An Education in Art

A look at two of the world's greatest artists and art movements that forever changed the way the world held a paintbrush and the way the world felt emotions.

At first, it might seem strange to talk about both Gauguin and Picasso at the same time. Granted, both men are famous for their paintings and were been pioneers of different art movements. And they are both also very dead. But that aside, they never met (Gauguin forsook Europe for the tropics in 1891, when Picasso was only ten, and succumbed to syphilis just twelve years later); Gauguin is considered to be a Post-Impressionist while Picasso’s works on the whole were generally unclassifiable; the former gained widespread fame after his death while the latter was a legend in his own lifetime. How, then, were they similar?

In more than just a few ways, it turns out. The lives of these two men paralleled each other on several levels. First and foremost, both artists were visionaries who, dissatisfied with  the accepted tenets of painting in their respective eras, sought new methods of expressing themselves. Gauguin’s experiments with shape and colour gave rise to Symbolism when his interest in the Impressionist emphasis of depicting light started to wane. Picasso took this a step further – Cubism was developed out of his dissatisfaction with Post-Impressionism’s ability to capture all the shapes and surfaces of a subject at the same time.

As Gauguin was Picasso’s chronological predecessor, it was inevitable that his influences can be found in the latter’s paintings. Picasso’s early works clearly displayed elements from all the masters who came before him. Later on in life, the striking colours he utilised hark back to the energy of the Fauvists, who were – in part – inspired by Gauguin’s own splendid mastery over the colours of the spectrum. Both men, however, drew inspiration from Paul Cézanne. Gauguin is said to have painted with the artist himself and admired his bold use of colours while Picasso is believed to have built upon Cézanne’s work with perspective and geometric shapes to invent Cubism.

Another link between the two was the Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who had a sharp eye for spotting artistic talent and an even sharper nose for business. His purchases and sales of paintings by Gauguin and  Picasso helped to popularise the two relatively unknown (at that point in time) artists. This also made Vollard immensely rich, which permitted him some acts of generosity such as supporting Gauguin on a modest stipend during the last years of the artist’s life and lending Picasso a country house.

At different points in their careers, Gauguin and Picasso were charmed by the energy and unorthodox forms of “primitive” native artwork. Picasso’s fascination with African sculptures would lead to his painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon during a transitionary phase regarded by many as the forerunner of Cubism. For Gauguin, his exposure to French Polynesia would forever change him. He wholeheartedly embraced the indolence and vibrant sensuality of the South Pacific Islanders’ way of life, made it his own and rendered this tropical ideal in all his paintings.

Ultimately, Gauguin and Picasso were men desperately seeking to escape. The former was searching for an idyllic, uncomplicated way of life while the latter sought to escape the shadows of death that haunted him throughout his life. This marked every aspect of their beings, from their many lovers to their artwork, but it is through their groundbreaking, vivid living paintings that their legacies have been passed down to us.

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