Saturday, October 11, 2008

Romanticism and Primitivism: Wordsworth and Gauguin

We all know or think we know what political revolutions are all about: those who used to be on top are now on the bottom, or dead. The wheel of fortune has revolved. When painters are referred to as 'revolutionary', something similar (at a minimum I suppose) is going on: those who were on the top, getting good prices for their pictures, will soon suffer the fate of all those who fall from favor. But that cannot exhaust the meaning of 'revolutionary' when applied to some new thing in the arts; the word has to mean--if it means anything at all--something more than merely another turn of fortune's wheel.

When the Impressionists changed the language of art, they must have been changing, subtly, the language of politics as well. Why otherwise make such a fuss? But how does that work? How can changes in the way people use paint to make representations of the world, change the world? For that's what was happening in Europe--in all the arts-- during the decades leading up to the First World War and the Twentieth Century. Or maybe the artists weren't actually changing the world but rather, like those famous canaries down in the coal-mines, registering historic changes that ordinary people were unable to observe.

Paul Gauguin was not exactly an Impressionist but he hung out with that crowd. They were his friends; Pisarro was his teacher.
What makes Gauguin a revolutionary, in art-historical terms? His art is increasingly non-naturalistic, less and less interested in the imitation of nature. So what? There is a paragraph of Wordsworth's (from his Preface to the 1800 edition of his--and Coleridge's--Lyrical Ballads that I at least find illuminating. Explaining why he chose to write poems about humble, ordinary, rustic folk, he has this to say:

"Low and rustic life was generally chosen because in that situation the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that situation our elementary feelings exist in a state of greater simplicity and consequently may be more accurately contemplated and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and from the necessary character of rural occupations are more easily comprehended; and are more durable; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and from the necessary character of rural occupations are more easily comprehended; and are more durable; and lastly, because in that situation the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature." (My italics.)

That last phrase tells us what Gauguin found in Tahiti--or rather found after he had created it in the extraordinary pictures he painted there.

Paul Gauguin did not know what he was looking for, exactly, when he went first to Martinique in 1887 and then four years later to Tahiti. He thought he was looking for places where the living would be cheap and easy and he could paint far from the madding crowd of art critics and historians. What he seems to have found, and painted, was a thing or state of mind that he probably did not know he was looking for until he found it: 'unity of being' -- a phrase or an ideal that was just beginning to haunt modern art and poetry and would continue to do so throughout the 20th century. (T. S. Eliot called it, in a memorably ugly phrase, the undissociated sensibility.)

Gauguin painted the women (and a few men) of Tahiti as if had found a place at last "where the passions... are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature": a place and society outside history. Tahiti may once have looked like that, but by the time Gauguin got there the island like many others had become the toy of the Europeans, which they were busily destroying.

Gauguin liked to refer to himself as a "savage" on the strength of some family connections in Peru.

When Tahiti began to seem insufficiently savage as well as too expensive, he moved to another island, Mataiea, in the Marquesas, where life was cheaper and--he was thrilled to discover--cannibalism had been practised in the not very distant past.

And here I must throw in some lines from a poem that T.S. Eliot wrote, in music hall style, about life on a cannibal isle. Sweeney is trying to present the attractions of such a life, among the "Gauguin maids," to a young woman named Doris who isn't having any:

There's no telephones
There's no gramophones
There's no motorcars....
Nothing to eat but the fruit as it grows
Nothing to see but the palmtrees one way
And the sea the other way,
Nothing to hear but the sound of the surf.
Nothing at all but three things
DORIS: What things?
SWEENEY: Birth and copulation and death.
That's all, that's all, that's all, that's all.
Birth and copulation and death.
DORIS: I'd be bored.
SWEENEY: You'd be bored.
Birth and copulation and death.
DORIS: I'd be bored
SWEENEY: You'd be bored.
Birth, and copulation and death.
That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth and copulation and death.
I've been born and once is enough.
You don't remember, but I remember,
Once is enough.

So much for the romantic primitivism of Paul Gauguin--and many others.

It is very odd to think of those tom-toms in Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring as somehow originating in the profoundly conservative mind of William Wordsworth.

1 comment:

  1. Did the mother of all revolutions take place in France? The first French Revolution failed, despite the fact that it gave the world the metric system. The revolution that succeeded was in America.

    The French Revolution did lead to the Reign of Terror, however, so maybe it was the grandmother, albeit not the mother, of all totalitarian revolutions.