Ramblings of a Wannabe Painter
(David Zwirner Books, 2016)
Published as a part of David Zwirner Books’s series on ekphrasis, Ramblings of a Wannabe Painter offers an unfiltered look into the provocative mind of Paul Gauguin. Less known as a writer and social critic than as a painter, the 19th-century avant-garde master reveals the full breadth of his profundity through his distinctive written work. Employing a conversational tone and seething sarcasm, Gauguin dissects the stone-faced authority of the art world “literati” (as he sardonically terms the intellectuals of his era’s elite arts society). According to Gauguin, this group, made up of art critics, museum directors, and their ilk, wields its power of judgment recklessly, with the presumption of a certain level of taste as the primary qualification. This system, Gauguin argues, is critically dangerous, given that such tastemakers generally do not engage in, and therefore can hardly empathize with, the actual practice of making art. Taking the position of cultural diagnostician, Gauguin suggests that if artists were to sway their creations to align with the opinions of the “literati,” discourse would stagnate and art would fail to evolve. As an impassioned proponent of modernism, Gauguin sought to save, with this text, nothing less than the future of art.
Although Gauguin has now been canonized as one of Europe’s foremost post-Impressionist painters, the power constructs in the art world at the time—notably in the shape of academics and their exclusive influence with top literary journals—relegated him to something like outsider status within the coeval art literature sect; the facetiously self-deprecating title of the book, translated from the French phrase “Racontars de rapin,” plays on this insecurity. After the manuscript was rejected by the prestigious literary journal Mercure de France, Gauguin created the alternative publication Le Sourire, whose title (which translates as The Smile) captured the playful stance he took to counteract the ultra-exclusivity of the literary elite.
As engrossing and sharp as his criticism is, Gauguin goes deeper than merely displaying his talent for deconstructing social guises: his writing, like his painting, is best understood as an attempt to clear a path for freedom in the visual arts. A crucial obstacle to this freedom, this books argues, is the presumptively authoritative stance of contemporary art critics, which was not only arrogant, but also barren of any insight that could help the arts advance. It is anti-progressive, he attests, for the literati alone to determine what is good in the visual arts. This warning must be heeded lest the relationship between critic and artist be transposed into a kind of scavenging, with the critic appropriating and fetishizing the artist’s talent and genius only to bolster his own authority.
Politics run deep throughout his indictment of art criticism. Gauguin reveals the power imbalance between the artist and the critic to be not unlike a socio-economic power structure in which the ones who do the actual work (here, artists) are used as a tool for their overlords (here, the literati). Gauguin’s text identifies numerous techniques utilized by art critics to make opaque, and thus effectively repressive, their entire game of judgment and dismissal. He suggests that aesthetic dogma becomes a form of tyrannical weaponry, in which stale jargon and whimsical fluff are employed to create a type of strangulating device for creativity and prevent the birth of radical art. Prophetically, Gauguin scoffs at the literati’s rejection of Rodin’s Monument to Balzac, which has since proven to be a paragon of modern sculpture and an exemplum for the visionary insight required to perceive remarkable work within its own time.
In a section of the book called “Art in the 19th Century,” Gauguin speaks to the hiatus of artistic development that occurred following the French Revolution, when nationalistic values overtook myriad aspects of French society. With the advent of Napoleon’s rule in the early 1800s, and the resurrection of the French academies that had stalled during the Revolution, arts education became increasingly controlled by the Académie des Beaux-Arts and the Paris Salon. Contemporaneous Salon ideals, best exemplified by the neoclassical painting of Jacques-Louis David (personal portrait artist to Napoleon I), were becoming virtually indivisible with imperial aesthetics. Moreover, the academy and its acolytes removed the mystery from artistry and attempted to proliferate formulaic equations for “good art,” which further encouraged the degradation of creativity. Blindly favoring grandiose narratives that glorified the régime and suppressed the importance of the artist as individual, the Salon-sanctioned style struggled against the tide of modernity in the 19th century. Comparing its synthetic academic criteria to a ferule, thereby amplifying its function as a violent disciplinary tool, Gauguin creates a framework for explaining why conventional work abounded and the flowering of modernism was endangered. A systemic approach to art making, in his words, is “convenient for mediocre people but a terrible torment for men of genius.”
It was against this that Gauguin rebelled, at one point employing within this text a Bastille reference in his advocacy for an overthrow of Salon values. He was in fact part of the avant-garde collective that founded the Salon des Indépendants, whose predecessor was the famed Salon des Refusés, which in 1863 exhibited works by Manet, Courbet, and others who had been rejected from the official Salon. As a kind of heir to the legacy of the Salon des Refusés and its brilliant challenge to the rigid selectivity of the Salon, Gauguin’s writings stand as testimony to this general spirit of defying autocratic systems that debase modes of cultural production.
Praising the great artists of his time from a place of true knowing, Gauguin examines the essence of genuine artistic talent, using as touchstones such fellow modern masters as van Gogh and Seurat, who also exhibited in the Salon des Refusés and Salon des Indépendants. Here he reveals how the emotions of the artist are the subtlest and most crucial aspects of their work. Interestingly, this concept runs parallel with Kandinsky’s seminal On the Spiritual in Art, published around a decade later. The abstract emotions, he explains, are sadly lost on the critic who uses intellect alone to assess an artwork, myopically believing that such logic grants him the richest understanding of the artist. Gauguin makes this fault palpable: “The emotions of the painter or sculptor, of the musician, are of an entirely different nature from those of the writer. They depend on the sight, the ear, his entire instinctive nature and its struggle against matter.” Gauguin’s reflections suggest a reclamation for the ownership of verbal communication by artists themselves. It is through his deeply fruitful practice that he understands that artists need to maintain the highest standards of autonomous expression, freed from the prosaic strictures of materiality and doctrine, which they must strive to transcend. Through its articulation of art’s ultimate immateriality and irrationality, Ramblings of a Wannabe Painter is an authentic mouthpiece for the soul of modern art.