Visual Arts10 Sep 2008 08:06 am
The Yellow Christ by Paul Gaugin (1889)
One of Gaugin’s most famous quotes was, “In order to do something new we must go back to the source, to humanity in its infancy.” In his life and art, Gaugin took this notion very literally: he spent much of his adulthood living in the South Pacific in an attempt to become better acquainted with “humanity in its infancy.” Of course, inhabitants of those islands would take strong issue with the notion that they were simple primitives, however kindly the accusation was meant. Nonetheless, it is a testament to Gaugin’s seriousness that he pursued his ideals with such tenacity.
But rather than being a sustained anthropological inquiry into the origins of art and culture, Gaugin’s primitivism was the same thing primitivism always is: a rejection of contemporary aesthetic ideals. From the time that late-Renaissance painters began refining techniques with optics to the late-19th century, much painting was a steady march of greater precision and greater realism. Perspective, shading, the play of light on matter–painters from da Vinci to Delacroix pursued these ideals for centuries. Gaugin rejected them. He used bold splashes rather than subtle gradations of color, and rejected perspective altogether.
In the 20th-century, however, a major irony emerged at Gaugin’s expense. Cave paintings that actually dated from the “infancy of humanity” were discovered throughout Europe. What did they reveal? A detailed realism. Perhaps humanity’s infancy wasn’t so “primitive” after all.
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