words by Phil Grabsky

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?, Paul Gauguin, 1897, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

 This week’s chosen painting is... 

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
By Paul Gauguin

...Here's why

It would be too easy to write a #PaintingOfTheWeek just about ‘masterpieces’, about those works that ‘it is generally agreed’ are ‘great’; that we should hold our breath in front of and be impressed by.  Now, of course I, in some ways, play that game with my films: my Leonardo: The Works film, for example, makes no attempt to do anything but show you his works in a context of wide-eyed awe.  And quite right that it too: they are extraordinary.  You, however, may not be moved in the same way as me.  They may bore you. You may have a reaction to the presentation of women (as supplicant mistresses) or the religious iconography of a faith you don’t believe in or his artistic style may simply leave you cold.  That is absolutely fine.  One of our objectives as filmmakers is not to fall into that art-world trap of suggesting that just because it is on an art gallery wall it is a great work – and if we don’t understand it or don’t like it that is our fault not the artist’s.  Nonsense: it is perfectly OK to stand in front of any work and feel nothing or even feel antipathy.  Thus this week’s Painting of the Week is one that I don’t like by an artist that has never really grabbed me. 

There are many exhibitions that have left me stunned and excited.  Three that immediately come to mind (all of which we filmed) are the Matisse cut-outs show at MoMA, the Goya at London’s National Gallery and the Bosch in his hometown of s’hertogenbosch in the Netherlands.  One that we filmed a few years earlier that left me cold was a major retrospective of Gauguin at Tate Modern.  Partly it was because there were simply too many paintings – the walls were covered with them. Partly it was simply because, well, they didn’t excite me.   Now you know by now that I am a firm believer that knowing an artist’s biography is hugely advantageous in appreciating his or her art.  I know Gauguin’s story – I have made two films about him (see the Home View shop at seventh-art.com) but, fascinating as it is, that didn’t make too much difference. 

This painting – to be found in Boston’s superb Museum of Fine Arts – is considered by some a masterpiece.  Gauguin was in Tahiti at the time and his life had taken some terrible twists and turns. He was in debt, an alcoholic, suffering from syphilis and had just been informed his daughter, back in France, had died of pneumonia.  Gauguin was always evaluating and questioning his belief in God and these moments led him, naturally, to once again explore ‘the beyond’.  The result is a painting that asks some of the most basic questions we as humans can ask and for which, in the absence of faith, the answers are often vague, bleak or simply the belief that, after death, there is nothing. These are powerful subjects for a painting and an intense biographical context from which they emerge.  The painting is obvious in its iconography and meanings. The baby, for example, at the start of life contrasted by a figure grasping a fruit, suggesting humanity’s temptation into evil and fall from grace.  Innocence and experience. Primitivism and civilisation.

That’s all very meaty but it just doesn’t hit me in the solar plexus. I find the characters are disconnected, the colours confusing and contradicting, the background thrusts into the foreground and the foreground falls away into the background. My eyes are distracted by the two yellow triangles on either side at the back and then bounce between the yellow skin of the characters. The various different scenes depicted feel more like sketches in a notebook than a coherent painting and, for me, unlike a Monet, a Cézanne, a Van Gogh, there is no great understanding of colour theory, of how colours work together. This feels awash with colour but in an incoherent, random way. 

All that said, it is a painting that, if you live or visit Boston, you should go see.  It’s not for me but I’ll be delighted if you disagree with me – that’s what makes art alive: it is not about the ‘knowing’ art elite telling ‘ordinary folk’ what is great and what isn’t. It is about artists since those first staggering cave paintings communicating about their world, their lives, their feelings.  That will connect with some and not with others.  The key, as is our intention always with EXHIBITION ON SCREEN, is to encourage people to take the time to look for themselves and come to his or her own opinion.

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Thanks for reading! Catch us next time with #PaintingOfTheWeekNo21