Post-Impressionist artists were interested in the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly in his concept of the Ubermensch, a superman who would be capable through intense struggle of surmounting the lower forces that would limit his ability to achieve. The idea that man could evolve beyond his present capacities influenced the relationship of European man to previous cultures and to contemporary but less "civilized" societies. This paper explores the ways in which Paul Gauguin applied the Ubermensch concept to his art and to his life, and examines parallel motifs in the oeuvres of his contemporaries.
The Artist Gauguin: Man, Nature, Ubermensch and God
At the beginning of the Renaissance, Massacio painted The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and initiated a new view of humanity: an intensely personal and emotionalized struggle against fate. In spite of the Neo-Classical return to the formal norms of the past, the human agony on the face of Masaccio's Eve heralded a new view of the personalized man in art.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Modernist movement sought to establish new innovations, which would radically transform the staid concepts of Victorian art. Dividing into two movements, both of which eschewed the sentimental and classicized views of humanity, Modernism was as radical a departure from the artistic standards of the day as Masaccio's masterpiece from the Gothic tradition. The Abstractionist side of Modernism sought order in the aesthetic arrangement of colors, shapes and forms; the Expressionist manipulated formal elements to convey intense, highly personalized feelings.
The Impressionists built on these concepts to convey the importance of the individual's experience, and fractured reality to convey the emotions that the viewer might have as his personal situation merged with the external world.
The Post-Impressionists built upon the concepts established by the Impressionists. Gauguin and Van Gogh were their most important representatives, with Toulouse Lautrec, Seurat and Cezanne amplifying their contribution.
Seurat and Gauguin both were also referred to as Avant-Garde artists, a term that originated in 1825 French socialist thought as a designation for propagandist philosophy, and which suited those artists' commitment to social change through their oeuvre.
Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin was born in 1848 to a middle-class family, and until his thirties showed no inclination to stray from his position as head of a happy family and a successful stockbroker. However, he became influenced by Impressionist art and began first to collect it and then to attempt to create it. He went through a series of stages, from Impressionist to Independent, and finally developed his own form, which he called Synthetic Symbolism. It used simplified, unrealistic, bright colors, along with bold, sketchy forms owing derivation to the Japanese tradition as well as to the linear outlines of stained glass windows. Also, the forms of people and objects underwent a flattening of perspective that translated them into bold, iconic figures laden with highly personalized symbolism.
In 1888, after a prolonged period of correspondence that led them to believe that their goals and ideologies were sympathetic, he went to stay with Vincent Van Gogh. However, the few months that they shared proved to both that they were incompatible personalities and after Van Gogh had a violent episode and sliced off his ear, Gauguin left, never to return. In 1891 he left his family, managed to get sponsorship from the French government and moved to Tahiti, where he created an astonishing body of work.. In 1897 his autobiography Noa, which roughly translated means "The Fragrance of Experience," was published; in 1901, he moved to Atuana where he died in 1903.
Before his dramatic relocation to the South Seas, he had experimented with rejecting bourgeois society before, moving to Brittany where he lived among the peasants. By so doing, he hoped to discover a less hypocritical and more genuine society; he may also have enjoyed the sensation of being more "advanced" than the indigenous members of Breton society.
In addition to landscape scenes, which celebrated the beauty of the pastoral countryside as seen through his evolving aesthetic, he painted a number of works depicting the peasants. One of note is The Yellow Christ. In this painting, a rather wispy Christ is crucified, with bulky forms of peasant women performing the lamentation. Their vigor and animal heft contrasts with the thin, almost boneless figure of Christ, and their garments are in vivid primary colors. The unusual color of Christ may have been inspired by the same color philosophy as Matisse's, who believed that yellow was the color of life and inspiration. Certainly it is an unusual work, and prefigured a development in Gauguin's thought in which he would explore the relationships of man, the natural world and the world of the supernatural.
The thoughts of Darwin had profoundly affected civilized Europe's view of the essential nature of man. The whole notion of original sin and the Fall of man had been somewhat alleviated at the dawn of the Renaissance by the idea of civic humanism. This philosophy believed that individual man was capable of great achievement and worthy of development, and that having developed his innate abilities, he had a duty to the state and to the world to improve it insofar as possible. In the eighteenth century, the French and American Revolutions contributed a muscular element of social revolt to the mix: man needed to break what could not be mended. By the end of the nineteenth century, a concern for appearances and niceties threatened to stifle individual freedoms of expression as Victorian repressiveness invaded bourgeois society.
Then Darwin's theories suggested that man had in fact managed to improve himself physically from a former, more primitive state. The impact of this idea, and its challenge to conventional religious belief, cannot be underestimated. Now all of the natural world was seen to be in a perpetual, gradual, inexorable state of flux. Man, the intelligent animal, could presumably improve himself - direct his evolution intellectually. While human potential could now be seen to have been significantly bolstered, the importance of God was diminished. Man's claim to the title of Creator no longer was exclusive or perhaps even appropriate; man could be the Creator.
Friedrich Nietzsche, in Thus Spake Zarathustra, proposed that man had the potential to progress beyond his current capabilities into the next, more glorious version of humanity, the superman or ubermensch. This more perfect specimen would carry mankind forward into an era of achievement hitherto undreamed of.
The appeal of this idea to a personality that had felt stifled by conventional society is obvious. Many artists, writers and thinkers who were drawn to the idea of the ubermensch turned to primitive societies, either past or present, and studied their customs and art. The value of this exploration was to establish where we had been, and from that to see where we might now go. There was a tendency for some schools of thought, such as the Fauvists, to glorify the norms of primitive cultures and to seek ubermensch's directions from them. They studied African and Oceanic artifacts, and in their simple, direct yet spiritual forms found inspiration for their future-oriented works.
Nietzsche believed that the nature of mankind was inner conflict, as the psyche struggled to subordinate lower, bestial drives and to give rein to higher aspirations. The ubermensch achieves supremacy by ruthlessly driving down animal elements. Thus, the dark side of the ubermensch idea was there to be exploited by marginalized personalities. Adolf Hitler, of course, seized upon it as a rationalization for his notion of an Aryan master race, and as a justification for ethnic cleansing. The sexualization of the ubermensch led to the fantasy of the superman and his temptation by women of a lower order, with whom copulation would almost amount to bestiality. One of Hitler's favorite artists was Franz von Struck, who painted women, serpents entwining their breasts and thighs, seductively attempting to soil the ubermensch. Sado-masochistic personalities such as Hitler's found such art highly erotic.
Gauguin, when he relocated to Tahiti, had come to an unspoiled paradise, one of the few left in his known contemporary world. His relationship to the natural beauty, to the Tahitians and their culture, and to his self-view as he lived among them shows that the idea of the ubermensch and its religious and sexual connotations were central to his art.
His paintings of the natural world of jungle, streams and shores celebrate the lush tropical beauty of the uncultivated Eden-like island. He was free to experiment with vivid, unrealistic color and to simplify the forms of trees, clouds and other natural phenomena into bold, flat masses. Most of his paintings incorporate figures, whether of the natives or of animals, goats or horses. Tellingly, these animals are often white, their pale shapes standing out starkly from the brilliant verdure that surrounds them.
Gauguin experienced this natural world in an intensely personal, violent way that had to do with an anarchic, repressed personality. He describes himself chopping down trees as committing an act of…