This sprawling narrative of Paul Gauguin's messy life provides new insights, despite its lack of formal coherence. Sweetman...


PAUL GAUGUIN: A Complete Life

This sprawling narrative of Paul Gauguin's messy life provides new insights, despite its lack of formal coherence. Sweetman (Mary Renault, 1993; Van Gogh, 1990) names the three sections of his book after the three questions posed by a late Gauguin masterpiece's title: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Gauguin's origins make for a fascinating story. His mother, born into French feminist and radical circles, was for a time cared for by George Sand. Family connections led Gauguin's parents to emigrate to Peru; his father didn't survive the trip. Gauguin soon returned to France with his mother; Sweetman shows how the Peruvian experience would nevertheless inform the artist's aesthetic sensibility. Gauguin came late to painting as a career. He worked as a sailor before making, and then losing, a great deal of money in investment banking. The latter enterprise, provided Gauguin with an entr‚e to the Impressionist circles where he would serve his apprenticeship; Pissarro, in particular, became a mentor. Sweetman exhaustively details Gauguin's associations with C‚zanne, Mallarm‚, Seurat, and Van Gogh. Gauguin's Danish wife, from whom he became estranged, and his many mistresses also find illumination. Sweetman explores at length the degraded physical condition, confused philosophizing, and glorious artistic productions that characterized Gauguin's visionary last years in the South Pacific. The significance of the expatriate's work remained in dispute until the results of his famous late-life relocation to Tahiti were exhibited in France. Sweetman suggests, in his last section, that the ""we"" whom Gauguin invoked in his painting's title includes us. We follow Gauguin in our ambivalence toward the modern vices--money worship, misogyny, and colonialism. If Gauguin did not succeed in getting beyond these vices, neither have we, Sweetman suggests. And if Sweetman doesn't entirely succeed in maintaining his narrative focus, he does provide a biography that brings our own time into clearer view along with that of his subject.

Pub Date: Feb. 21, 1996


Page Count: 608

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1995