already showed signs of syphilis. He had to make the most of his days.

Even indignant at the Paris adverse to his thoughts, he, in December, mounts an exhibition of engravings at his studio on Vercingétorix Street, where he painted the room yellow to highlight the pieces. The publicity was also positive: Vollard, Degas, Mallarmé and other artists were present to the event.

He has no doubt, civilization enchants him no more. He goes back to Tahiti (October 1895) and thence to the Marquesas Islands, where he finished the work he needed to turn out. Gauguin, a seminal artist, found in the far-off islands of the French Polynisia the creator´s vision, awoken through endless battles and misunderstandings of the civilized world. Before leaving Paris he said he preferred the savages of Tahiti or Marquesas Islands than the ones of Paris. He set free the history of his own painting and the worldwide art as a consequence, thus broadening the process of beauty, light, color, shape and concepts - a happy meeting with what he called "Maori mythology", which he recreated with his sharp look. It was there that he accomplished his masterpieces, loved his "girls fiancées" - Teha´amana and Pau´ura - and lived painfully in tropical luminosity. Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism and all of the later generation were born out of Gauguin, who together with Paul Cézanne and Van Gogh - the trinity - impelled and influenced Modernism in the XX century.