Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait with Halo (1889)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Painted as a decoration for the dining room of an inn where Gauguin once lived with one of his art students, this piece was completed on a simple cupboard door. Art scholars debate whether Gauguin was portraying himself as Christ or Satan. Perhaps both, in the twin apples of enlightenment and temptation, good and evil alongside the subject’s temple. With the halo, Gauguin appears to envision himself as the enticing artist-savior of all those around him, calling them to a life of illumination and insight beyond what he condemned as the confining strictures of religion and art of his day. This is fitting, given his megalomania.
Paul Gauguin, D’où venons nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (1897)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
This massive scape was completed on a canvas of jute, quickly cobbled together by Gauguin in the midst of his crushing material poverty. It is a beautiful but enigmatic piece of art in that it offers no real answers to the nagging questions it poses to us in the yellow of the upper-left corner: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Gauguin considered this piece his great testament to the ages.
Intending the piece to be viewed from right to left, it is curious that the scene consists of women in various activities and all stages of life, starting with birth on the right side and progressing to old age and imminent death on the left. And what of the two women coming from the cave, down the path toward the beginning-of-life side of the work? They are carrying a newborn child. It cannot go without notice that the linear movement of human life from birth to death is book-ended by animal life: a duck, of sorts, on the death-side and a dog on the birth-side. Certainly these artistic choices were not made haphazardly, and they are curious to ponder.
The only religious or spiritual hint in the piece is the strange pagan statue, which is being ignored by everyone in the painting save for one lady, who is also watching the two women emerge from the cave. What is the meaning of this? Is it a denunciation of empty pagan symbolism or religion as a whole? We are left to wonder. Is the lack of any clear answer to his questions itself to mean that there are no answers to be had, or that Gauguin himself had none to offer? Or are the answers simply found in the beauty of the mundane everyday activities of life? If so, Gauguin apparently felt that these answers are found only in the lives of women and in their life-giving power, for the painting features no males.