Saturday, March 07, 2009
Paul Gauguin had a good Catholic education. From ages eleven to sixteen -- those formative years -- he was a student at the Petit Seminaire de La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, near Orleans, where he took religious instruction from the bishop of Orleans himself. He no doubt began his instruction with some version of the questions most Catholic kids begin with: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here?
I am a child of God. God made me. To know, love and serve God.
That was it. It was as simple as that. The flesh was a distraction. The world was a distraction. The trajectory of a life was to get from A (birth) to B (death) with the least amount of physical pleasure, then live blissfully forever with the Beatific Vision in heaven.
The questions remain. The answers I learned in school no longer satisfy. They seem paltry and shallow in the face of the overwhelming mystery which is the world. They take no account of what science has learned about the universe. They take no account of what science has learned about the self. They take no account of the beauty, depth and terror of inseparable flesh and spirit. They slap a name on the mystery and let it go at that.
The answers Gauguin learned in school did not satisfy. His great South Pacific masterpiece, now in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, poses the questions "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" (Click to enlarge.)
I'll have a go at interpretation.
At the right, an infant, the beginning. Perhaps the dog represents our origin as part of the tree of life, our animal ancestry. The three adolescent girls, coy, flirtatious, discovering their emerging sexuality. The two nunlike figures in shadow, somewhat older, almost prayerful, perhaps discussing the very questions that define the painting. The splendid central figure, plucking ripe fruit from the bough, shadowed by her alterself, introspective, frightened. The mature woman, serene, with child and domestic animals, representing motherhood, hearth and home. The old woman, resigned, not altogether happily, to death. The full stop of the white bird: Could this be the soul turning away from the white hereafter? And in the background, the mysterious idol, more Hindu than Polynesian, with her raised hands, palms outward, who seems to suggest "Enough. Enough questioning already. Accept. This place. This world. This life. This mystery."