xxxxxA career as a prosperous Paris stockbroker made the Frenchman Paul Gauguin a wealthy man, but in 1883, having tired of the trappings of civilisation, he left his job and virtually abandoned his wife and family to devote his days to painting. In the 1870s he had come to know and work with the leading Impressionists - notably Pissarro and Cézanne - and this had convinced him that his future lay as an artist. Anxious to experience the raw intensity of life, he first joined the artists’ colony at Pont-Aven in Brittany. There he immersed himself in the ancient traditions and beliefs, using a simple design and areas of strong unnatural colours to produce works such as The Yellow Christ and Vision after the Sermon. It was during this period, 1888, that he spent time in the South of France with the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, two months that ended with a threat upon Gauguin’s life. It was soon after this that he paid his two visits to the Island of Tahiti in the South Seas. It was there, fascinated by the traditional culture and religious beliefs of the native people, that he produced the works for which he became famous. His style remained simple in design, but his colours became exotic. A well known work of this time was the vast life-cycle entitled Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?. Others included Tahitian Girl with a Flower, The Market, The Spirit of the Dead Watching, The White Horse, Two Tahitian Women with Mango Blossoms, and Adam and Eve. His innovative design influenced, in particular, Expressionism, a movement which used distortion to evoke powerful inner emotions.


PAUL GAUGUIN  1848 - 1903  (Va, Vb, Vc, E7)


Gauguin: Self-Portrait – Musée d’Orsay; Breton Girls Dancing – National Gallery of Art, Washington; The Yellow Christ – Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY; Vision of the Sermon – National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; Van Gogh painting – Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam; Where do we come from, where are we, where are we going? – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; And the Gold of their Bodies – Musée d’Orsay. Munch: Self-Portrait (detail) – National Museum, Oslo; The Sick Child – National Museum, Oslo; The Scream – National Museum, Oslo; Anxiety – Munch Museum, Oslo; Madonna – National Museum, Oslo; Moonlight – National Museum, Oslo; Jealousy (lithograph) – Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel. Ensor: Death and the Masks – Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Liège, Belgium. Redon: Head of a Martyr in a Bowl (charcoal) – Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands. Bocklin: Isle of the Dead – Old National Gallery, Berlin.

xxxxxLike his one-time friend Vincent Van Gogh, the Frenchman Paul Gauguin was a post-impressionist painter who, rejecting the Impressionist’s overriding aim to depict the changing face of the natural world, used his bold, pure colours and firm shapes to express his own deep-felt emotions, aroused by ideas rather than appearance. As early as 1886, therefore, he abandoned the “civilized” society of Paris - “a desert for a poor man” as he put it - to experience the raw intensity of life, first among the peasants of Brittany, and then, ill and poverty stricken, among the natives of the South Pacific. It was there, on the island of Tahiti, that he produced some of his best and well-known works. This self-portrait was painted in 1893.

xxxxxGauguin was born in Paris, but soon after his birth the family went to live in Lima, Peru, at the home of one of his mother’s relatives. His father having died on the outward journey, in 1855 he returned to France with his mother and older sister Mari, and they settled in Orleans. At the age of 17, however, anxious to see more of the world, he went to sea, serving on a merchant vessel for the next five years. By the time he left the service in 1871, his mother had died and a wealthy banker, Gustav Arosa, had became his guardian. He found him a job with a Paris stockbroker and this launched him on a successful business career. By 1883 he had money in the bank, a good home, a competent wife named Mette, and five children.

xxxxxBut by this time Gauguin, tiring of city life, had found another and more absorbing interest - painting. He had met the leading Impressionists - including Pissarro and Cézanne - at his guardian’s house during the 1870s, and from then on had joined them for painting at weekends and holidays. He had also begun exhibiting at their shows from 1879, and had met with some, albeit limited success. With the coming of a stock market crash in 1883, he decided to resign his post and begin painting for a living. He wanted to get away from the pressures of civilisation and “be free to paint every day”. But his income from his art work proved totally inadequate. His savings quickly ran out and matters became worse when the family moved to Copenhagen in his wife’s native Denmark. He struggled to find work and eventually in 1885 he returned to Paris, taking Clovis, his six-year old son, with him. There he worked as a bill-poster to scrape a living, but in the harsh winter that followed Clovis almost died of smallpox and was returned to his mother. Gauguin stayed for a short while at Pont-Aven, an artists’ colony in Brittany, and then, fully abandoning his family, he set off to work as a navvy on the building of the Panama Canal. This proved another failure. He was struck down with fever and four months later, ill and penniless, he returned to France and Brittany.


xxxxxThe Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) lost his mother and his favourite sister early on in his life and this affected his personality. He was morbid and introspective by nature, and this showed in his paintings. He did produce landscapes and genre scenes during his career - many in the style of the Impressionists - but during the last 20 years of the 19th century in particular, his works dwelt on sickness, death, and the anxieties and fears of a troubled mind. His paintings in this period included By the Deathbed, Ashes, Death in the Sickroom, The Death Bed, and The Dead Mother. Especially remembered today is his The Scream of 1893, a work depicting a ghost-like figure amid swirling, violent colours - a cry of anguish “passing through Nature”. These bleak, innermost feelings were also to be seen in such works as Anxiety, Madonna, and Moonlight, contained, with many others, in his so-called Frieze of Life. Early on, his paintings met with derision, but later in his career his innovative style gained recognition, and he came to be regarded as a man of vision. The display of emotional content in his paintings was influenced by the works of the French artists Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh, and his distorted figures and clash of bold colours paved the way for Expressionism, a movement of the early 20th century.

xxxxxThe Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was much influenced early in his career by the works of the French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin and his fellow countryman Vincent Van Gogh. His major paintings, belonging to the period 1892 to 1908, are characterized by their use of flat areas of strong colour and their powerful emotional content, but many contain, too, the exaggerated, distorted face and figures that make him a forerunner of Expressionism. He is particularly remembered today for his The Scream of 1893, the product of a mind in torment, and his Frieze of Life, a series of paintings containing very personal and, at times, disturbing images of life, love and death. (Self-portrait illustrated here.)

xxxxxMunch was born in Loten in southern Norway, the second son of five children. His father was a doctor working with the army. The family moved to Oslo (then called Christiania) a year after his birth, and it was there that tragedy struck. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five, followed by the death of his favourite sister Sophie - also from tuberculosis - in 1877. These loses had a profound effect upon his character. Sickly by nature and spending long hours confined in the family apartment, he became morbid and introverted. Of this period he later wrote, “Illness, madness and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life”.

xxxxxIn 1881 he attended the State School of Art and Crafts in Oslo, and the following year he became a member of a small group of artists and writers, the Bohemians, bent on sexual and artistic freedom. At this time, however, due to his retiring nature, Munch tended to confine his work to the portrayal of family and friends, such as Aunt Karen in the Rocking Chair and At the Coffee Table, both of 1883, and Family Evening, produced the following year. In 1884, however, he won a three-week scholarship to study in Paris and this brought him into direct contact with the Impressionists. The influence of their works can be detected in his first masterpiece, The Sick Child of 1886 (here illustrated), a moving, sensitively-painted scene recalling the death of his sister.

xxxxxThree years later, following the success of his first one-man show, he gained a state scholarship and returned to Paris, this time for three years. It was during this stay that he came to admire in particular the works of the post impressionists, notably Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh, and their emotional impact had a marked effect upon his style and subject matter. In 1891 he did produce, amongst others, Rue Lafayette and Promenade des Anglais, Nice, scenes that clearly owed something to Impressionism (and Pointillism at times), but for the most part he now discarded reality for the creation of strong emotions centred around the universal themes of sickness, love, anxiety, despair and death. It was these bleak, innermost feelings that filled his own troubled mind and needed to be expressed. His art, he explained at the time, was “an attempt to explain to myself my relationship with life”. In order to understand himself, there was a need to “paint living people who breathe, feel, suffer and love” Not the impression of reality, but the expression of his soul was what he wanted to commit to canvas.  


xxxxxAs a consequence, over the next ten years or so - his symbolist phase - he produced a volume of poignant but depressing works that plumbed the depths of man’s darkest feelings: three on melancholy, three on jealousy, and numerous scenes portraying his obsession with sickness and death. These included By the Deathbed, Ashes, Death in the Sickroom, The Death Bed, and The Dead Mother.

xxxxxAnd his uneasy relationship with women and sex in general is obliquely revealed in his highly charged image of Madonna, his Puberty - the awakening of sexual feelings -, his Three Stages of Woman, its sequel, the enigmatic The Dance of Life, and Man and Woman. And to this period belongs his famous The Scream, an anguished expression of solitude and abject fear, created by a ghost-like, alien figure, the frantic swirling of powerful colours, and a blood-red sky. It was a cry, as he put it, that was “passing through Nature”.


Edvard Munch

xxxxxOther works belonging to this period were Tahitian Girl with a Flower, The Market, The Spirit of the Dead Watching, The White Horse, Two Tahitian Women with Mango Blossoms, Horsemen on the Beach, and Adam and Eve.

xxxxxGauguin never found the tropical paradise he was after, though it did become his spiritual home. Indeed, for much of his time in the South Seas he was desperately unhappy, lacking money and suffering from syphilis. At one time, in 1897, he attempted suicide by taking arsenic, and his last years were marred by his support of the native people in their dispute with the colonial administration and the Catholic Church. In 1903 the authorities sentenced him to three months’ imprisonment for what they termed “defamation”, but he died before the result of his appeal and was buried in Calvary Cemetery, Atuona.

xxxxxLike the other post-impressionist painters - notably Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne - the works of Gauguin greatly influenced many of the trends of 20th century art. In particular, his creation of strong emotions, “found in the depth of one’s being”, played an important part in the development of Expressionism, a movement noted for its use of exaggeration and distortion to evoke powerful inner emotions. As we shall see, among the pioneers of this movement was the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch.

xxxxxIncidentally, when living as a prosperous stockbroker in Paris during the 1870s and early 1880s, Gauguin spent some 17,000 francs on buying paintings by Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Auguste Renoir and other Impressionists. ……


xxxxx…… A vivid account of his life is to be found in his journals, letters, and his autobiographical work Noa Noa (meaning Fragrance, Fragrance), a recording of his experiences and emotions during his first stay in Tahiti, published in 1897. ……

xxxxx…… Inx1916 the English writer and playwright Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) travelled to the South Seas to obtain material for his novel The Moon and Sixpence, a story based on the life of Paul Gauguin.

xxxxxNot surprisingly these works caused something of a stir, both within the artistic world and the general public. An exhibition in Berlin in 1892, organised by the city’s Union of Artists, attracted widespread condemnation. Within a week he was ordered to remove his “daubs”, but this “Berlin Scandal”, as it came to be known, brought him notoriety, and, in the long term, popularity. To take advantage of his sudden fame, he embarked upon an extensive tour of the major cities of Germany and Scandinavia in order to display his “degenerate works”. As a result Munch became a household named. For the most part his works received little approval at this stage, but quite a large number saw purpose and merit in his unique approach - including his fellow countryman and friend the novelist Henrik Ibsen - and this number was destined to grow.

xxxxxFrom the time of this all-important exhibition to the year 1908, Munch lived mainly in Germany. It was there in the 1890s that he compiled his Frieze of Life, a “symphonic arrangement” of many of his greatest paintings - symbolic, gloomy images in which faces and figures were often distorted, and his brushwork, thick and contorted, produced shock waves of intense colour. These were the hallmarks of his own, innovative style, the means by which he portrayed the darker themes of life - misery, anxiety, fear, sickness, loneliness and death.

xxxxxThe turn of the century did see something of a move away from these introspective works - with paintings like Forest, Ladies on the Bridge and Winter Landscape, Elgersburg, but in 1908, his emotional instability and persecution complex, together with his heavy drinking and a turbulent love affair, brought about a chronic nervous breakdown, and he spent eight months in a sanatorium in Copenhagen. By then, however, the innovative value of his work was beginning to be recognised. In 1908 he was made a Knight of the Order of St. Olav for his contribution to art, and enthusiasm for his paintings was beginning to grow. In addition he was becoming highly respected for his work as a graphic artist. In his making of etchings, lithographs and colour woodcuts, a skill learnt in Paris in 1896, he showed a remarkable talent, and he reproduced a number of his major works in this new medium. Shown here is his lithograph Jealousy.

xxxxxMunch returned to Norway in 1910 and worked there in virtual seclusion until his death in January 1944. In the 1920s, however, large exhibitions of his works were held in cities across Europe. By a conscious effort, his later works were less pessimistic and, as a result, more colourful. He produced landscapes and studies of people working on the land, as well as a number of self portraits. To these later years belong Workers on their way Home, Lumberjack, Spring Ploughing, The Haymaker, Horse Team and a number of self-portraits. And, in addition, he produced nine murals for the Festival Hall of Oslo University, each 15ft in height and depicting universal force. He spent his last years at his estate at Ekely, not far from Oslo, and it was there that he died. He left 1000 paintings and close on 20,000 prints to the city of Oslo, and these are now housed in the Munch Museum, purposefully built in 1963. An isolated, troubled figure, Munch stands today as Norway’s greatest painter and graphic artist. A man of vision at the opening of the 20th century, his haunting, distorted images captured the essence of symbolism, and paved the way for Expressionism, a movement marked by contorted figures, a clash of bold colours, and violent emotion.

xxxxxIncidentally, among his friends were several writers, including his fellow countryman and playwright Henrik Ibsen, and the Swedish novelist August Strindberg. He designed sets for a number of Ibsen’s plays, and often discussed the writings of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche with Strindberg. He produced portraits of both men. ……

xxxxx…… In February 1994 four men broke into the National Gallery in Oslo and stole its version of The Scream, but it was recovered undamaged three months later. Then ten years later, in August 2004, masked gunmen entered the Munch Museum in Oslo in broad daylight and stole its version of The Scream and Madonna (together worth an estimated $100 million). Both works, were recovered - slightly damaged - in August 2006.

xxxxxThreexother artists of this time are worthy of mention. The Belgian painter and printmaker James Ensor (1860-1949) also anticipated Expressionism. A member of Les Vingts (The Twenty), - a group bent on developing new forms of art - his macabre works of the 1880s and 1890s, such as Entry of Christ into Brussels, Intrigue, and Death and the Masks (illustrated), were full of tormented figures, animated skeletons, and grotesque phantoms and corpses. At first, as in the case of Munch, his paintings met with derision, but in later years his surreal works gained in popularity. Also noted for his drawings and etchings, he spent almost his entire life in Ostend.

xxxxxAndxanother artist remembered for his macabre, surreal subjects was the Frenchman Odilon Redon (1840-1916). Produced in prints and charcoal drawings and full of strange, frightening images, his gloomy, black and white works included The Comedy of Death, The Crying Spider, Death: my irony surpasses all others, and Head of a Martyr in a Bowl (illustrated). Suchxworks linked him with the Decadent Movement in which the artist had no limits to his or her means of expression. However, in 1890, having met with the Impressionists and become particularly friendly with both Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat, he broke with the past and began a new career as a colourist. Working in pastels and oils, he opened the door to life and light, producing flowers, portraits and bizarre fantasies in bright, warm colours.

xxxxxArnoldxxBocklin (1827-1901) was a Swiss symbolist painter. A romantic by nature, his paintings created a weird, fantasy world where death - as in the works of Munch - played a prominent part. He is best known today for the five versions of his Isle of the Dead (one illustrated here), produced between 1880 and 1886. Evoked in part by the English Cemetery near his studio in Florence, this mysterious, haunting painting - seen by some as a soul’s passage to the afterlife - was to be the inspiration for a number of works, including a symphonic poem by the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, and a painting by the Spanish artist Salvador Dali.

xxxxxFour the next five years he spent most of his time at Pont-Aven. There, at the age of 40, he began to develop his own, innovative style. Using strong, evocative colours and firmly defined flat, bold planes, he captured on canvas not only the beauty of the rugged countryside, but also the ancient traditions and beliefs of the local peasants, a people as hardy as the region they inhabited. To this period belongs (left to right) his Breton Girls Dancing, The Yellow Christ, an image remarkable for its vibrant, unnatural colours and dramatic simplicity, and Vision after the Sermon, a powerful symbolic and emotional work. He called these decorative, almost abstract qualities “synthetic symbolism”, the merging of a flat, simplified design with powerful, exaggerated colours.

xxxxxIn October 1888, after some hesitation, Gauguin accepted an invitation to join Vincent Van Gogh in the South of France. He had met and worked with the Dutch painter in 1886, and at that time had not particularly liked him as a person nor rated him highly as a painter. However, winter was about to begin in Brittany, and the promise of the clear skies and warm sunshine of Province overcame his misgivings. As we have seen, the visit, seen by Van Gogh as the beginning of an artists’ colony in the South, proved a total failure. Gauguin’s arrogance and Van Gogh’s obstinacy made up a recipe for disaster. They were soon quarrelling over art and life in general, heated arguments which were fuelled by excessive drinking and rival demands for the local prostitutes. Matters came to a head at the end of December when Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor. Gauguin hurried back to Paris, and Van Gogh then turned the blade upon himself, severing part of his left ear. Illustrated here is Gauguin’s painting of Van Gogh at work on his famous Vase of Sunflowers of 1888.

xxxxxGauguin spent the next two and a half years working in Paris and Brittany. He produced some promising works during this period, but he was still short of money and he remained unsettled in mind. He disliked “everything that is artificial and conventional”, and yearned for the joy of a primitive life. In the Spring of 1891 he found it in the rural area of Mataiea on the South Sea island of Tahiti, but his paradise was short lived. His meagre savings began to run out and this, together with ill-health, forced him to return home. In Paris, however, he made some money from the canvases he brought back, and this, plus a small legacy from an uncle in Orleans, gave him sufficient funds to return to the Tropics. He arrived back in Tahiti the summer of 1895 and over the next eight years - the last two spent at Atuona in the Marquesas Islands - he produced the works for which he is most famous. Here he took a special interest in the traditional culture and spiritual beliefs of these gentle Polynesian people. The simplicity of design remained, but his colours became highly exotic. One of his best known works, the life-cycle entitled Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?, has life beginning with the baby on the right and ending with the wizened old woman on the left (illustrated below). This huge canvas poses the questions but makes no attempt at giving the answers. Also illustrated below is And the Gold of Their Bodies, one of his many nude studies.