Gauguin’s Last Testament

Gauguin’s Last Testament

“T his is not a book,” Paul Gauguin claims in Avant et après (Before and After), the illustrated manuscript completed in 1903 during the last months of the Frenchman’s life. As befits a painter who skewed reality to his own ends, he was both right and wrong. The long-lost 213-page handwritten manuscript – which has been acquired by the Courtauld Institute of Art in London – is not a book as we know it. Part memoir, part manifesto, it is also a treasure trove of Gauguin’s drawings of life on the Marquesas Islands – shacks, villagers, palms – and an exceptional cache of monotype prints.

Detail from the manuscript Avant et après by Paul Gauguin Courtauld.
Detail from the manuscript Avant et après by Paul Gauguin. © The Courtauld.

Collectively these elements form a finely-bound riddle of memory and bombastic imagination, a cracked window into the mind of the master during his dying days in French Polynesia. This important manuscript was acquired under the Acceptance in Lieu of tax scheme in an arrangement negotiated by Sotheby’s Tax, Heritage & UK Museums.

Two female heads; text in black ink, drawings in black chalk, and pen and black ink. Detail from the manuscript Avant et après by Paul Gauguin. © The Courtauld.

Talking about the work with Ernst Vegelin, Head of the Courtauld Gallery, the excitement felt at its rediscovery is palpable. “It’s so Gauguin, it’s just him,” he says. “It’s moving, beautiful in parts and the illustrations are absolutely ravishing. And yet it is also so uncompromising.” The painter rails against polite society and figures of authority – priests, judges, gendarmes – and, of course, art critics. When you read Gauguin, says Vegelin, “you sort of sit up a little bit.”

In Avant et après, Gauguin notes: “Even at this moment, as I write, I am revealing only what I want to reveal.” Vegelin sees the text as the creation of a persona: “this savage artist, the barbarian out in the tropics.” And the painter’s pages beautifully conjure up the storm-lashed breadfruit trees, inaccessible coasts and the island’s heady aroma of musk. Indeed, the work’s title is a reference to the tipping point of his relocation to the South Pacific.

Landscape with a hut and palm trees, traced monotype. Detail from the manuscript Avant et après by Paul Gauguin. © The Courtauld.

This is his endgame and the gloves were off: he settles scores, revisits triumphs and burnishes his legacy. “He’s just sort of swinging punches,” Vegelin states. Of the great French author Emile Zola, Gauguin writes, “I have no desire to speak ill of him”. He then does precisely that. But the painter at least seems to understand the effect he has on others: “Several men who have been in my company and in the habit of discussing things with me have gone mad.”

The most famous of these troubled figures was, of course, Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin’s housemate in Arles during the fateful autumn of 1888. Avant et après provides the only eye-witness account of that tumultuous time; albeit a heavily embroidered version. “Between two such beings as he and I, the one a perfect volcano, the other boiling too, inwardly, a sort of struggle was preparing,” Gauguin recalls. That struggle ended with “a lot of wet towels lying about on the flag-stones” after Vincent took a blade to his ear.

Like Van Gogh, Gauguin’s character fascinates audiences as much as his work. “Both Gauguin and Van Gogh have become archetypes of a particular concept of creativity and what an artist is: the uncompromising figure following their vision, ignoring whatever society or the art market or the critics have to say about them,” Vegelin says. For Gauguin that meant pursuing his vision in the idyllic landscape in Polynesia. “It’s a very seductive and compelling idea.”

Front cover, pen and black ink. Detail from the manuscript Avant et après by Paul Gauguin. © The Courtauld. Richard valencia photography

It is, however, a complicated narrative for a modern audience sensitive to the region’s history. “As a white Frenchman going to Polynesia in pursuit of this exotic lost paradise, he is inescapably part of the colonialism that has ruined what he had hoped to discover,” Vegelin notes. The artist’s relationships with young Tahitian women also polarises opinion.

This manuscript is a feast for scholars of this challenging figure. “It’s an extraordinary hybrid thing,” Vegelin observes. “As a piece of writing it possesses a raw, anti-literary form. The way it jumps from one subject to another, apparently very haphazardly constructed. I think that’s actually very carefully thought through. It’s a parallel artistic endeavour. Gauguin the great experimenter in painting, sculpture, printmaking and ceramics, doing the same in writing style.”

À quoi-penses-tu Je ne sais pas, drawing in pen and black ink. Detail from the manuscript Avant et après by Paul Gauguin. © The Courtauld.

For Gauguin, words and pictures were interchangeable. “I should like to write as I paint my pictures – that is to say, following my fancy, following the Moon,” states the artist. His thoughts were indeed fanciful. “I’ve worked and spent my life well,” he writes. “Intelligently, even courageously, without weeping, without tearing things. And I have good teeth.”

The Courtauld has acquired the manuscript through the Acceptance in Lieu Scheme, administered by the Arts Council, a scheme which Vegelin describes as “indescribably wonderful: far and away the most important way that museums around the country can acquire things of real significance and for things to be saved for the UK.”

And it is difficult to overstate the significance of Avant et après. It has never been exhibited and since the 1920s has been cocooned in the family collection of Berlin-based industrialist Erich Goeritz (1889-1955). Goeritz also owned Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère before it came into the hands of another textile tycoon, Samuel Courtauld.

Non dépourvues de sentiment, drawing in black ink, and black wash, Detail from the manuscript Avant et après by Paul Gauguin. © The Courtauld.

Today, Gauguin occupies a key place in the Courtauld Collection. Its founder recognised the importance of the Post-Impressionist from the very beginning of his collecting life. “Courtauld bought just great examples of his work,” Vegelin says. “There’s a wonderful early Breton landscape, two of the very greatest Tahitian pictures and a marble carving of Mette, Gauguin’s wife.” And these works are hugely popular with the public. Avant et après, Vegelin states, is the most important addition to the collection in over a decade.

When the gallery reopens in Spring 2021, following an extensive redevelopment, the manuscript will be placed on view in the Courtauld’s Great Room, alongside the collection’s other Gauguin masterpieces. A new English translation of the text will be made available online and the work will be the subject of study days for scholars. Vegelin also hopes that Avant et après could one day be reunited with the other major Gauguin manuscripts, which sit in French institutions, for research or public exhibition, tying together his various narrative strands.

Indeed, Amanda Partridge, the Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art specialist who appraised Avant et après for the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, sees it as a mercurial conclusion to the artist’s story: “It is on these very pages that Gauguin, sitting in his Marquesas home, wrote his final thoughts and ideas and drew and selected the images that would accompany them. This transforms Avant et après from a manuscript into a true work of both art and art history.”

Vegelin agrees. “I sort of see it as the last great self-portrait that Gauguin makes,” says the curator. “It’s his last testament.”


Impressionist & Modern Art

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