Paul Gauguin, In Search of the Primitive: Jacques Jouet's Savage

By Jacques Jouet
Translated by Amber Shields
Dalkey Archive Press, 94 pp. $12.95

Paul Gauguin's life (1848-1903) inspires endless revisions.

Partly descended from Peruvian nobility, he didn't start painting seriously until his thirties, forced by the Parisian stock market crash. His Danish wife Mette returned to Copenhagen with their five children, and he rarely saw them again. He helped found Post-Impressionism, influencing Matisse and Picasso. His stay in Tahiti in 1891-1893 inspired his distinct style--his young wife, Tehamana, being the model for his famous paintings. Failing to meet success in France, he returned to Tahiti for his last eight years. Always at odds with the French colonists, he died destitute in his hut.

The current biographical trend is denigrating. Gauguin cruelly abandoned his family. He lived in Tahiti as a colonist. He exploited native women by painting them as passive objects. His memoir Noa Noa ("fragrance") was fabricated. He lusted after his own daughter. He is beyond salvage.

Jacques Jouet has given us a Gauguin, or a character, Paul, loosely based on him, whose life is uninterrupted. Would some final breakthrough have let Gauguin make peace with the "noble savage"? How did he feel about the primitive? Of course, he was a bourgeois artist, by definition, shipping his paintings to France under stress in Tahiti. But no amount of scrutiny of Gauguin's paintings, memoirs, or letters explains the purity of his motives.

To take our attention off Gauguin, who has been redefined to the limits of obscurity, Jouet imagines Paul as a successful stockbroker who turns to clothing design, after Edouard Manet's remark about the frock coat in a painting: "Where are the model's lungs? He isn't breathing under his garment." Paul concludes that "what one can make of a man at this time is his body." This is the gist of primitivism, antithetical to bourgeois constraints. A certain Madame Taillefeu-Poncard reiterates that "people don't know how to coordinate their clothes with their naked bodies." Unlike the prolific Gauguin, Paul doesn't produce much actual clothing, though his radical subversions of "the relationship between the usual distance of the fabric from the body, and the manner of its clinging" are awe-inspiring.

Jouet has downscaled the continuing threat of Gauguin's primitivism by transferring it to clothing, a universal need inspiring perpetual dissatisfaction. In the islands, Paul tries to out-savage the savage (as Gauguin did, in his own way). When Gauguin arrived, Tahiti and the other South Sea islands were no longer unspoiled paradises. Papeete, Tahiti's capital, was a tawdry colonial outpost, where the natives, including Gauguin's vahines (wives), were already "corrupted" by half-hearted Western education. Gauguin had to imagine a paradise where none existed. Paul must do the same.

In the midst of the cheapness, Paul invents "outfits ... conceived as frames for the scars of the wearer." Paul's "global wardrobe ... would put an end to hot and cold, nudity and covering, beauty and ugliness -- leaving simply what happens, all that happens." Paul's aims are as spiritual as Gauguin's -- and as impossible, though no less laudable for their universal aspiration. Paul dreams of "an immense scenic garment, one loincloth for the entire population, the color of sky and the local flora."

Paul realizes he cannot be a savage when he meets the "Sect of the Flayed," who skin themselves, leaving only "a sort of vermiculated pleura." Paul sees "the bottom of...[their] bright lungs inflating and deflating," as Manet had desired. Jouet leaves us wondering if Paul's death is peaceful, since he has reached the limits of his possibilities. Might we speculate the same about Gauguin's end, despite his physical anguish (from syphilis)?

The corruption of the islands is manifest, both among the locals and the administrators, and Paul plays his part in it (while fighting it), but his imagination salvages him (just as Gauguin's art transcends his foibles). In an appendix, Jouet imagines a letter from a customs official in the islands, reporting Paul's death as the deserved punishment of a moral reprobate -- precisely as biography now devalues him. Anticipating his enemies, one of Gauguin's last acts was to compose an intimate journal, Avant et Apres.

Savage is highly successful, morally anchored experimental fiction. In less than a hundred pages, Jouet provokes fundamental rethinking of the permanent questions about the West's relation to its "savage" other.