Gauguin, Meyer de Haan Are Reunited in Nirvana

Of the many modern artists who have sought refuge from the

encroachments and commercialism of modern civilization in primitive,

out-of-the-way places of unspoiled natural beauty, the French painter Paul

Gauguin (1848-1903) is probably the most legendary. The story of his

life-quitting a profitable job on the Paris stock exchange and then abandoning

his wife and five children for the unfettered freedom and exoticism of Tahiti-has

long served as an archetype of the modern artist’s alienation from bourgeois

society. His declaration, in a letter to his abandoned wife, that “I am a great

painter and I know it. It is because I am that I have endured so much

suffering,” has similarly become part of the mythology of the modern artist.

Before he settled in Tahiti, where he produced his most

celebrated pictures, Gauguin sought refuge in Provence, and it was there that

he had his famous quarrel with Van Gogh in Arles. He then traveled to Brittany,

going first to Pont-Aven, where he worked with Émile Bernard, and then to the

seaside village of Le Pouldu in 1889. It is for this reason that Le Pouldu is

sometimes referred to as Gauguin’s “first Tahiti in France.”

It is of this latter,

short-lived period in Gauguin’s career that the exhibition called Gauguin’s “Nirvana”: Painters at Le Pouldu,

1889-90 , currently on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, offers us

a vivid account. Although arrogant and quarrelsome by nature, Gauguin made a

point of gathering an assortment of lesser talents around him in his places of

retreat. At Le Pouldu, the most important of these followers was a Dutch

painter and patron, Jacob Meyer de Haan (1852-95), who also served as a subject

for some of the most memorable works Gauguin created in this period.

De Haan, whose work many visitors to this exhibition are

likely to be seeing for the first time, was born in Amsterdam into an Orthodox

Jewish family that made its money producing bread and matzoh. He was a man of considerable

esoteric learning; he was also a hunchback. Early on, he gave up his interest

in the family business in exchange for a stipend to study painting, and his

early work shows him to have mastered the academic conventions of Dutch genre

and portrait painting. It was his contact with Gauguin that turned him into a

modernist of the Symbolist school.

Inevitably, then, it is Gauguin who is the dominant spirit

in this show of Painters at Le Pouldu .

Yet, though he was never to be Gauguin’s equal as a painter, de Haan also looms

as a strong presence in this exhibition-both in Gauguin’s Symbolist portraits

of the Dutch artist and in de Haan’s own remarkably successful attempts to

paint in a Gauguinesque style. Uniting the master and his disciple, moreover, was

a strong but by no means unequivocal bond of mutual dependency.

Gauguin was dependent

upon the money de Haan paid him for instruction in the mysteries of the

Symbolist aesthetic, while de Haan remained dependent upon Gauguin’s artistic

leadership. Both, of course, were exiles from the world of bourgeois

respectability, and their relationship was further complicated by the fact that

they were sexual rivals for the favors of the woman who operated the inn at Le

Pouldu, where they lived and had their studio space. De Haan is known to have

been the father of her child.

Exactly what Gauguin thought of de Haan is itself something

of a conundrum. In de Haan’s own Self-Portrait

(circa 1889-91), one of his most beautifully painted pictures, there is nothing

in the least exotic or demonic in the depiction of his facial features. On the

contrary, he looks rather solemn, grave and careworn. Yet in virtually all of

Gauguin’s portraits of de Haan, those same features-especially the eyes and the

ears-are transformed into something fierce, lascivious and animalistic. Indeed,

the eyes and ears in these Gauguin portraits of de Haan are almost identical to

those of the symbolic fox that presides over the pale body of the prostrate

naked girl in Gauguin’s The Loss of

Virginity (1890-91), a painting set in the Le Pouldu countryside.

It has been suggested, by the way, that Gauguin’s distorted

depiction of de Haan in these portraits may have exerted an important influence

on the conception of the figures in Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon (1907), for there had been a huge

retrospective of Gauguin’s work in Paris in 1906 which Picasso is known to have

seen.

Be that as it may, it is certainly beyond doubt that the

visage of Jacob Meyer de Haan remained fixed in Gauguin’s imagination as some

sort of symbol, even after both had been obliged to make their separate

departures from Le Pouldu. When de Haan’s family stipend ran out in 1890,

neither could afford to remain in their Brittany retreat. De Haan returned to

Amsterdam, and Gauguin soon departed for Tahiti. In the last painting that we

see in the Hartford exhibition-Gauguin’s Contes

Barbares , or Primitive Tales ,

painted in Tahiti in 1902, when de Haan had been dead for seven years-Gauguin’s

student reappears with his fox-like demonic features in the company of two

bare-breasted Tahitian girls. Similar images of de Haan can be seen in other

later works that are not included in the present exhibition.

In the end, of course, it is as a chapter in the development

of Gauguin’s art-a Symbolist, Post-Impressionist art that would influence a

great deal of early 20th-century modernist art-that the Painters at Le Pouldu exhibition makes its principal claim on our

attention. In this respect, certainly, this show beautifully succeeds in recalling

us to a time and place and to the strange friendship that proved to be crucial

to the tragic finale of Gauguin’s tumultuous career. This is the first

exhibition to be devoted to this brief period in

Gauguin’s development, and it is unlikely that it will be done again

anytime soon. It remains on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum through April 29,

and will not travel.