Friday, November 27, 2009

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

by Drew Martin
A former fellow online student at The New School once wrote to me about the color palettes we inherit. He was from Uruguay and he confessed that he was jealous of his graphic artist friends from Mexico because they had been raised in a much more colorful environment and were therefore braver and more experimental with color. I had never considered this but of course it makes a lot of sense...even on a much more local level, i.e. New Yorkers gravitate to a darker and more serious palette than residents of Miami and yet ask any New Yorker what color a taxi is and he or she will say "yellow." I was content with this way of thinking until my current immersion in David Sweetman's biography of Paul Gauguin. What I read does not contradict the national palette idea, in fact it reinforces the concept and makes it multi-faceted.

If you thumb through any art history book and read a paragraph on Gauguin and take note that he was French, born in Paris and died in French Polynesia you would be missing a lot. Even the classic The History of Art by H. W. Janson starts off with "He began as a prosperous stockbroker in Paris and an amateur painter and collector of modern pictures." The entry on Gauguin in Wikipedia explains:

"His bold experimentation with colouring led directly to the Synthetist style of modern art while his expression of the inherent meaning of the subjects in his paintings, under the influence of the cloisonnist style, paved the way to Primitivism and the return to the pastoral. He was also an influential exponent of wood engraving and woodcuts as art forms."

In the same Wiki entry, Peru is mentioned twice, briefly, but is not given any credit. In Paul Gauguin: A Life, Sweetman constantly reminds the reader that Gauguin's early childhood was spent in Peru (his mother was half Peruvian) and his senses were not only formed there and absorbed the colors and objects of the country but that he had a lifelong obsession with the native South Americans and always kept Incan crafts close to him. Gauguin even referred to himself as "the Savage from Peru." Unlike Picasso, who only borrowed "primitive" imagery and was influenced by this "rascal" artist, Gauguin was merely expressing a palette and shapes that were already part of him and he felt the need to change the European art world that did not satisfy this side of him.

What we should take away from this is to rethink our own upbringings and review everything that has influenced us. I am American of (pre-Pilgrim) English and German descent, born in California and raised in New Jersey and there are obvious reflexes to these influences. My father is a nuclear physicist and my mother is a Spanish professor, which not only add to my visual vocabulary but also means many related objects were simply part of my "natural" childhood environment.

Yesterday I walked around my parents' house and took note of the family heirlooms and Virgina knickknacks, Aztec calendar, Toldeo sword: Colonial Williamsburg + Mexico + Spain...Our influences are infinite and we can easily trace them for each of us and choose to express different ideas at different times, i.e. being Irish on St. Patrick's Day. While we are looking deeper into our own make-up we should also be as detailed when viewing others who we might judge too quickly and cater to stereotypes. Gauguin expresses this collective contemplation in his work and especially in the title of one of his most famous paintings:

venons-nous? Qui sommes-nous? allons-nous?

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?