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Gauguin: Samuel Courtauld's alter ego?

Part 2: Suggestion rather than description

Gauguin was a man of deep emotions and he was always searching for answers to his spiritual needs. He used painting as a means of resolving these inner questions and he sought to establish a style that would express emotion and feeling in a modern way.

Nevermore is a key work because it fully expresses the purpose and content of his paintings and reasons for being an artist, and in addition holds up a mirror to the all important chapter of his life in Tahiti. The picture is dominated by a full length reclining nude. She is readily identifiable and clearly a Tahitian girl. But this is no accurate transcription from life and she lies in an awkward pose with her right hip strangely distorted and elevated. Gauguin was not interested in painting external reality, and this is one of the reasons why he quarrelled with Van Gogh who held the opposite point of view. Gauguin’s priority was his inner vision. He once wrote "in painting as in music one should look for suggestion rather than description". The picture is pieced together so as to suggest reality and also, at the same time, to deny it. The space of the picture is articulated more by a combination of decorative panels than by an illusion of three-dimensional space. The figures and bird in the background could be real but they could also be figures painted on to a screen. This ambiguity is intentional for Gauguin’s aim was to fill the picture with mystery. He said of it "I wished to suggest a certain long lost barbarian luxury".

The girl’s eyes are open but she does not look at us. If anything her eyes and her attention seemed to be turned towards the figures and the bird in the background. Are they, perhaps, simply figments of her imagination? There is no answer and to make true contact with the picture we need to leave the world of cut and dried reality and enter the world of half suggested, dreamlike, unreality and give way to sensuality much as one is inclined to do when listening to romantic music. This transition from reality to unreality is also a central thread in Gauguin’s life history. He abandoned the reality of wife, family, stock broking and Parisian Bourgeoisie respectability and game himself up to art, poverty, illness, lack of recognition and the art and lifestyles of ancient peoples far removed from the traditions of his western education. In Tahiti he lived with a teenage Tahitian girl and described the women of the island as possessing "something mysterious and penetrating. They move with all the suppleness and grace of sleek animals, giving off that smell which is a mixture of animal odour and scents of sandalwood and gardenia".

The title of the picture has no specific meaning. Nevermore and the bird bring to mind the poem The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. The poet had a cult following in Parisian artistic circles and in 1875 Manet had illustrated Mallarme’s translation of the poem. In it the author’s imagination is haunted by a menacing raven, who utters only one sound, Nevermore. Gauguin was aware of this, although he later sought to play down the connection.

The colours are intentionally anti-naturalistic. The artist wants your eye to wander lazily along the curves of the girl’s body and the decorative patterns in the background, and to linger over the lush accent of red, yellow and blue. He also uses contrast to heighten visual awareness, and thereby emotion. The straight verticals in the background are carefully placed to accent the curved sensuality of the reclining nude. The all-important small accents of red intensify the greens and the blue and yellow act as complimentary contrast. But one needs to be careful. Analysis is paralysis, and too much formal dissection of this picture or emphasis on its art historical forebears and subsequent influence can rob it of its essential mystery and sensuality. For my part I go to the concert hall to hear music played and to lose myself in it, not to read the programme notes. Similarly, this is, for me, pre-eminently a picture to be looked at directly in the gallery, and in front of it I try to allow my own personal imagination take over and become lost in it.

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