Man or beast? Callous cad or sensitive seeker of the sublime?

All, most likely.

Paul Gauguin, immortalised by his vivid, striking paintings, has been the subject of much debate. He shocked those who knew him when, in his late 30s, he quit his job as a stockbroker in Denmark to return to Paris to paint, leaving behind his wife and children. It is thought he never saw them again and much has been made of his subsequent behaviour in Tahiti: slumming it and living with various young women before succumbing to syphillis at the age of 54.

Somerset Maugham (cf last post: What defines a Lady?) penned his view of Gauguin through the stockbroker ‘Charles Strickland’ in THE MOON AND SIXPENCE. I was inspired to read it after seeing Gauguin’s paintings at the Tate Modern exhibition.

It is a sensitive, thoughtful portrayal of a painter tortured and held captive by his artistic impulses. ‘He seemed really to be possessed of a devil (p45)’, the narrator thinks when he first sees the painter in Paris, shortly after his move.

Maugham’s understanding – characteristically intellectual and deeply philosophical – does not, ultimately, pay credence to easy accusations or snap judgements. Through the narrator, a young English writer, the reader feels the same outrage and disgust at Strickland’s callous disregard for anyone else, for his deeply selfish nature that cares only for the painting he must do. But the longer you follow this struggling artist, the more you see the nuance in his seemingly insane quest (his paintings initially were seen as bizarre, outrageous). The further into the novel you get, the more you see how Strickland was in thrall to an inner beast which would not let him rest until he had given voice and face to it.

…the passion that held Strickland was a passion to create beauty. It gave him no peace. It urged him hither and thither. He was eternally a pilgrim, haunted by a divine nostalgia, and the demon within him was ruthless. There are men whose desire for truth is so great that to attain it they will shatter the very foundation of their world. Of such was Strickland, only beauty with him took the place of truth. I could only feel for him a profound compassion.

That same understanding, that glimpse of a genius is what Maugham left me with – that, and the deep, vibrant colours of Gauguin’s paintings, still fresh in my mind from our Tate visit last Sunday. Inspiring, indeed, but I am thankful to have escaped, personally, the unrelenting, passionate, destructive disposition of an artistic genius. I shall always, however, hold the utmost respect for that genuis.

To more domestic, mundane matters, I baked a deliciously moist Somerset Apple Cake this afternoon for a chum’s birthday. Served with a splash of thick, calvados creme, it was an indulgent treat after a delicious meal of Tuscan bean soup  and peas a la francaise.




Have a lovely rest of your weekend and here’s to a good week! Chao for now.


2 Responses to “Man or beast? Callous cad or sensitive seeker of the sublime?”

  1. Anna Says:

    Gauguin sounds a lot like some of the ghastly expats that we’ve met on our travels – too unpleasant to stay in their own land so settle in impoverished countries to take advantage of cheap alcohol and women who can be bought.
    At least he produced beautiful paintings and not just some scuzzy bar serving banana pancakes and English breakfasts from his time in Tahiti!
    Very much looking forward to seeing the exhibition when I get back to London. I remember the one in Amsterdam many years ago was truly spectacular.

    • emily Says:

      Sounds like you’ve met some real winners along the way, Anna 😉 Good parallel to Gauguin’s behaviour/demeanor. Unfortunately the Gauguin exhibition at the Tate came down this past weekend, but no doubt there will be another somewhere in the UK before too long. Wish I’d seen the one in Amsterdam.

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