Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin

Where are They Now? Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin

It is rather fitting that Paul Gauguin's works circulate around the world, their movements bringing a degree of continuity to the artist’s own restless movement and globe-trotting tendencies.

From the age of eighteen months until his death in 1903, Gauguin moved or traveled between Peru, Martinique, Le Havre, Rio de Janeiro, Denmark, various regions within France, and the islands of Tahiti and Hiva Oa. It was during his stay at the remote fishing village of Pont-Aven in Brittany on the northwestern French coast, that the artist painted Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin (1889), which is now on view at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City until February 4.

Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin
Paul Gauguin, 
Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin, 

The painting is joined by another work from the Hammer’s permanent collection, Titian’s Portrait of a Man in Armor (1530), as part of the Mexican Red exhibition. The show focuses on the utilization of a pigment, produced by insects, and cultivated in the Mexican plateau called grana cochinilla, which was in demand for its rich hue from the 16th century until the late 19th century. Masters like Tintoretto, Tiziano, Velázquez, Turner, Renoir and Van Gogh used grana cochinilla in their works. Curated by color theory specialist Georges Roque, the exhibition demonstrates the importance of this product for over four centuries, examining the cochineal grana’s symbolic and market value in a time of early globalization and commodity culture. United in their employment of this popular deep red pigment, the Hammer’s works hang alongside other masterpieces like The Bedroom of Van Gogh in Arles by Van Gogh (1888) and The Deposition of Christ by Tintoretto (c. 1550).

Portrait of a Man in Armor
Portrait of a Man in Armor, 
ca. 1530

Almost centrally placed in Gauguin’s painting is the figure of the artist himself, bundled in a long and enveloping red cloak, a blue cap, and traditional Breton wooden clogs. Towards the right side of the frame, a Breton woman with the same clogs stands facing him, so that only her back is accessible to the viewer. Gauguin's centered and frontal figure juxtaposed with the peasant woman’s pose alludes to the exclusive status of the artist in the world. The emphasis on him as the artist and primary subject is aligned with new ideas about the place of artists in the 19th century which placed them at the center of cultural life.

A sprawling autumnal landscape unfurls behind him; knobby trees strain skywards, their branches transcending the pictorial frame. Distant patches of golden wheat line the horizon, activating the vibrancy of the deep blue color of the sky above. A humble wooden fence fragments cuts across the picture plane, creating a physical divide between Gauguin and the Breton woman, as well as Gauguin and viewer. Gauguin's single visible eye gazes out at the realm beyond the confines of the canvas, granting viewers a glimpse of the secret, special world that he has access to as an artist. Although the Breton woman faces a vast expanse of landscape and lush foliage, she is nonetheless fenced off from the world that Gaugin occupies. The fence is a physical barrier that cuts Gaugin off from the woman, and also from viewers.

Gauguin sought refuge from the bustling industrialized city, wishing to escape "everything that is artificial and conventional" when in 1886 he abandoned his 11-year long career as a successful Parisian businessman. He quickly became enchanted by Pont-Aven, where he likely saw clusters of thatched granite houses and the water mills that hug the River Aven’s bubbling streams. The free and open yet simultaneously secure enclosure of cozy Pont-Aven formed the ideal atmosphere for Gauguin to experiment with his style and pigments. Surrounded and inspired by natural scenery and picturesque views, Gauguin cast off the feathery impressionist strokes he learned from Camille Pissaro in Paris. Instead he embraced bright jarring colors, bold black outlines, and a stark definition of form. It was Brittany’s environment that spurred the artist’s development of his iconic personal style, which continued to evolve while he lived and worked in the Polynesian islands.

He painted Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin after his visit to the Musée Fabre in Montpellier with Van Gogh in December of 1888, where he saw Gustav Courbet’s Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet. Although sharing few formal similarities, Gauguin’s painting is meant to be a response to Courbet. In both works, the artists are central and capture the viewer’s attention. Courbet represents himself as a free roaming figure who dwells outside the constraints of society. Similarly, Gauguin’s choice of a rural setting expresses his shared desire to escape the proper and civilized Parisian lifestyle and become immersed within the landscape, among "peasants." Gauguin’s personage is cloaked by a mysterious red shroud, which is a tool to emphasize that the artist is a withdrawn, misunderstood creative genius working outside the norms of bourgeois society. It seems rather ironic that the presence of red produced by the popular grana concillia on Gauguin’s cloak, a symbol for the isolated figure of artist, behave as an element of unity amongst other works and painters in the Mexican Red exhibition.

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Tags: collections, where are they now