Thursday, January 14, 2010

Forbidden fruit


One of the treasures of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts is Paul Gauguin's masterpiece, which takes its name from the words scribbled in the upper left-hand corner: "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" (Click to enlarge.) It was painted when Gauguin received word in Tahiti of the death of his favorite child, Aline. He had spent months wrestling with poverty, illness and despair. Ailine's death evoked an existential cry that is one of the most mysterious and evocative works of art ever painted.

I have limned the painting before. It has elements of Edvard Munch's The Scream, particularly in the face of the grieving old lady at left and the two women lost in a black cloud in the right background. But there is hopefulness too -- a kind of prelapsarian Eden -- the central figure who reaches to pluck the (forbidden?) fruit from the tree, the child who puts the fruit to her lips, the coy, flirtatious adolescent girls at right foreground. Clearly we are dealing with a complex allegory; what exactly it means was locked up in the painter's troubled mind.

I would argue that this is an intensely Catholic work -- in its questions, which echo the Catholic Catechism, in its bold colors and imagery, in its simmering sensuality, in its dreamy contrast of dark shadow and shimmering light. On the face of it, the painting would seem to be the very antithesis of all that Gauguin ran away from -- the stultifying propriety, the strictures of Catholic guilt, the Jansenistic view of the flesh. You can run but you cannot hide. Gauguin brought his Catholic formation with him to his Pacific isle and tried to transform it into something free of Original Sin. That he did not altogether succeed is evidenced by his suicidal despair, his venereal disease, and the complex contradictions of the painting.

I am often asked why I don't worship with the UUs, given that my firm agnosticism and celebration of nature is so compatible with their general take on things. I could give no better reply than this painting, which is a (perhaps unconscious) melding of the Catholic mythos with a search for an Edenic innocence. Mystery? Oh yes. Sex and sacrament. Saints and sinners. The valley of darkness and the radiance of the Beatific Vision -- the beatitude of a young girl reaching for the perilous fruit. Gauguin was a French Catholic who took himself to a tropic island looking for what Margaret Mead thought she found in Samoa -- an unvarnished, untarnished baptismal innocence. As if we didn't all share the same genes, genes shaped by millions of years of evolution, genes that convey original sin and original bliss.

I like to think of myself as that apparently superfluous and fully clothed figure in the background to the right of the idol, wandering bemused and befuddled in a world both familiar and strange. "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" I know where I came from. I have a pretty good idea who I am. I haven't a clue where we are going.