Aesthetica Preprint, 24 (June 1989)

Riccardo Dottori, Paul Gauguin: The Contemporary and the Primitive

While in 1988 various exhibitions in Europe were devoted to the work of Vincent Van Gogh, to commemorate the year 1888 in which he and Gauguin spent two months together painting at Arles and thus opening up a new avenue for painting, the avenue of Modern art, by contrast Gauguin was completely ignored. This book instead aims to point out the importance of Gauguin as the artist who, together with Cézanne, was fully aware of a profound renewal of painting, and whose work really marked what was a turning point not only for painting but for the modern outlook in general.
This interpretation is based on his clear will to break the rules of perspective; on the importance he gave to colour, seen as musicality, and used according to absolutely abstract principles of composition (first done by Seurat) and totally independently of natural colours; and lastly on his will to abandon Paris and contemporary civilization in favour of a mythical and symbolic return to the primitive world. His flight to Brittany first, and then to Martinique and Tahiti, bears witness to this restlessness which is so typical of the contemporary soul, which has lost all certainties and seeks for a new and original experience of reality. In this sense Gauguin and the destruction of central perspective are akin to the destruction of modern metaphysics and the criticism of subjectivity advocated by Heidegger. But the interpretation of two fundamental pictures by Gauguin, the Green Christ and above all the great Tahiti painting Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going, shows that this first experience of contemporary reality is perceived by Gauguin first of all in an aesthetic sense, that is to say as the beginning of his synthesizing and of symbolic art - though it is an untypical and strictly personal symbolism - which brings him close to Hegel's conception of symbolism, present through the mediation of Mallarmé and the latter's circle of symbolist poets, who were friends of Gauguin. This however leads to his conception of the work of art as abstraction, pure representation, which was to be the basis of Modern Art, from the historical avantgardes to contemporary experiences.
In the second part, the essay particularly insists on the idea that Gauguin's conception of representation can be taken as the basis of a conception of the work of art which is valid for both classical and contemporary art, bearing in mind that representation does not mean portrayal but pure "poiesis" making the idea present. And the idea, unlike other ideologies, is what allows us to look beyond the given reality into the original mystery of existence. This involves an entirely open conception of the work of art, which can be valid for all experiences of contemporary art and all its different ways of looking on the work, up to the Postmodern. This also serves to safeguard the autonomy of art, with respect to every attempt to move it into the domain of the aesthetic or to give it a purely practical or even technologistic function. The answer to these attempts is what Gauguin's lay and pagan mysticism saw as the religious and celebratory value of painting, which returned, in the great picture by Gauguin examined, as the deliberately untopical motif of the fresco. And in this we see the possible future or destination of art.