Page 45 Review by Stephen
"In these lands, I experienced a lightness such as I had never known before. My mind had freed itself of its old burdens.
"It was so simple to paint what I saw! Putting red or blue on the canvas without a plan, freed from former constraints, freed from the shackles."
In which Fabrizio Dori nails Paul Gauguin on every level and constructs an exceptionally witty way, informed by Gauguin's own art, of getting to the heart of the man and conveying that heart's duality.
Liberation was everything to Paul Gauguin.
In his paintings he sought to liberate himself from traditional, formal, physical composition, concentrating instead on instinctive, suggestive harmonies of colour.
He sought to liberate himself from the conservatism and supercilious snobbery that becomes entrenched in any Institution - including the Art Establishment - however enlightened its predominant contemporary movement.
In his life he sought freedom from his financial failings and so constraints which came to prey upon him terribly, from the civilisation of a Europe so grey compared his early years in Peru, and the Parisian prison of a school whose teachers and pupils he didn't understand and who did not understand him to the extent that - as soon as could, aged seventeen - he signed on with a merchant marine vessel headed for South America, and sailed the West Indies, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea before learning of his mother's death and returning once more to Paris.
This book is so cleverly structured as to show, right at its centre, that Gauguin had finally achieved all that freedom and more. He had escaped Paris by uprooting himself to Tahiti in the Tropical Pacific Ocean, rejected his initial port of call in Papeete as a "colonists' town" too reminiscent of the Europe he'd left behind, and settled in a southern coastal fishing village where he made friends, began learning the language and absorbing its mythology before exploring its even wilder terrain and finally finding a lover in Teura.
Not only that, but Gauguin acknowledged that he found his freedom, his peace, his idyll, his Eden and his inspiration for what he was certain was his artistic success... and he threw it all away.
Because the one thing Paul Gauguin could never liberate himself from was the desire to win.
"I had to ensure that everyone admired my work. Otherwise, what was the point?
"I was right. I'd always been right. And they had to acknowledge that."
Combative, stubborn, he had to win the argument, to prove he'd been right in his rejection of some of Impressionism's constraints, to have his new paintings admired.
"Tossed like a boat in a tempest, we live at the mercy of our contradictions, our needs.
"More than anything, I wanted to go back to Paris to get what was mine! I had to go back because it was my duty and my right to be there.
"Besides, not having a penny to my name, I was forced to. Paradoxically, at the same time, I wanted more than anything to stay in Tahiti."
Yet that desperate imperative to achieve artistic recognition dragged him back to Paris. It was an unmitigated disaster, and although he would return to Oceania, things would be very different the second time round. For a start, there would be no Teura.
Fabrizio Dori successfully incorporates so many elements of Gauguin's work within his own. The colour lighting could not be more vital in planting you firmly in Gauguin's perspective. It is bleached, leaking off the page whenever Europe is revisited, yet springs immediately back to vibrant life in French Polynesia. It is rich, it is dark, it is exotic. And in its more visionary episodes - this graphic novel is one long visionary episode, as you will see - it is mysterious.
One of Gauguin's biggest mysteries and most celebrated painting is 'Manao Tupapau' (1892), traditionally translated as 'Spirit Of The Dead Watching' with the additional ambiguity of meaning "Watching The Spirit Of The Dead".
I promised you a witty narrative construction informed by Gauguin's own paintings and it begins right at this centre with 'Spirit Of The Dead Watching' which we know was a portrait of Teura and almost certainly a reversed riff on Édouard Manet's 'Olympia' (1863).
For a start, Teura was Gauguin's Tahitian wife, the love at the heart of all his newfound, deeply desired freedom and peace. There has been much to and fro about her position and her expression, but amongst Gauguin's own written accounts he mentions the local's superstition that at night the spirits of the dead roam, and they do not like to sleep alone in the dark.
What Dori has done, firstly, is incorporated Gauguin's decision to leave. In Fabrizio's account Teura is found by Gauguin in precisely this position, in the same colours, after his day trip to Papeete in order to begin preparations for his repatriation to Paris, without telling Teura that this was his purpose. Having had to travel back on foot on through a rain-drenched, storm-struck night, he arrives late to find the oil in their lamp had run out and Teura very much alone and afraid in the dark.
"Never leave me alone again. On nights like this, ghosts come down from the mountains."
Fabrizio then has Paul Gauguin remember this:
"I held her close in my arms and, knowing full well I was lying, promised I'd never leave her alone again."
Everything he had; everything he threw away.
If that wasn't poignant and indeed clever enough, 'Spirit Of The Dead Watching' depicts an old woman sitting behind Teura in the dark, explained by Gauguin to some as that very spirit of the dead. And it is during this central sequence that Dori has Gauguin recall:
"It was at that exact moment I saw you."
Pull back to the beginning of the main narrative of this graphic novel and we are introduced to a much older, world-weary Gauguin weakened by alcohol, sickness, morphine, betrayal and failure, on the Marqesas Islands, alone on a bed of his own:
"Is that you? I know you."
"I've seen you before. Long ago..."
"That is as it should be."
"I've painted and drawn you before, many times."
"And you have looked for me."
He'd tried to commit suicide.
"I'm right beside you.
"As I have always been. I am the shadow that accompanies men all their lives.
"But when they die, it is their turn to follow me."
I leave you to follow Paul Gauguin as he accompanies the Spirit of the Dead on what artistic circles do like to call a Retrospective. It's full of dreams and colour, of light and darkness, of hope, ambition and disappointment, at the end of which the artist must answer a very important question.
Fabrizio Dori has done a phenomenal job of focussing our attention on the two opposing elements which pulled Paul Gauguin apart, while incorporating as much as possible of his critical reception with concision and precision. It would be impossible to address every aspect of his personality and performance in such a relatively short work - or address every aspect of this graphic novel in this review (what happened upon his return to Paris) - but it should be noted that he did like to perform, playing to his reputation as an outsider, and outcast spurned by the establishment, and often went to elaborate lengths to do so.
He was, in short, a bit of a martyr in the modern sense that we so often use when someone throws themselves on the self-sacrificial bonfire with a certain degree of relish.