Although Paul Gauguin was born in Europe, grew up in South America, and traveled the world as a sailor, he declared that his “happiness [is] found elsewhere, that belongs to another world”. Gauguin’s “other world” was Tahiti, a tropical paradise to and from which he escaped; he was a man forever seeking something new and an artist determined to shock European sensibilities while garnering fame.
However, author-illustrator Fabrizio Dori’s graphic novel Gauguin: The Other World takes readers on a journey far beyond Tahiti. In addition to the Maori-cultured paradise, other locales important to Gauguin’s development as an artist, such as Paris, are interspersed with scenes featuring the artist’s wife in Denmark or his friends in Brittany. The strangest but most effective sections of this beautifully drawn biography allow readers to travel through a realm of spirits.
The surreal interactions between Gauguin and island gods or the living and ghosts of the past (including the artist’s inner child, who perpetually seeks freedom) suggest why the artist chose themes for his paintings, not only how he went about the process of creating art. What could have been simply a weird approach to understanding Gauguin’s self-absorbed self-promotion as an artist and his wanderlust as a traveler instead becomes an immersive journey inside Gauguin’s mind. For readers, exploring the “other world” of Gauguin’s mindscape is critical to understanding the tropical landscapes that provided inspiration for the artist’s synthesis of artistic styles and his search for a new way of viewing the natural world and art.
Gauguin employed the word “savage” to describe his choice of subject matter, which differed greatly from what his colleagues and mentors were painting in Paris. He also applied this term to his mind and his untrained approach to painting. It’s a word frequently used by Dori and Céline Delavaux, whose biographical essays are included at the end of the graphic novel. One of the three closing essays, “Gauguin: Modern and Savage”, explains that, just as Gauguin bridged several late 19th and early 20th century art movements (e.g., Impressionism, Modernism), he represents what “savage” meant to each century. Gauguin reflects the 19th century interest in the exotic (at least what seemed exotic to Europeans) and the untamed natural world. His interest in Maori culture and desire to document it for Europeans is but one example of this philosophical trend.
The 20th century interest in the self—the natural, uneducated part of each person—is explained in Gauguin’s autobiographical letters to family and friends. In these letters, Gauguin expresses his desire to be different. As this book illustrates, the artist also had the ability to create a unique public persona that startled conventional Europeans. Although the style of his art and the flamboyance of his post-Tahiti Paris studio—complete with Maori artifacts, island-themed decor, and a pet monkey—
attracted a great deal of attention, his paintings received the most critical acclaim only after his death.
The essays summarize Gauguin as a “fearless artist and flawed human being”, a man setting himself apart from other artists by acting as “half dandy, half noble savage”. He could never completely feel comfortable with his family, the Danish business community (when he worked as a stockbroker), his artistic colleagues, native Tahitians, or island colonialists. Instead of focusing on all that Gauguin was not, Dori beautifully illustrates what made him, for better or worse, a haunted human being and an artist who ultimately influenced the likes of Pablo Picasso.
The graphic novel is structured in five sections following the introduction: Spirit of the Dead Watching, Everlasting Night, The Delightful Land, The Gods, and The Day of Evil Ghosts. As can be inferred from these titles, the surreal is as prominent as the real in this biography. Some section titles, such as “Spirit of the Dead Watching” and “The Delightful Land”, are titles of Gauguin’s paintings. The book concludes with three essays providing a traditional prose biography that supports and expands the scope of the earlier illustrations. Together, they form an intriguing look at Gauguin’s creativity and motivations while covering milestones in his life.
Gauguin: The Other World is similar to the five other books in the ever-expanding Art Masters series published in English by SelfMadeHero. (This graphic novel, for example, was translated from French.) The series began in 2015 with Vincent (Barbara Stok) and Munch (Steffen Kveneland) and continued in 2016 with Pablo (J. Birment and C. Oubrerie) and Dalí (Baudoin). Gauguin maintains the series’ tradition of showing an artist’s connection to other famous painters who just happen to be the subject of their own book in this series. Picasso, for example, mentions being inspired by Gauguin, but Van Gogh has a much more personal connection. He and Gauguin briefly lived and worked together in Arles and dreamed of establishing an artist colony.
Of course, in Vincent, the most famous incident to come from this collaboration is Van Gogh losing part of an ear. Although one of the Gauguin essays briefly mentions this occurrence, it is understandably downplayed in Gauguin’s biography. The connections reiterated in this series can provide additional insights into individual lives while helping readers understand the historic links among artists and art movements.
The series also successfully blends the art of a current artist, in this case Fabrizio Dori, with the style(s) of a famous artist from the past. Dori, for example, includes Gauguin’s painting “Spirit of the Dead Watching”, but the illustration designed to fit within a page of the graphic novel is a combination of Gauguin’s subject and style and Dori’s interpretation of them. This blending creates a unique visual experience; Gauguin’s painting is immediately recognizable, but Dori especially emphasizes the Spirit of the Dead in the corner. Later in the novel, this spirit guides Gauguin through flashbacks of his past relationships.
Other strengths of the Art Masters series are the inventive approaches to biography; the books illustrate an artist’s personal flaws while highlighting the passion in those who dedicate their lives to art. Gauguin, according to Dori, enjoyed being a martyr for art. He expected to live in poverty and to rely financially on friends and family from time to time. Like other artists who became famous posthumously, Gauguin did not make much money as an artist but felt compelled to paint instead of returning to a more lucrative profession.
Also like other artists, Gauguin succumbed to addictions beyond art, in his case alcohol and morphine. Dori dramatically illustrates Gauguin’s morphine abuse. Within a dark panel on a right page a red-eyed creature lurks in the woods. Its similarity to the Grim Reaper is undeniable. The next three drawings increasingly zoom in to an extremely close view of the creature’s unfocused red eyes. When readers turn the page, the first drawing is an eye-like circle against a blood-red background. The next drawings, like a camera, pull back to reveal first a Morphine label and then a tube and syringe. When the wraith visits Gauguin, the symbolism of the artwork on these pages is complete: Gauguin’s fondness for morphine is killing him. Gauguin poetically describes his flirtation with death as “the shadow that accompanies men all their lives,” but the effects of morphine on his body and his art are far more disturbing.
Although such dark themes are emphasized through shadowy illustrations with little color, Dori does not let readers forget Gauguin’s infatuation with tropical islands. He enriches the story of the artist’s life in Tahiti by using vibrant colors and featuring landscapes of lush green vegetation and perfect blue skies. Because Dori does not present only a “blue sky” portrait of Gauguin, readers gain a deeper understanding of the artist’s strengths as well as his frailties and failures.
Because this biography is captivatingly illustrated and uses “camera-movement” techniques that pull readers into the story, they can engage with this format perhaps more fully than with the prose in a traditional biographical tome. The journey to Gauguin’s “other world” is well worth taking, and even readers familiar with the facts of Gauguin’s life should gain a fresh perspective after viewing this “savage” artist from the inside out.
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