Gauguin: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Essay, Research Paper
-Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)
-Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
-Oil on Canvas, 5 feet by 12 feet
-Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?, is the self-acclaimed masterpiece of Paul Gauguins’ career. It represents the culmination of his ideas and beliefs that he acquired throughout his life as a painter. Many visual characteristics of the painting, such as the color, line, and light are unrealistic in nature, but serve to emphasize the tropical surroundings in which Gauguin loved to paint. Although the organization of the characters in this lush jungle clearing seem random, Gauguin intended this work to be “read” from right to left as if it was a story book describing the evolution of man.
The use of unique color in Where do we come from? is the most visible attribute of the painting. The background is comprised of intersecting layers of shades of blue and green, which act as a backdrop for the more intense colors in the foreground. The ground plane is made up of a mixture of dirt and rock, which disappears in an area of muddled color. Due to the drastic change in color between the surroundings and the characters, it is as if they have been superimposed onto the painting. Each character is unique in composition, but similar in tone. Gauguin uses an unrealistic mix of peach and earthy brown to represent skin. In some places an orange glow reflects off of the bodies, which is heavily accentuated on the central figure. On other figures, the skin tone is dull and almost blends into the ground color. Dark brown hair color is standard throughout the entire work as well as the use of white loin clothes and robes.
These color schemes hold true for most of the painting, but some exceptions are notable. At each end of the work the outermost character is considerably darker in skin tone than the others. It seems as if they are being shunned from the rest of the crowd because of their body language. The woman on the far right has her back to us as if she is trying to see what the others are doing, and the woman on the far left is holding her head in her hands as if she is upset about something. Another exception to the common coloring themes is the woman to the right of the idol in the distance. Unlike all of the other characters, who are wearing minimal white clothing, she is wearing a black garment that covers most of her body. The idol also represents a change in color tones from the rest of the painting. It has been painted in a light blue, similar to the coloring of background elements. According to Gauguin, this figure represents “the beyond,” which is emphasized by its close relationship in color to nature. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Although the use of line and light is not as defined as the color scheme, they still play an important role in the overall organization of the painting. Gauguin uses curvilinear lines throughout this work with no right angles or sharp points. The outlines in the background are fairly blurry and some of the lines blend into one another. In contrast, the characters in the foreground are comprised of precise, sharp lines. Gauguin goes as far as lightly outlining the bodies with a dark line in order to give them a sense of depth. Light also serves to enhance certain aspects of the painting. Gauguin has been careful in his use of light to create some areas of brightness and some of darkness. The central figure glows in the bright light, which shines down on her from above. This light shows the importance of the decision of whether to pick the fruit or not. It is focused so directly on one area and is void in the others.
The organization and relationships of the characters, animals, and background elements in Where do we come from? seem to be fairly unorganized and random, but Gauguin has placed them in this order consciously. The painting is oriented from right to left, starting with the young child and finishing with the old woman. The characters do not seem to interact with one another, but instead glare at the viewer. Their facial expressions and body language is provocative as each one turns their head and stares. The placement of arms is also noticeably unique in this painting. On the left side of the painting the woman sitting down next to the central figure raises her arm up and over her head, while the central character reaches to pick a piece of fruit from a tree. Their bodies are contoured in unnatural positions, which is emphasized by the strained expression on the woman all the way on the right. None of the characters seem to be concerned with any of the children or animals in this work. The baby on the far right is fast asleep on a rock, while the small girl on the left is busy eating some fruit. Unlike many of the other characters, these two children are not interested in what is going on around them.
Gauguin creates depth in Where do we come from? both by manipulating the surroundings, as well as the characters. Beyond the edge of the jungle, an open vista of the ocean and nearby island can be seen. They are far off in the distance and the crest of the waves are nearly visible. This creates depth by showing what happens beyond the immediate foreground. In the foreground, Gauguin creates depth by staggering the spacing of the characters. The central figure is noticeably larger than those further back. Unlike many of the other aspects of the painting, such as color and light, Gauguin has kept the depth perception truly realistic without over-exaggerating it.
During the later part of Gauguins’ life his interests in painting began to shift. Instead of his earlier ethnographic phase, he became more interested in creating paintings that transcended the particular place in which they were made. This style change was demonstrated by six major horizontal paintings, which represent some of the greatest paintings of Gauguins’ career. These paintings became the groundwork for Gauguins’ self-acclaimed masterpiece, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?.
After leaving France for Tahiti, Gauguins’ style changed over the numerous trips he made back and forth between the civilized world and the savage world. During the early stages of his Polynesian period Gauguin represented scenes of everyday life, similar in style to those of his hero, Delacroix. Over the years in Tahiti, his work began to mature into more idealized motifs of Polynesian stories about religion and myths. Towards the end of his life, Gauguins’ style evolved to an even more symbolic level. These works were created from new ideas about “comparative religion”, politics, and social philosophy. Gauguin underwent drastic changes in style and construction upon living in Tahiti, some of which is accounted for by his belief that he had become one of them. This is shown in a letter written to Charles Morice by Gauguin in April of 1903. “You were mistaken one day when you said I was wrong to say that I am a savage. For it is true: I am a savage. And Civilized people suspect this, for in my works there is nothing so surprising and baffling as this ‘savage in spite of myself’ aspect…Thus I can say: no one taught me anything. On the other hand, it is true that I know so little! But I prefer that little, which is of my own creation…” At this point in his life, Gauguin had abandoned all that he had learned in the civilized world. He began painting merely what he could conjure up in his head.
It was during the early stages of this last period that Gauguin explored the theme of innocence and knowledge in his great allegory of 1897, Where Do We Come From?. This work incorporated both new ideas as well as old, and included characters from earlier works such as Eve. In the past, Eve has had a fairly ambiguous role in Gauguin’s art. In some works, Eve’s sins have brought guilt and despair, while in others, she is seen poised on the brink of her decision. In Where Do We Come From? Eve is seen as a very old woman, who is contemplating death and beginning to accept her faith with resignation. Also depicted in this picture is a large blue idol that represents “the beyond.”
Color had become a dominant theme in many of Gauguins’ works since leaving Europe. He began to deconstruct line and use color as a means of explaining his feelings. “He situated himself at the end of what he considered a false struggle between line and color…His ultimate aim in painting was to reconnect the plastic arts with human ideas and dreams and thus to embody thought in color-form rather than to paint actual sensation.” Gauguin did not necessarily seek to change art, but instead, change the way people thought about it.
Life after death became an important theme for Gauguin because of his increasing illness and his proximity to death. These issues were central to Gauguin’s life as well as his art. He was attempting to shed western civilization and become a savage, while at the same time, constantly reiterating the contrast between the two states. This paradox is shown most clearly in a letter to Monfreid in 1901.”The idea had occurred to me, when speaking about non-civilized people, to bring out their character alongside our own, and I thought it would be rather original for me to write (quite simply, like a savage), and next to that to have the style of a civilized man, which is what Morice is.” This letter shows the first step in his transition from painting as an outsider looking into the savage world, to becoming a savage himself. Where Do We Come From? illustrates a story, read from left to right across the canvas, about the process of life. Birth is depicted as a newborn baby on the right, while death is depicted as Eve on the far left.
The new style that Gauguin had created in his Tahiti paintings had a substantial affect on the style of modern art in Europe. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? was displayed, along with several other Gauguin works similar in style and composition, at Vollard’s gallery in November and December of 1898. The paintings that accompanied Where Do We Come From?, both served as fragmentary replicas of it as well as studies for it. This way of painting, with one dominant tonality, had never before been depicted in quite the same manner.
After completing both a visual analysis and research on Gauguin and his masterpiece, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, many new ideas about his influence and significance has become apparent. He created new ideas about the use of color as form, and began to deconstruct line and plane. These concepts became the basis for many abstract artists. Gauguin also incorporated significant symbolism into his works, including many biblical themes such as the Garden of Eden.
When I fist observed the painting I felt that it was fairly unorganized and that the characters were randomly placed. After researching I found that Gauguin had organized the canvas to be read, such as a storybook, from right to left, emphasizing themes such as religion, birth, and life after death. Looking back at the canvas, many of these themes became apparent; the small child depicted on the right, contrasted with the image of the dying Eve on the left. The blue idol still remained a mystery, but upon further research, I found that it represented the beyond, or life after death. Although the it was fairly easy to figure out that the central character was picking fruit from the tree of knowledge, it was not apparent how much Gauguin had concentrated on this idea throughout his career.
I found Where Do We Come From? to be an inspiring piece of art. As I learned more and more about the artist and the individual painting, it began to make more sense. It is a beautifully orchestrated piece, which delves into questions that people are faced with in everyday life. Questions concerning birth, death, and life after death, are confronted, and Gauguin shows his feelings by expressing it in his art. It is a passionate expression of his deepest inner emotions and beliefs.
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