Friday, December 30, 2011

Gauguin's Intimate Journals After 90 Years Defines Early Counterculture

When people are asked which era produced counterculture, most irrevocably conjure up images of the Sixties. Some, it seems, like to scoff at that notion and roll it back to the Beat Generation of the Fifties. Only a few, ignoring when the term was coined, give any credit to the Harlem Renaissance.

Even they are off the mark to some degree. Counterculture is not the stuff of eras; it is more visceral. Paul Gauguin knew it. His work, Gauguin's Intimate Journals, was first published by his son in 1921, almost 20 years after his death. And while there are earlier examples, his work proves the point.

The man for whom Van Gogh cut his ear off was a counterculturist. And Gauguin, who was easily one of the most insurgent spirits of his time, knew it more than 70 years before the beatniks. 
He knew it so well that in 1883 he gave up his job as a stockbroker, said farewell to his wife and three children, and eventually escaped what he called the "sham and hypocrisy of civilization" for the simpler and more savage South Seas by way of Paris.

Gauguin's Intimate Journals is a self-portrait of a counterculturist.

The legendary story that he shed all of his bourgeois ambitions and respectability in a single night, of course, is dispelled early on by his son in the preface. It was less of a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation than an understanding he reached with his courageous wife. She was willing to sacrifice her safety net to let him plunge feverishly and headfirst into his passion for art.

Nonetheless, even tempered by the preface, the story is a good one. The book itself strikes as hot and hard as any contemporary work, maybe harder. Gauguin might have appreciated writers and philosophers (except when they bored him), but had no inclination to be overly contemplative. If there is any underlying message, he is clear enough about it: non-refinement is art.

"I should like to be a pig; man alone can be ridiculous." — Paul Gauguin

The journals, completed during his final years, are filled with wit and no holds barred ramblings and rumblings about his life and what he thought of various colleagues while in Paris, people like Van Gogh, Degas, Cezanne, Manet, and others. 
Ramblings and rumblings are exactly the right words. Within the first few paragraphs, Gauguin insists that what he was writing was not a book.

Even if an author has no serious readers, he wrote, the author of a book must be serious.

He would rather chatter. In doing so, he reveals motivations much more effortlessly than anyone might expect, despite the fact that many entries fail to retain some semblance of coherency. Most of it is more akin to a series of personal blog posts, collected and printed more than a hundred years before blogs existed.

It strikes me that this is the way he intended it. It may even be that his constant reminders that "this is not a book" is not for any reader's benefit as much as his own. He wanted to write very much like he painted, reinventing how people perceived things like art, literature, theatre, and philosophy.

It is much more important to feel and connect with it, he sums, than to be overtly concerned with old techniques or the tenets laid out by critics. So instead of composition, he writes nakedly, fearlessly, shamelessly. He didn't do it to please anyone, but rather because no one could prevent him from doing it. It was his will.

His personal relationship with Vincent Van Gogh and the infamous ear. 

With the exception of art students, some may be surprised just how much sway he held over Van Gogh, who would become the more famous artist (to the modern general public). Yet, it was Gauguin's premise that an artist needs to cut the shackles of one school or another and paint from his or her nature and will.

Following his advice, Van Gogh would produce some of his most brilliant and avant-garde work. However, given his mental disorder, finding himself may have also hastened his unraveling. Van Gogh may have even subconsciously blamed Gauguin for it, which would explain why he began hearing a voice that urged him to kill his roommate.

Although the account written by Gauguin only sheds light on his point of view, Van Gogh did intend to kill him in a public garden with a razor blade. Instead, when the pending confrontation was about to occur, Van Gogh ran home and cut off his ear in the hope he would no longer hear the voice.

Gauguin's Intimate Journals Turns A 8.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Although not for any literary merit, the book is a must read for anyone interested in counterculture or art. Instead of technique, he writes about things like hanging pornographic pictures at his residence.

He did it because it amused him when the only people who stopped visiting his home considered themselves respectable. They were also the only ones who would dwell on it for more than a year. That is Gauguin, the same artist who influenced the likes of Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Julian Hatton, W. Somerset Maugham, Michael Smetanin, Alison Croggon, and others in art and subject.

Gauguin's Intimate Journals is temporarily out of print and has not been added to digital libraries to date. However, Barnes & Nobles lists several editions in its marketplace for prices that vary depending on its condition. On Amazon, Gauguin's Intimate Journals is also limited to outside vendors.

The book includes 27 black and white illustrations by Gauguin. For those unfamiliar with his work as a painter, we found a surprising collection of prints, museum prints, and canvas prints at Barewalls (including the two above). Just search for his name.
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