Book review

Paul Gauguin would have marvelled at this graphic novel about his life

The Impressionist master’s final tortured years come to life in a visual ‘podcast’.

As a subject for a biography, very few can match French artist Paul Gauguin. No wonder that a life so full of dramatic twists and turns has appealed to fiction writers, playwrights, psychoanalysts, and essayists consistently over the years. However, a path-breaking artist who threw away relationships like dirty rags apparently for the sake of art is also a difficult subject to handle. Fabrizio Dori does this with rare finesse in his graphic novel Gauguin: The Other World, which tells the story of the last few years in the life of the French Post-Impressionist.

In 1891, Gauguin left his wife and children in the Danish capital Copenhagen and embarked on a journey to experience life and nature in its “pure” form. He was obsessed with the idea that the pristine, colourful settings of French Polynesia would allow him the freedom to pick the right ingredients to start a revolution in art.

While it is true that the French master had been prolific during his stay in, Tahiti creating art that elevated him to the stature of the very best – albeit posthumously – many consider this was the darkest period of his life. He took three young teenage Tahitian girls as “wives” and allegedly spread syphilis among many Polynesian women.

Indeed, Gaugin’s personal life often dominated the salon gossip of Paris, and this created the image of a white outsider among savages, creating meaningless art. The Impressionists, whom he left to search for his own identity in art, heaped scorn on his work and art galleries refused to display his canvases.

This affected Gauguin in more ways than one. Despite his escape from Europe – which he called liberation from social conventions – to a colourful paradise steeped in ancient mythology, the Frenchman wanted recognition in Paris. This rejection from the art establishment left him in perpetual poverty and told on his health.

Finally, after several aborted attempts to leave Tahiti, Gauguin returned to France in 1893. He was treated like an outsider in Paris and soon found out that his human failings had overshadowed his art. Despite his influence on young artists, the Paris art orthodoxy pronounced his work not worthy of a second look. Although the occasional inheritance from a distant relative or a show at an important gallery did bring some cheer, misfortunes, including his mistress’s stealing all his possessions and running away, and illness never left him alone. In July 1895, a bitter Gauguin went to Tahiti once more, never to leave again.

Innovative narrative technique

In Dori’s work Gauguin tells his own story in first person. The Italian cartoonist uses an unusual narrative technique to weave the tale. Delirious in the throes of death, the painter confronts a character – Spirit of the Dead – from his own painting Manao Tupapau who asks him to reveal the truth about himself. Gauguin’s response forms the narrative of this graphic novel. The technique allows the reader to get a cinematic feel, as well as “hear” Gauguin’s podcast.

Manao Tupapau (1892), is one of Gauguin’s biggest mysteries and most celebrated painting. Freely translated from Maori, the title in English is Spirit of the dead watching but there is some ambiguity – to some it means Watching the spirit of the dead. Dori cleverly uses this ambiguity in establishing Gauguin’s encounter with the spirit, which almost looks like Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, during his first stay at Tahiti.

The painting is a portrait of Gauguin’s Tahitian lover and wife Teura. Critics have pointed out that it is his answer, in a more colourful and pure style, to Édouard Manet’s 1863 painting Olympia. But Dori practically ignores Teura and highlights the presence of the spirit. Here the graphic novelist uses Gaugin’s written accounts, where he talked about the superstitions of the locals to the effect that the spirits of the dead roam at night, which is why Maoris do not like to sleep in the dark. Dori asks the most difficult questions through the spirit, revealing the dark aspects of an arrogant artist with little respect for anything other than his art and himself.

"Manao Tupapau"
"Manao Tupapau"

Dori, clearly, has no love lost for the Gauguin the person, but when it comes to the artist’s creations, the cartoonist pays his tribute like a fanboy. The biography is uncompromising in its description of an unsympathetic Gauguin, but the painter shines through his art. In this fabulously illustrated work, Dori adopts Gauguin’s own style to create his panels, the Italian’s palette capturing the beauty of the tropics in all its myriad hues. But when it comes to scenes in France or other locations in Europe, pale pastel shades take over. The colour scheme reflects the mood of the narrative.

The structure of the book is used cleverly to show that Gauguin, despite all his failings as a human being, finally achieved all the freedom and more that he wanted from art. There is a constant interplay between a direct, realist depiction of Gauguin’s life, and a more nuanced journey deep in the Polynesian mythological world to the mountain of Maori gods with the spirit of the dead as his only companion. Dori’s portrayal makes this brute of a human being more endearing to the reader – something Gauguin may have sought all his life.

Gauguin: The Other World, Fabrizio Dori, Self Made Hero.

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