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A devoted rebel

"Renegades, fools, madmen!" It is difficult to imagine the depth of resentment that the first exhibitions of Impressionist paintings inspired in the French art critics and viewing public of the late 19th century -- especially since now, 100 years later, these artists are revered as the patron saints of modern creativity. The painters themselves certainly never anticipated the reaction. After a period in which they attempted to penetrate the official competitions of the Academy and to wean the public to an appreciation of their new styles, the Impressionists accepted the spiritual (and often physical) isolation and directed their energies primarily into their work.

Between the images of "mad rebel" and "visionary saint" which art history has consigned to these artists, it is easy to lose sight of the reality of individual lives. How did the artist survive such universal rejection and, even more than that, bring to life such magnificent work?

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The overriding impulse at the time was to escape: escape from the political and social turmoil of the Republic; hide from the rising industrialization that was transforming Europe; shun the materialist establishment for a private world. Cezanne went south to Aix and Van Gogh to Arles to explore the sun-rich landscape; Monet was sequestered in his gardens at Giverny, and Toulouse-Lautrec confined himself to the music halls and the borders of Montmartre. After a thwarted attempt to settle in Denmark, Gauguin left his family and made his home on the northern coast of Brittany.

When you think of the word "escape," the name Paul Gauguin is immediately conjured -- Gauguin, the "primitive genius" who exiled himself to increasingly exotic societies, seeking simplicity and inspiration. Look at the man as he saw himself in 1889. He is solitary, set apart. His hat drifts right and shields one eye. The face is simply modeled, with only a hint of the features revealed. Yet the head and hulking body are strongly outlined in black like some stained-glass prophet. His vague expression, pinned between the blue of hat and scarf, is dour, rejected, yet utterly self-possessed. In a letter to Emilie Bernard he wrote: "Of all my efforts this year, there remains only the roar of Paris which discourages me to the point where I no longer dare to paint; I take my old body for a stroll in the north wind of Le Pouldu. . . . The soul, however, is absent. . . . Let them take a careful look at my latest painting (granted they have a heart for such things) and they will see what resigned suffering is. Is a human cry nothing at all?"

Yet if this fatalism and despair are genuine, the opposite is also fact. During this time, Gauguin produced a tremendous amount of creative work and helped to explore a new language for painted expression. With his technique of "syntheticism," he was less imitative of nature than the Impressionists; instead he focused on the "inner nature" of experience and expressed this with sharply defined forms and harmonies of flat, brightly colored patterns. The field behind the figure mounts color upon color toward the sky and draws the viewer's eye into the mosaic of hues and shapes.

Gauguin felt a comforting bond with both the stark landscape and the Celtic rural folk of the north. "I love Brittany," he exclaimed in a letter. "Here I find a wild and primitive quality. When my wooden shoes clatter on the granite ground, I hear the muted, dull, and powerful sound which I am seeking in painting."

Gauguin's antidote to the "plague" of overcivilized life was to return to the instinctual, the primal stirrings of the imagination. Somehow northern France was not primitive enough, the "stranger" not yet completely free. So the ex-stockbroker from Paris set his sights on Tahiti and the South Seas, to "live there in ecstasy, calm, and art. Surrounded by a new family, far from the European struggle for money . . . I shall be able to love, sing, and die." For better or worse, the myth of "escape to a tropical paradise" that Gauguin engendered is as large and enduring in most eyes as his greatest discoveries in art. He turned from the world of capitalism, true, but at the cost of deserting his wife and children. He befriended and worked beside artists like Bernard and Van Gogh, but callously abandoned them for his own advancement. Finally, in his rejection of European society he illuminated the possibilities for intuitive simplicity in both life and art styles. But always one eye looked back toward Paris; always the paintings were returned "home," where his friends had been cultivating his admirers. And when he would have perhaps chosen to return to France, his own legend demanded his devotion to the South Seas.

Wem know the legend as it is preserved in the history texts, but the man himself contended with daily struggles. In the morning he woke and worried, over breakfast, about the money for pigments and whether the day's run would persist. Painting for 10 to 15 hours when the light was good, he felt the strain in his eyes, the fatigue in his right hand. The voice within his silence boasted about the triumph he would have one day in Paris, how the galleries would sell his canvases faster than croissants. . . . But the voice would whisper: fool, imposter, you will fail at this enterprise, you will never paint a thing worthy of the title "art." From this challenge, there is no honest escape possible. Worrying and rejoicing, he went on with the work.

In the end, all of it was true: fool and prophet, boaster and genius. But more vital to us is the wonder that the exploration and the imagination remained constant. All his life, the art lifted him from the confusion of days into a remarkable order; it mediated a truce between the wars of the spirit and was allowed to work in peace. Had his painting never won the prize of cultural acclaim, it would still have been a masterpiece. A life of seeing, learning, portraying that wholesight -- this is a man's real genius. But because the art was embraced by our society, because the images are so loved, they are an open challenge to all of us: see clearly, defy failure, carry on the work.

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