Self-Portrait with Portrait of Émile Bernard (Les misérables), Paul Gauguin, 1888 (via Van Gogh Museum)
“One day, you will feel a joy in having resisted the temptation to hate, and there is truly intoxicating poetry in the goodness of him who has suffered.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
The French post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (June 7, 1848–May 8, 1903) left an indelible mark on creative culture as a major influence of Picasso and Matisse, and the person whom Van Gogh considered his greatest kindred spirit. He arrived at art via a bittersweet path — after the early trauma of his father’s death, the young Gauguin turned to painting as a way of transmuting sorrow into beauty, but the specter of suffering never left him.
This, perhaps, is why he was able to meet with remarkable sympathy the suffering of other artists, particularly those whom he saw as courageous innovators breaking with the status quo and paying the price — the same disposition of daring for which E.E. Cummings would be so hideously condemned by traditionalists a generation later before becoming one of the most beloved artists in his own field of poetry.
Among those young mavericks was the French painter, poet, essayist, and playwright Émile Bernard.
In 1888, at the age of twenty, Bernard walked more than 500 kilometers from Paris to Pont-Aven to see Gauguin, his artistic hero. The elder painter, twenty years his senior, quickly came to admire Bernard’s creative bravery and innovative technique. The two formed a warm friendship, which would later unravel into artistic rivalry, but the alchemy of their relationship forever altered both of their aesthetics and the course of modern art itself, planting the seed of Symbolism.
In the autumn of 1889, 41-year-old Gauguin received a distraught letter from his young friend after a particularly harsh critical reception of Bernard’s paintings. In a reply found in Paul Gauguin: Letters to His Wife and Friends (public library), the painter writes to his 21-year-old friend:
Your disconsolate letter reaches a countryside as sorrowful. I understand the bitterness which sweeps over you at the foolish reception of you and your works… What would you rather have? a mediocrity which pleases everybody or a talent which breaks new ground. We must choose if we have free will. Would you have the power of choice if choosing leads to suffering — a Nessus shirt which sticks to you and cannot be stripped off? Attacks on originality are to be expected from those who lack the power to create and shrug their shoulders.
In a sentiment that calls to mind young Beethoven’s joy of suffering overcome, Gauguin adds:
As for me, I own myself beaten — by events, by men, by the family, but not by public opinion. I scorn it and I can do without admirers. I won’t say that at your age I was like this, but by the exertion of sheer will power, that is what I am like to-day. Let them study carefully my last pictures and, if they have any feelings at all, they will see what resigned suffering is in them — a cry wrung from the heart… But you, why do you suffer, too? You are young, and too early you begin to carry the cross. Do not rebel; one day, you will feel a joy in having resisted the temptation to hate, and there is truly intoxicating poetry in the goodness of him who has suffered.
Complement with the illustrated story of Gauguin’s childhood, then revisit Janis Joplin on creativity and rejection, Ben Shahn on nonconformity, Henri Rousseau’s heartening tale of success after a lifetime of rejection, and Van Gogh — who was also an ardent champion of the young Bernard — on taking risks and how inspired mistakes propel us forward.