Towards a mythical world
Vision after the sermon
The composition and the deliberate use of non realistic colours really confer a visionary character to the “Vision after the sermon or Jacob wrestling with the Angel”.
Two groups of people are separated by the diagonal of a tree trunk made in the image of Japanese engravings. The tree constitutes the symbol par excellence of the link between earth and heaven, temporal and spiritual worlds. The closer plane and depth of field alternate in the eyes of the spectator. In the foreground, women wearing Breton costumes are coming out of the church while remembering the words heard during the sermon; in the background, the (or rather the end of the) fight of Jacob with the Angel.
Isaac and Rebecca had two twins, Esau and Jacob. Incredibly jealous of his "elder" brother, Jacob tries to usurp the birthright of Esau and must flee to avoid the anger of his brother. When the anger is gone, Esau does everything possible to get closer to his brother. After several years, Jacob decides to return to Esau to obtain his pardon. On the way, he meets an Angel that he will have to fight all night, until the dawn.
The Genesis verses 32.25-33 recount the fight of Jacob with the Angel. A fight which is not angelic at all for Jacob has, in reality, to confront three opponents:
- Jacob has first of all to fight his own image full of devils, especially his extreme jealousy;
- Next, he must fight the image of the rival brother to give way to the true face of Esau, full of nobility;
- Last, he has to face the Supreme Image, the Image of God.
The night constitutes the matrix of the genesis, the transformation of the being. He will emerge from it by the light of a new day.
During the two first fights, Jacob feels at peace with himself and restores the loving being who was overcome by jealousy. He is no more torn between rebellion and brotherhood. He has surpassed duality and rediscovered inner unity. Besides, the Angel shook Jacob's hip violently at the end of the fight. Jacob will only get out while limping in the image of a shaky duality 1.
In the third fight, Jacob required the name of his opponent. This one cannot reply for he is not human and, consequently, has no name. He is beyond the human world. He is the supra-human par excellence. At that moment, Jacob understands that he has not only rejoined the human being in its fullness, but equally the Being as such.
Once the fight is over, the brothers can really speak to each other. Jacob is no longer a usurper. He has attained the supreme greatness of a son worthy of succeeding his father. As only dignity matters henceforth, he steps back without resentment behind his "elder" brother. Conscious of the change which has taken place within Jacob, Esau equally attains the supreme greatness while hiding in turn behind a brother worthy of …
The whole painting goes round a recognition quest just as well from Jacob and Esau as the artist himself.
Despite being sick, Gauguin painted a lot during his first stay in Tahiti. One particular work stands out due to its symbolic character, “Joyousness (Arearea)”.
The canvas represents a couple of native people, the sexes of which are scarcely recognizable. They are treated in the same tones as the dog in the foreground and the landscape in the background. The beings are at one with nature. The artist wants to show us that the world is unified. The woman plays flute while the characters in the background execute ritual dances according to the rhythm of the music. The natural association of rites and music constitutes the expression of harmony par excellence The willingness to unify colours, sounds and gestures is in accordance with the impression of great peace standing out from the painting. Gauguin attempted here to reflect the deep unity of the inner world into the diversity of the outer world.
The characters in the background dance around a statue that Europeans would gladly qualify as an idol. In reality, it is a representation of the cosmos (macrocosm) and being (microcosm). The statue is, in fact, composed of three superimposed stone blocks representing the three respective levels of the cosmos and being, that is to say:
- The three terrestrial, intermediary and celestial worlds;
- The three physical, psychical and spiritual states.
The vertical union of the three being's states in agreement with the three worlds corresponds to the full realization of the being. Realizing such a harmony must have haunted Gauguin during his whole life.
Usually, the beings of the southern seas resemble each other in the eyes of Europeans. In Gauguin's eyes, the native people look like as far as they are idealized and represent mythical beings who belong to another world. The fuzziness in the identification of the sexes is deliberate, for these beings symbolize a primitive world (as the prime one). A world where everything was only harmony, where distinctions faded into their unification, where both sexes met each other within the primeval Androgyne. Whatever his appearance was, the original being was internally unified. He was only one with the surrounding nature, the lost paradise that everyone tries to rediscover to some degree throughout their lives.
Where do we come from ?…
The title and the signature of the painting “Where do we come from ? What are we ? Where are we going ?” is positioned in the left and right superior corners of the canvas. Painted at the time of his second travel to Tahiti, it represents his most ambitious work and his artistic will. He had taken the decision to commit suicide just after having finished the work.
In this canvas, Gauguin combines motives and characters painted previously. Regarding the form, he took his inspiration from Puvis de Chavannes' large mural works. Regarding the heart, there is a contrast between the peaceful beings and the trees with twisting roots about which we do not know what to think. Indeed, the canvas evokes a veiled, allusive symbolism, the interpretation of which has changed according to the critics and the mood of the painter himself.
The composition, enhanced by harmonious and nevertheless darkened colours, returns an even more sibylline title. What Are We ? Nothing much would have replied my grandmother. Nevertheless, if we are here, it is because we are coming from somewhere and are going elsewhere. The painting effectively describes the circular dance of the human being, the cycle of life.
The woman close to the statue looks in direction of a couple. Further, she will give birth to the child lying on the grass. The woman follows her life up to the old age where, the head between the hands, she desperately plunges into her memories. Very close to her, a white bird holds a lizard in its claws. The lizard is the messenger of death in various traditions. Not only the physical death, but also the psychical one preceding a revival of spiritual order. As for the white bird … From there, the woman can only rejoin the statue of the same colour as the sky in the background. This statue must evoke the beyond from which we are all coming from and to which we are all returning. Besides, its palms turned towards both directions suggest the beginning and the end of a cycle. The circular dance is depicted as a clockwise cycle and symbolizes the inevitable flow of a cyclical time made of a perpetual re-start.
The existence is composed of both joys and sorrows, the most significant moments of which Gauguin attempts to redraw. Is it why the man in the foreground is stretching his arms up to collect a fruit ? A fruit that a young child seated next to him is ready to taste. Is it the fruit of knowledge of good and evil ? The fruit that chased Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, symbolized by the innocence of the young child ? Is Gauguin not revisiting here the Genesis narrative dealing with the Tree of Life ? Does he not see in the innocence of the child and nature, the lost paradise, the image of the world he was dreaming of ?
The canvas entitled “Cruel tales” was painted during Gauguin's last trip to the Marquesas Islands. It constitutes the codicil to the will of the artist after his failed suicide attempt in Tahiti.
Gauguin does not only evoke the life cycle of humanity in general, he strives to depict the world of the native people as such. Two Tahitian women whose mind is elsewhere and an enigmatic European emerge from a blooming landscape. It is a matter of the portrait of one of Gauguin's best friends, the Dutch painter Jacob Meijer de Haan.
The man was very attracted by the east and Buddhism as indicated by the positions of the two women seated respectively in lotus position and on their heels. The character is transformed into a kind of faun, a protector of nature, with claws. And yet, he seems perplexed while listening to tales told by both women. How could he understand people anchored in myths ? These people are totally unfamiliar to him. These tales can only be Barbarian (from the Greek “barbaros” meaning foreign, strange) in his eyes.
The strangest custom on the islands of the southern seas was performed by the Arioi. The Arioi were considered as agents of the divine knowledge and played an intermediary role between gods and ordinary people. This is why they had to stand as close as possible to gods in contrast to the other mortals. The association of the Arioi was composed of men and women, the principal law of whom consisted in the elimination of any generated offspring during their peregrinations from island to island. Its members used to recount the links that united gods with men:
Oro, son of Taaroa, the supreme god in heaven, wanted to take as his wife one of the daughters of Taata's, the first man on earth,. He sent two of his brothers to look for the ideal companion. The two brothers crossed the islands from Tahiti to Bora Bora and found the woman in a million, Vairaumati. They regained the skies to announce the good news to Oro. The god went down to Vairaumati's abode alongside a rainbow, the bridge par excellence between skies and earth. After the nuptials, Oro descended every evening to meet her while taking the rainbow and came back up to the skies every morning in the same way. Indeed, if men are living in day light, gods are haunting the obscure world of the night. They only leave tracks of their passage at dawn or twilight and under the various appearances of the terrestrial creation, that is to say as mineral, plant, animal and human like…
The canvas painted in Tahiti and entitled “Her name is Vairaumati (Vairaumati tei oa)” represents Oro's chosen wife.
She patiently awaits her spouse while smoking. The smoke rises towards the sky, but, for the moment, Oro is only there in the form of a rocky statue. The posture of Vairaumati recalls the Egyptian bas-reliefs and gives to this canvas a character of constancy. A constancy that Gauguin will only find after his death in the Marquesas Islands.
- Ingo F. Walther:
- “Gauguin”. Taschen Publisher, 1992.
1 back Let us note in passing that Gauguin had once his foot injured while fighting and suffered till the end of his days from it.