Picks and Pans Review: Gauguin: Life, Art, Inspiration

updated 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Yann Le Pichon

Publishers sometimes seem to believe that any art book of discreet dimensions runs the risk of being ignored. This volume doesn't run that risk—you need a block and tackle to lift it. The book would have been much more useful in less massive form. Le Pichon, a French critic, does offer a fine perspective on Gauguin's art, which is bolstered by some 500 illustrations, including reproductions of sketches, prints and paintings, and never-before-published photographs of Brittany and Tahiti. But Le Pichon's description of the life of the most original of the 19th-century masters is far weaker than, say, Henri Perruchot's 1963 biography, but the story is fascinating nonetheless. In his early 20s, Gauguin was still working for a Paris stockbroker and in 1873 married Mette Gad, a young Danish girl who sometimes wore men's clothes and smoked cigars. They rapidly produced five children, and Gauguin appeared settled in a solid bourgeois existence. But he was restless. He started drawing in his office and painting after work on the banks of the Seine. "My wife, my family, everyone in fact is on my back about this confounded painting of mine," he wrote to a friend. "But one man's faculties can't cope with two things at once, and I, for one, can do one thing only: paint. Everything else leaves me stupefied." Gauguin took more and more painting trips, to Brittany, to Martinique and to Aries in the south of France in 1888. In Aries he endured a disastrous two-month stay with an erratic Vincent Van Gogh. It ended when Van Gogh took a razor to Gauguin, missed and then cut off his own ear. More and more Gauguin entertained the notion of living in the South Pacific. Finally, in 1891, he deserted his family and sailed to Tahiti, where within a few months he married a 13-year-old girl named Teha'amana ("she who gives strength"). He eventually left the island for France, and when he returned two years later, his life was less idyllic. He had been devastated by the death of Aline, his beloved daughter with Mette, and he was ravaged by syphilis he had contracted in Paris. In 1898 Gauguin tried to kill himself with arsenic but failed. Still he continued to work. In 1902 he completed two paintings, both of riders on horseback at the curling water's edge. It was the year before he died. (Abrams, $49.50)

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