Tracing the world’s most famous midlife crisis.
Paul Gauguin’s self-imposed exile from France to Tahiti is one of the more celebrated events in the history of art. French travel writer and journalist Coatalem follows the artist’s footsteps from his childhood voyage to Peru through his career in Brittany, Paris and two separate residences in French Polynesia. The author’s purchase of a vintage photograph, probably owned by Gauguin, was the spur for the search, and the book is essentially Coatalem’s journal. Gauguin’s paintings are like living beings to the author, and he conveys their mystical qualities so much better than he is able to do for the artist, who from his own letters, comes across as unpleasant and unreliable (in particular regarding his Danish wife, who Went Home to Mother with the children). Coatalem’s accounts are vivid when he describing his own on-site research, less when he’s conveying the facts of Gauguin’s life. The narrative truly blossoms when he arrives in Tahiti, where he spent part of his childhood. By conjuring up his own memories, he relays the islands through Gauguin’s eyes and elevates our own understanding of what this Westerner encountered when he arrived. Coatalem maps out the sites of Gauguin’s paintings, reads his letters at the Gauguin Museum and effectively conveys the influence his abject poverty had on his extraordinarily searching late Polynesian works after Gauguin moved to Hiva Oa, a distant island. While the last years of Gauguin’s life produced masterpieces (illustrations of which are few), they began with a failed attempt to raise money by an auction of his newly popular paintings (which took place in Paris on a day in 1895 that was a political and emotional equivalent of September 12, 2001), and ended in a morphine-hazed gangrenous pain as he was shunned by almost everyone. Coatalem ends with a visit to the artist’s now-overgrown plot of land, a look at items dredged up from his well, where they were thrown after his demise, and finally a dawn visit to Gauguin’s grave.
Moving and enlightening.