BOOKS:Painting the dark side of paradise

PAUL GAUGUIN: A Complete Biography by David Sweetman, Hodder and Stoughton pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
"EVERYONE knows something about Gauguin," remarked Robert Hughes famously. Everyone likes to have an opinion about Gauguin, too, usually hostile. Grounds for hostility vary; that he was a stockbroker and middle- class as well, that he abused women in art and in life, that he threw everything up and went to live in a dream island and got away with it (apart from dying in agony from syphilis), that he was a foul-tempered monster whose unkindness led to Van Gogh's self-mutilation and madness. David Sweetman's long biography strives, as one would expect, to disengage man from myth and it is to some extent successful; certainly he has researched minutely and travelled far.

Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848; his father, Clovis, was a radical journalist, his mother, Aline, the half-Spanish daughter of Flora Tristan, a celebrated early feminist. A great-uncle was Viceroy of Peru; a more distant ancestor was Alexander Borgia. It was on a visit to the wealthy Peruvian relatives that Paul's mother "was appalled to see Clovis keel forward dead from a heart attack".

At this moment, the family were sitting in a whale-boat off the coast of Patagonia. They spent the next seven years in Lima, and Sweetman emphasises the role of the pre-Colombian ceramics which Paul saw there in his later choice of imagery - notably the recurring presentation of a "shrouded skeletal figure similar to the mummies hunched in the foetal position, wrapped doll-like in cloths".

Back in France he attended boarding school, where he was unruly and unpopular; he then joined the Merchant Navy. His mother remarked that he should "get on with his career since he has made himself so unpopular with all my friends that he will one day find himself alone." Later his guardian helped him to find a job as a sort of accountant in the Bourse, he married a cigar-smoking Dane called Mette, and in his spare time he began to paint in oils, exhibiting with the Impressionists.

When he decided to give up his job to paint full time, he plunged himself and his growing family into financial disaster. He abandoned them in Copenhagen and returned to France, painting in Brittany and in Paris and taking odd jobs. The resourceful Mette ultimately raised all five of their children by her own efforts in Denmark and Gauguin gradually left his place in their lives, although he continued to write to them for many years. A doomed attempt to wring money out of the Panama Canal venture took him to Martinique, where he spent six months painting exotic landscapes and women. Ill health brought him back to France where he met Van Gogh; that winter he joined him in Arles, and Van Gogh's tragic fate ensued. In 1891 Gauguin sailed for Tahiti, on "official business"; he spent the rest of his life in Tahiti and in the Marquesas Islands, apart from a couple of years in Paris and Brittany again, spent painting and exhibiting. In 1903 he died of syphilis.

Such are the bare facts of Gauguin's life, and Sweetman elaborates them with a wealth of detail, description and anecdote, meanwhile providing a clear account of artistic movements and reactions from Barbizon through Impressionism, pointillism and synthetism into symbolism. He is lucid and painstaking in tracing Gauguin's many sources and influences, ranging from Kate Greenaway to Maori Gods. He exonerates Gauguin from most of the charges laid against him, and while he is non-committal over the Van Gogh episode, he describes it, and the weeks preceding Gauguin's death likewise, with delicacy and dignity.

Yet despite its glorious location this is an oddly colourless book. Paradoxically, Sweetman doesn't seem to care much for Gauguin; yet he doesn't dislike him either. As a result one has very little sense of Gauguin's personality; he is choleric, sometimes aloof, sometimes gregarious, tactless, dedicated to his work; this is not enough. Other people take their identity only from their names and swarm through their busy lives as indistinguishable ciphers. There is a great deal of boring information about the French economic situation, or minor political movements in Spain, France and South America, and there is far too much speculation: "what it must have seemed like then... one can only imagine." Worse, the authorial voice is omnipresent and omniscient. "What no one ever explained to them..." or "he does not seemed to have realised..." and, my favourite, "this wild Bohemian was bound to bring trouble". If only they'd had Sweetman there, how much better they would have managed. The patronising tone extends even to the "now risible frock and pantaloon beachwear of the period" or Gauguin and Mette working at Peruvian embroidery: "the thought... does raise a smile."

Matronly pieties are scattered about judiciously, presumably to suggest that Sweetman, unlike Gauguin, is sympathetic to a woman's woes. This fails to convince, for the book is a testament to the prurience and salaciousness of its author and not its subject. From its earliest pages there are references to "pert buttocks" and "our own prime observation of her nudity" in a discussion of The Spirit of the Dead Keeping Watch - a grave and beautiful painting which Sweetman is anxious to establish as a work of pornography. His excitement mounts over a study of Gauguin's daughter: "Aline was now four years old and in the painting her night-shirt has rucked up to just below her buttocks ... What on earth did Mette make of it, this image of her child..." This is grotesque enough, but there is worse to come. In Paris, when Gauguin meets a flirtatious 13-year-old: "the temptation must have been exquisite - the pubescent Judith, at the same magical age of 13 as Aline had been when he had last seen her". I considered counting the number of times Sweetman uses the words "bare breasts" and "bare-breasted"; "naked girl" is another of his favourite phrases. I suppose it does provide a contrast to "our old friend Pukaki, the monumental Tiki last seen in the Auckland Museum".

Sweetman has a talent for describing the paintings, but these necessary sections of his book are largely flawed by his lascivious vision. It is impossible to take his interpretations seriously; it is impossible to honour someone who so dishonours his own subject matter.