(French, 1848–1903) painter & artist
~quotes recorded from Gauguin’s journal “Noa, Noa”, letters and writings~
On what is a great artist
Sometimes I wonder if I am crazy. Yet the more I think things over at night, in my bed, the more I think I am right. For a long time, philosophers have been reasoning about phenomena which seems supernatural to us and which we nonetheless feel. That word is the key to everything. The Raphaels and the others, people in whom feeling was formulated long before thought, were unable, even while studying, to destroy that feeling and so could remain artists. In my opinion, the great artist is the embodiment of the greatest intelligence. The sentiments and renderings which occur to him are the most delicate, and consequently, the most invisible products of the human brain.
I shut my eyes…
I shut my eyes in order to see.
To judge a book vs. painting
To judge a book, you must be intelligent and well-educated. To judge painting and music, you need-in addition to possessing intelligence and artistic knowledge – special feelings not in everyone’s nature. In a word, you must be a born artists; and though many are called, few are chosen.
Literature vs. painting
Literature is human thought described by words. No matter how talented you may be at telling me how Othello, his heart eaten up with jealousy, comes to kill Desdemona, my soul will never be so impresses as when with my own eyes, I have seen the stormy-browed Othello coming toward her in the bedchamber. Which is why you need the theatre to make your work complete. You can give me a talented description of a tempest, but you will never succeed in making me feel it.
You know how much I admire what Degas does and yet I sometimes feel that he lacks a sense of the “beyond”, a feeling heart.
On artist’s duties
(writing his wife from Tahiti) Don’t let this make you think that I am selfish and that I’m abandoning you. But let me live like this for a while. those who heap blame on me don’t know everything there is about an artist’s innermost being, and why should they try to impose on us duties similar to theirs. We don’t impose ours on them.
On dreaming and art
Seek art and abstraction in nature by dreaming in the presence of it…
To create a new element
It is said that God took a little clay in his hands and made every known thing. An artist, in turn (if he really wants to produce a divine creative work) must not copy nature but take the natural elements and create a new element.
A good saying
A young man who is unable to commit a folly is already an old man.
On art and nobility
I like nobility, beauty, delicate tastes, and this motto of yesteryear:”Noblesse Oblige”. I like good manners, politeness, even that of Louis XIV. So (instinctively and without knowing why) I am a snob as an artist. Art is only for the minority, therefore it has to be noble itself. Only the great lords have protected art, out of instinct, out of duty (out of pride perhaps). It doesn’t matter; they caused great and beautiful things to be made. The Kings and the Popes dealt with artists as equals, so to speak.
The Democrats, bankers, ministers and art critics masquerade as protectors and don’t protect anything; they haggle like fish buyers at the market. And you would like artists to be Republicans!
There you have all my political views. I believe that in a society every man has a right to live, and live well in proportion to his work. Since an artist cannot live, it follows that society is criminal and badly organized.
On copying nature
“Copying nature”- what is that supposed to mean?
“Follow the masters!” But why should one follow them? The only reason they are masters is that they didn’t follow anybody. Bouguereau spoke to you about women who swear rainbows. He denies blue shadows; you can deny his brown shadows. But his work doesn’t sweat at all; he’s the one who sweated producing it, the one who sweated to produce a result that photographers achieve much better, and when you sweat, you stink; he stinks of platitude and impotence. Beside who cares whether or not there are blue shadows; if some painter, tomorrow, wanted to see pink or purple shadows no one would have a right to demand explanations from him so long as his work was harmonious and thought-provoking.
Color, which is vibration just as music is, is capable of penetrating what is most general and yet most vague in nature, its inner strength.
Criticism – serious, full of good intentions and learned – is trying to impose on us a method of thinking and dreaming which would be another form of slavery. Preoccupied with what concerns it, with its special territory, which is literature, it would lose sight of what concerns us, which is painting. If that were the case, I would remind you proudly of what Mallarme’ said “ A critic is a gentleman who minds somebody else’s business”.
On businessman & bosses
But I reason from daily examples: seeing what butter costs, the poor people just can’t afford justice. And I say that when a vile businessman who knows how to get around the laws ruins you, you have to massacre him. If your boss, without taking your worth ans your work into account, fires you so you can’t make a living, and all because you haven’t kissed his dirty you-know-what, then you must ruthlessly mow him down. Slaps in the face, caning, murder-all of these all rightful means of warding off the riff-raff who are invading society; otherwise, if you don’t watch out, you’ll become a nation of flunkies, and the men will all wear petticoats.
I have known what absolute poverty means- being hungry, being cold – and everything it implies, or next to nothing; eventually you get used to it and with a little will power, you laugh it off. But the terrible thing about poverty is the way it prevents you from working, prevents development of your intellectual facilities. In big cities, and in Paris especially, you spend half your energy chasing after money. On the other hand , it is true that suffering sharpens genius. Yet too much suffering kills you.
Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.
On going to Tahiti
I have come to an unalterable decision – to go and live forever in Polynesia. Then I can end my days in peace and freedom, without thoughts of tomorrow and this eternal struggle against idiots.
Sooner or later people will learn to recognize your worth – if you have any. Above all, don’t sweat over a painting; a great sentiment can be rendered immediately. Dream on it and look for the simplest form in which you can express it.
On a painter’s literary poetry
I have always said or if not said, at least thought, that a painter’s literary poetry is special, and not the illustration or the translation, through shapes, of something written. In other words, what you should try for in a painting is suggestion rather than description, just as in music. I am sometimes reproached with being incomprehensible precisely because people look for an explanatory meaning in my paintings. whereas there isn’t any. We could talk about this at length without coming to any positive result; so much the better, I say; the critics talk nonsense and we rejoice over it if we have a legitimate feeling of superiority and the satisfaction of a duty done. Bunch of blockheads who want to analyze our pleasures. Or do they actually suppose that we are obliged to make them feel pleasure?
About the same time , the obstinate and strong-willed Ingres, likewise realizing the incoherence of such a language simply set about reconstructing a logical and beautiful language for his own use, keeping one eye on the Greeks and the other on Nature.
People borrow a great deal from Degas and he does not complain. There is so much in his bag of tricks that one pebble more or less doesn’t matter to him.
Artist is always an artist
At the age of ten, twenty, a hundred, very young, a little older and very old. An artist is always an artist.
Put life to good use
I have worked and put my life myself to good use, even intelligent, courageous use. Without crying. Without tearing anything, though I have very good teeth.
On civilized people
Civilized people! You are proud of not eating human flesh. On a raft, you would eat it…On the other hand, everyday you eat your neighbor’s heart.
On living life
I believe that life hasn’t any meaning unless you live it voluntarily…To put yourself into the creator’s hands is to nullify yourself and die.
A man’s life
A man’s life is such a little thing and yet there is time to do great things, piece of the joint achievement.
A funny story
A young Hungarian told me he was Bonnat’s pupil.
“Congratulations” I answered. “Your master has just won the postage stamp competition with his painting at the Salon”
The compliment got around. You can imagine how pleased Bonnat was, and the next day the young Hungarian nearly beat me up.