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tv   Democracy Now  LINKTV  February 6, 2013 3:00pm-4:00pm PST

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narrator: paul gauguin's life was the stuff of romantic fiction -- a tale as exotic and astonishing as his paintings. born in france, he was raised in peru. a sailor in his teens, a stockbroker in his twenties, by the age of 35 he was a married father of four and a colltor of paintings he bought wo from édouard manet and the impressionists camille pissarro and edgar degas. and then, a plot twist. in 1882, seid by the desire to create rather than collect art,
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he cast it all away. rejecting the fetters of bourgeois society, he began a search for artistic purity that would last r the rest of his life. he scoured the most remote areas of france and its colonies for subjects, restlessly scraping away the veneer of civilization to search for deeper truths and redefine the course of painting. and he died in poverty only to be widely recognized as a genius later generatis. but gauguiwas more than a character in his story. he was the creator of paul gauguin, the visionary artist and myth-maker. from the outset, gauguicrafted personafter persa to shape the direction of his art and alter the trajtory of his career.
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he could be gauguin the peasant, rejecting the excesses of capitalism. gauguin the lost soul on a spiritual quest... gauguin as jean valjea the persecuted hero of victor hugo's "les misérables." denied recognition, he could shift his shape into gauguin the martyr, suffering christlike in the garden of olives, and of course the flip side -- the evil lucifer -- a fallen angel turned devil's disciple. all of his guises contained an element of truth. but the most recurring of them was gauguin the savage, the embodiment of a primitive consciousness. (music) his maternal grandmother, flora tristan,
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was an ardent socialist and feminist whose uncle was the spanish viceroy of peru. the gauguin family sailed for peru when paul was only a year old. his father died en route. but paul, his mother and siste spent the next five years in lima. years later, back in paris, he refashioned his dim childhood memories of an exotic country into a new persona. the land of the incas inspired the very french gauguin to claim, outrageously, inca descent. reader (gauguin): you know that by birth my background is indian -- inca -- and all that i do reflects this. it's the foundation ofmy p. rrator: wh he took up pottery in paris in 1886, gauguin drew inspiration from ancient peruvian pottery that his mother had collected.
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but his ceramics were rough and robust rather than refined. he occasnally insinuated them into his paintings, replacing the face of an ancient peruvian with his own self-portrait. critics were baffled. reader (gauguin): i am seeking to set something more natural against corrupt civilization, with the primitive as my starting point. narrator: it was a thread that wove its way through his life. years later, he would write: reader (gauguin): 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. narrator: gauguin's concept of the savage was drawn from the european idea of a noble savage, coidered a paragon of natural virtue. in the 19th century, with industrialization in high gear, gauguin and others held up the idea of the noble savage
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as a rebuke to the greed, corruption, and poverty rampant in modern society. he began to look away from paris and search for a purer world. his search began on the windswept coast of brittany. narrator: just as gauguin mythologized himself, he mythologized places to fit his own ends. in 1882, he began to remake his life, leaving the stock market to devote himself to painting. two and a half yrs later he left his wife and family. unable to afford life in paris, he moved to pont-aven in brittany in 1886. pont-aven's natural beauty, the light filtering through the canopy in the forest of love --
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appealed to painters. fifteen hours by train and wagon from paris, pont-aven lay in the department of finistère -- from the latin for the end of the earth. narrator: to 19th-century parisians, it seemed an apt description. cut off from paris, brittany was also cut off from modernity. its largely agrarian population lived off the land and the sea, farming, fishing and harvesting kelp for the manufacture of iodine. celtic rather than gallic by origin, the bretons were devoutly religious, keeping to the old traditions. by the time gauguin arrived, pont-aven was becoming a mecca for tourists in search of the quaint. but it was a starting point for gauguin's quest for authenticity. he lodged at the gloanec inn,
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a cheap and popular spot for many painters drawn to the area. his earliest breton paintings owed much to impressionism. but he gradually stepped away from portraying life as he saw it. gauguin eliminated any signs of modernity and depicted his subjects with intense, vivid blocks of color. reader (gauguin): my reputation as an artist is growing day by day, but meanwhile i sometimes go three days without eating, which undermines not only my health but my energy. this i intend to restore and i am off to panama to live like a savage. narrator: still looking for paradise, gauguin arrived in panama in 1887 with charles laval, a younger artist. work had begun on the canal which would open the floodgates to another wave of colonial adventure. gauguin found work with a construction firm.
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after two weeks and bouts of malaria and dysentery, the painters made off for martinique and found a new storehouse of ideas. reader (gauguin): we have found a native hut oa plantation. below us, the sea and a sandy beach for bathing and on either side coconut palms and other fruit trees for a landscape painter to feast on... what appeals to me most is the people, and every day brings a ceaseless coming and going of island women in colorful fad finery with their infinite variety of graceful movements. narrator: gauguin returned to paris late in 1887 and sold some of his martinique paintings. the perceptive critic octave mirbeau was spellbound. ra sacred, eden-like abundance in these forest interiorstery,
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with their monstrous vegetation and flowers and their tremendous sunsets. narrator: gauguin returned to brittany in 1888. two years earlier he had left as an observer. he returned as a prophet. reader (gauguin): i love brittany. here i find wild and primitive features. when my wooden clogs resound on this granite ground, i hear the muffled and powerful thud that i seek in my painting. when my wooden clogs resound on this granite ground, naator: finding pont-aven too touristy, he took lodgings in le pouldu, a fishing village on the atlantic ocean. the hotel buvette de la plage was home to painters of a new generation looking for a new path. gauguin urged artists not to copy nature too much and express instead images and ideas forged in the mind.
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in his painting of jacob wrestling the angel, the bold red background ignores the natural world and replaces it with color that creates a dreamscape. he titled it, "the vision of the sermon." in a letter to vincent van gogh he described the painting: reader: (gauguin): breton women praying: very intense black clothes -- yellow-white bonnets, very luminous. the ground is pure vermillion. i think i have achieved great simplicity in the figures, very rustic, very superstitious... for me in this painting the landscape and the fight exist only in the imagination of the people praying after the sermon, which is why there is a contrast between the people, who are natural, and the struggle going on in the landscape
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which is non-natural and out of proportion. narrator: the painting made him a father figure to the younger artists. gauguin playfully cacatured himself as lucifer, the fallen angel. halo intact, framed by thapples of temptation and graspi the serpent, gauguin has cast himself as both saint and sinner. it was painted on a cupboard door in the dining room of the inn at le pouldu, which now displays replicas of his works. on the other side, he painted a portrait of his friend meijer de haan, a dutch artist a protegé he met in brittany. gauguin turned meijer de haan into a devilish creature given to reading philosophical books that dealt with the lationship of men to god, like johmilton's "paradise lost" anothereferee to the theme of the falangel.
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for all his tongue-icheek aylness, a deep current of spirituality runs through gauguin's work. raised a catholic, he rejected the institution of the church, but not the faith, nor its imagery. a sculpture of christ being taken wn from the cross outside the church of nizon inspired "green christ." he moved the setting to the cliffs and dunes above le pouldu. he was drawn to brittany's humble, direct forms of worship. the chapel at trémalo near pont-aven captures the essence of the region's homespun christianity. one painter described brittany as a primitive world, where paganism lurked behind a veneer of christianity.
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gauguin transported the crucifix to a breton landscape. in "yellow christ," he employed a fiery, unnatural palette and outlined the figure to emphasize its flatness -- deliberately making it more primitive. the setting echoed a local breton belief that saw a mystical connection between the crucifixion and the autumn harvest. "yellow christ," reversed, serves as the background for one of his most telling self-portraits. completed in 1889, gauguin paints himself as flanked by -- or perhaps torn between -- the passion of christ and the image of a ceramic savage. narrator: admired in avant-garde circles, gauin was still largely unknown, still poor,
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still hungry and determined to push his art furthe in the spring of 1889, the paris world's fair gave him his chance. twenty-eight million people attended the large-scale celebration of the centenary of the french revolution. displays included conventional european art, pavilions celebrating scientific and industrial inventions and novelties. buffalo bill's wild west show -- including the sharpshooter annie oakley -- played to packed houses. clustered around the fairound were "attrtions" -- including reconstructions of villages peopled by native subjects of colonies in africa and asia. narrator: gauguin frequented the fair, watching the dancers of java, and was fascinated by the reconstructions of asian temples.
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but it was tahiti that ultimately caught his attention. narrator: tahiti had long taken root as an earthly paradise in the european imagination. more than a century earlier, the french explorer louis-antoine de bougainville had published a glowing account of his visit to the island in 1768, likening it to the garden of eden. reader (bougainville): nature has placed it in the most beautiful climate in the universe... the inhabitants are handsome, tall, and strong... they form perhaps the happiest society that exists on the globe... the beauty of the landscape... the purity of the air... everything inspires voluptuousness. narrator: tahiti seemed perfect to gauguin. now in his early 40s, he wrote to his wife: reader: (gauguin): may the day come -- soon, perhaps -- when i'll flee to the woods on an island in oceania,
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there to live on ecstasy, calm, and art. there, in tahiti, in the silence of the beautiful tropical nights, i will be able to listen to the soft, murmuring music of the movements of my heart in amorous harmo with the mysterious beings around me. free at last, without financial worries and able to love, sing, and die. narrator: gauguin landed in papeete, the tahitian capital. he arrived wearing a hat he'd picked up at buffalo bill's wild west show. but the tahiti gauguin encountered in 1891 had changed drastically from the tahiti described so rapturously by 18th-century explorers. far from france, it was also far from paradise.
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now a french colony, life there had been transformed by bureaucrats and missionaries -- and by the european scourges of small pox, influenza, and alcoholism. within days, gauguin's illusions about papeete were stripped away. reader (gauguin): tahiti is becoming completely french. little by little, all the ancient ways will disappear. our missionaries have imported much hypocrisy and they are sweeping away part of the poetry. narrator: not finding the tahiti he expected, he began to paint the tahiti of his dreams. christian missionaries had persuaded the tahitians to adopt modest, baggy smocks, but gauguin restored their sensuous sarongs, called 'pareos.' he showed his subjects in rmony with nature -- healthy and at peace in beautiful landscapes -- taking them back to a past
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he was passionately hoping to recover. reader (gauguin): will i succeed in finding a trace of this so distant and so mysterious past? to rediscover the ancient hearth, to revive the fire in the midst of all these ashes? narrator: his tahitian paintings ofn elude meaning. the figures are lost in their own thoughts, rarely interacting with each other. titles ask questions that are left unanswered -- "what! are you jealous?" "where are you going?" "why are you angry?" asked about the meaning of "the dream," gauguin replied: reader (gauguin): everything is a dream in this canvas -- is it the dream of the child, the mother, the rider on the path or the artist?
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narrator: a sinister quality creeps into many of these works. gauguin was drawn not just to the idea of a peaceful paradise, but to the wild undercurrents of his new world. the tahitian spirit of the dead -- the 'tupapau' -- haunts several of his works. in "manao tupapau" - "the spirit of the dead keeps watch" -- he depicted the troubled state of his young mistress after his late-night return from a trip to papeete. reader (gauguin): tehura lay motionless, naked, belly down on the bed; she stared up at me her eyes wide with fear, and she seemed not to know who i was. perhaps she took me for one of those legendary specters, the 'tupapaus' that filled the sleepless nights of her people.
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narrator: similar spirits appear elsewhere in gauguin's work. inwords of the devil," an evil spirit staresout fn the nude's modest pose suggests eve aer the fall, covering herkedness i, but the traditional symbol of temptation -- the serpent -- is now a 'tupapau.' the theme of the fallen eve recurs in "delightful land," where eve holds a flower instead of an apple and a strange, winged lizard replaces the serpent. apples and snakes were unknown in tahiti but for gauguin, original sin and humanity's fall from grace were universal. (music) gauguin had hoped to find inspiration in traditional tahitian art as he had in brittany.
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when he found none, he created it himself. he claimed his grasp of tahitian mythology came from conversations he shared with his mistress tehamana but that was a fiction. she spoke as little french as he spoke tahitian. to recreate a mythic tahitian past, he drew from a book on polynesia published in paris in the late 1830s. gauguin transformed accounts of the moon goddess hina and her son, the earth god fatu, into carved idols. he included images of invent deities in his paintings. gauguin had always treatedthe sy of other cultures as fair game. in 1889 he'd painted an anguished woman he called the "breton eve." he modelled the despairing figure on a peruvian mummy he'd seen in the trocadero museum in paris.
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the figures in his depiction of women in the marketplace in papeete were adapted from egyptian paintings. he borrowed the pose of his tahitian eve from a photograph he had of reliefs in the buddhist temple of borobudur in indonesia. they also inspired the strange vegetation that appears in some of his paintings -- his portrait of his mistress includes in some decipherable inscriptions -- imitations of inscriptions he'd seen on tablets from easter island. in "parahi te marae," meaning "there lies the temple," he created a sacred precinct bordered by a fence he invented on the basis of a marquesan ear ornament he'd sketched in france. the skulls along the top suggest the cannibalistic practices
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he believed had once been performed there. photographs he'd seen of sculptures on easter island probably inspired the idol on the hillside. despite his long absences, gauguin remained in touch with the art world in paris. he continued to exhibit his new paintings and often gave them tahitian titles to make them even more exotic to potential yers. he returned to paris, but after two years of disappointing sales, gauguin left again. he stopped in auckland, new zealand on his way back to tahiti. auckland was home to a museum with a superb collection of works representing the legacy of the maori people. the maori had migrated from tahiti and other parts of polynesia to new zealand centuries earlier.
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his brief stay in auckland finally gave gauguin a chance to see traces of the lost tahitian art he'd been seeking and inventing. he sketched them on the spot for future use. back in tahiti, his sketch of a maori treasure box inspired his painting of a vase holding sunflowers. back in tahiti, his sketch of a maori treasure box east meets west in the mythic imagery that gauguin invented. he sought parallels between christianity and the spirituality of other cultures. "ave maria" shows a tahitian madonna and child being worshipped by two women inspired by a relief at borobudur. gauguin was intent on searching for a spiritual connection that he thought was the essence of humanity.
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in 1901 gauguin, now in his 50s, was creatively and physically exhausted. reader (gauguin): today i've hit bottom, feated by povey and... the illness of an altogether premature old age... i will be making a last effort next month by going to live on one of the marquesan islands. i think the altogether wild element, the complete solitude will rejuvenate my imagination and lead to the fulfillment of my tale before i die. narratorhe finally settled on the island of hiva oa -- among the most remote of the marquesas where, gauguin hinted in letters, cannibalism was still fresh in the cultural memory of the people. he took a local girl as his mistress and built a hut he named the house of pleasure,
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which has been reconstructed. the doorway was framed with ornate carvings -- echoes of those he'd seen on maori meeting houses in auckland. he added an inscription "be in love and you will be happy." for 18 months he worked at a feverish pace -- drawing, painting, and always writing. in "barbaric tales" he recalled his old friend from brittany, meijer de haan. increasingly hesick, he contemplated a return to paris with the hope of capitalizing on his growing reputatn. his friend daniel de monfried advised against it. reader (de monfried): "it is to be feared that your return would not only derange the growing and slowly conceived ideas with which public opinion has surrounded you.... you must not return! now you are as the great dead.
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you have passed into the history of art!" narrator: weakened by syphilis, gauguin diedn may of 1903 from heart failu narrat the age of 54. syphilis, as he'd requested, his most prized sculpture "oviri" -- tahitian for savage -- was eventually cast in bronze and placed on his grave. it stands there still as enigmatic as the questions he asked himself in his twenty-year commitment to painting. gauguin's achievements as an artist broke the bounds of naturalism and moved painting into a new century. his questions remained unanswered. but for all his guises, schemes and dreams, paul gauguin remained unbowed to the very end. reader (gauguin): i feel i have been right about art...
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and if my works do not endure there will remain the memory of an artist who set painting free.
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