Gauguin + Eiffel Tower

The following anecdote won’t be as funny if I have to explain it. Hopefully you know/can surmise enough about architectural symbolism and Gauguin’s personality/lifestyle to see the humor.

This is more-or-less an excerpt from tonight’s dinner conversation:

M: So, I read this case study about the Eiffel Tower and modernity today, and I was surprised to find that Gauguin commented about the 1889 exhibition. He said that he was impressed with…

J: [Interrupts] …the Eiffel tower’s virility?

M: [Chokes on spaghetti while laughing] Ha ha ha!
[Recovers and clears throat] No.

J: [Chuckling and looking pleased about his clever remark] Then what did he say?

M: Gauguin admired the technical modernity of the Galerie des Machines; he called the exhibition a “triumph of iron.”1 I am always surprised at how Gauguin really embraced modern life. On one hand, he wanted to be “primitive” and earthy by living in Tahiti and being a “savage,” but really, at same time he loved modern life. It seems like he really embraced primitivism because it was the modern, avant-garde thing to do. He didn’t want to be primitive because he wanted to get away from modern life – he wanted to embrace modernity by being primitive.2

—Don’t you wish you ate dinner at our house? Then you could choke on spaghetti too. Don’t get your hopes up too much though, because footnotes aren’t included in our actual dinner conversations.

1 Gauguin admired the technical modernity of the tower, but he did think that the tower was designed with outdated decorative forms. This is the the full quote: “This exhibition represents the triumph of iron; not only regarding machines but also architecture. Though architecture is in its infancy, in that, as an art it lacks a sense of decoration proper to its own materials. Why, alongside this iron, so rugged and strong, is there trivial terracotta decoration? Why, next to these geometric lines or a wholly new character, this ancient stock of old ornament?” See Paul Wood, ed., The Challenge of the Avant-Garde (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 159.

2 During graduate school, I wrote a paper about how Gauguin was in a state of denial regarding his savage, primitive lifestyle in Tahiti. Even though Gauguin renounced modern civilization and claimed to be a “barbarian” in his writings, in actuality he couldn’t part with modern life. For example, he was almost entirely reliant on tinned foods from the trading store in the area; he couldn’t even bring himself to eat the native food! In addition, Gauguin frequently used oil paint when creating his art – a medium which not only is European, but also is closely tied to the art market, commodofication, and avant-gardism. In my opinion, Gauguin was “primitive” because it was the hip (ahem, “modern”) thing to do. Gauguin’s 1889 reaction to the Eiffel Tower solidifies my opinion that the artist was not leaning away from modern life before going to Tahiti (he arrived there in 1891), but leaning towards it.

  • joolee says:

    Hm, interesting. I agree with that view because it reminds me of today – it's "hip" to be "green", organic, raise chickens, grow a garden…all within a few hundred square feet in the middle of the city. Modern, but primitive.

  • M says:

    Hey, that's a really good point, joolee. I didn't even think of how there is a similar trend today. I guess it could be argued that some people are in a similar state of denial, too.

  • heidenkind says:

    He probably did like it for its virility. Dirty old man.

    And I would love to have dinner at your house. Especially if you're serving spaghetti. 🙂

  • kashurst says:

    I just wish more conversations had foot notes! Love it!

  • e says:

    bwah! That's great.

  • The Clever Pup says:

    Cool and funny stuff. We have witty repartee at our table too.

  • Hels says:

    I have a big problem separating the artist from his/her work. Apologies for what comes next.

    Gauguin felt a need to escape everything that was artificial and conventional in Europe. So he sailed off in a search for a more primitive and sincere life. This seems to me an admirable idea, except he abandoned his wife and five children in Denmark and never, as far as I can find, saw them again for the rest of his life. Don't ask what he was doing with 12 year old girls/wives in Tahiti.

    Gauguin's break away from a solid middle-class world should actually be understood as an abandonment of his family responsibilities.

    You said "It seems like he really embraced primitivism because it was the modern, avant-garde thing to do." I think you were spot on!

    Art and Architecture, mainly

  • M says:

    Hels, I like your perspective on how Gauguin's turn to primitivism was actually an abandonment of his family responsibilities. I think Gauguin's character and lifestyle were shameful and deplorable, and I can't help but feel for his wife.

    Going along with your difficulty of separating the art from the artist, I know many people who dislike Gauguin's art because the artist lived such a despicable life. I'll admit, I am drawn to Gauguin's aesthetic. Whenever I see one of his works, though, I can't help but think of how much I dislike Gauguin.

  • Ashley says:

    Awesome! I wish I could eat dinner with you guys. I never knew those things about Gauguin!
    I have to say I LOVE the Eiffel Tower, it's such an amazing architectural work to me!

  • e says:

    Okay, I realize my source for studying Gauguin is um, an embarrassment, but I read up on his on wikipedia. Wow. Really interesting stuff. First, I can appreciate the sentiment of being stuck in a life that society tells us is what we're supposed to be doing (in Gauguin a stockbroker — according to wikipedia … is that right?) but isn't actually what we're meant to be in. So, I can relate to him up and leaving his life and going to the islands. However, leaving the wife and FIVE kids to fend for themselves is pretty darn selfish.

    I do think also, that your reader joolee brought up an excellent point. It's rare that society changes that much over time — we just have new ways of being "primitive" while holding onto modern conveniences.

    And, finally, YES I would love to eat dinner at your house. Sometimes I'd do anything for interesting, intellectual conversation. Why oh why do people shy away from such things?!?

  • M says:

    HA – you are ALL invited to my house for dinner. Anytime you are in the area, let me know. I can't promise that all of our conversations will be as witty/intellectual. But you are all invited. 🙂

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.