‘This is not a book,’ is the first line of Paul Gauguin’s final memoir, Avant et Après, written on Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands in 1903 a couple of months before his death aged 54 from syphilitic heart disease. In his dedication to the critic André Fontainas he describes the manuscript as ‘born of solitude and savagery — idle tales of a naughty child who sometimes reflects and is always a lover of the beautiful’.
Fontainas failed to find a publisher as Gauguin had hoped, and although a facsimile appeared in 1918 it wasn’t until 1923 that the artist’s eldest son Émile had the memoir published in an English translation. The manuscript, meanwhile, was thought to be lost until it was offered last year under the government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme to the Courtauld Gallery, which has now put it on display in its refurbished Great Room opposite Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings ‘Nevermore’ and ‘Te Rerioa’ and alongside a sensitive and surprisingly accomplished marble bust of his Danish wife Mette from the early years of their marriage.
Given what the Courtauld calls his ‘debated legacy’ — the charge sheet to date includes misogyny, sex tourism, paedophilia and cultural appropriation — the manuscript has baggage. What do you do with a problem like Gauguin? Since it’s impossible to tiptoe around him, my advice would be to take the monstre sacré by the horns and read his non-book.
A scroll-through version of the manuscript can now be found on the Courtauld website, along with a new translation of the text. I’m not sure why the gallery thinks this is needed as the Van Wyck Brooks original is perfectly good and, more importantly, includes a preface by Gauguin’s eldest son Émile that casts his father in an unusually sympathetic light. Unlike Gauguin’s Tahitian diary Noa Noa revised by Charles Morice which, Émile maintains, ‘hardly preserves the spirit of my father’, the unedited Marquesan journals ‘bring sharply into focus… his goodness [my italics], his humour, his insurgent spirit, his clarity of vision, his inordinate hatred of hypocrisy and sham’.
His authorial voice certainly comes through loud and clear and — if you’re prepared to suspend conventional moral judgment — it’s very entertaining. Gauguin was right: it is not a book. It’s a haphazard sequence of non-sequiturs combining observations on women, love, art, the Catholic church, the local Bishop Martin’s relations with his servant Thérèse, Zola, Ibsen, Van Gogh, Degas, the decimation of the native population by European diseases (as imported by himself), fencing and boxing. The author has a caustic line in bon and not-so-bon mots. On love: ‘I do not know love. To say “I love you” would break all my teeth.’ On prostitution in French Polynesia: ‘There is so much prostitution that it does not exist… One only knows a thing by its contrary, and the contrary does not exist.’ On the relative merits of Degas and Carolus-Duran: ‘A clothed figure by Carolus-Duran is coarse; a nude by Degas is chaste. But she’s bathing in a tub!! That is just why she’s clean.’
The memoir is best known for its first-hand account of the famous episode of Van Gogh’s ear, but the light it throws on domestic aspects of the odd couple’s fateful house share is in some ways more fascinating. For a former merchant seaman, Vincent was the house mate from hell. ‘In everything I found a disorder that shocked me. His colour-box could hardly contain all those tubes, crowded together and never closed.’ Gauguin cooked, but one day Van Gogh made a soup: ‘How he mixed it I don’t know; as he mixed his colours in his pictures, I dare say. At any rate, we couldn’t eat it.’
There’s no mention of the birth of a daughter in 1902 to Vaeoho, the last of Gauguin’s teenage Polynesian ‘vahines’, but there are bitter recriminations against the wife he left in Europe who ‘not only did not follow her husband but has brought up the children so well that they do not know their father’. The long-suffering Mette had continued to write throughout his travels, but the correspondence stopped after his second departure for Tahiti.
Letters from home matter when you’ve marooned yourself on a so-called paradise island on the other side of the world and know you’re dying. ‘What can I say to all these cocoanut trees?’ Gauguin asks at the beginning of the memoir. ‘And yet I must chatter; so I write instead of talking.’ Near the end he apologises if he has not described the primitive idyll readers expected. ‘But you must forgive me. I myself was taken in. Here I am, let us swallow the pill. My brush must make up for it.’ And so it does. The manuscript’s handwritten pages are interleaved with drawings and monotypes supplying exactly the Edenic vision the text is missing.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10