When is it time to get drunk? And on what?

A friend wrote a Facebook note that has engendered a lot of conversation about Paul Gauguin, the painter, and his life. My own thoughts about the French impressionist and forerunner of Primitivism have ranged from distaste for his treatment of women to pondering how creativity sometimes privileges writers and other artists who behave badly.

I have lived most of my adult life with an artist, who eventually gave up painting for an art-related business. We were still often surrounded by artists, and have made a pastime of going to great art museums. My husband is not an admirer of Gauguin as much for his private life as for his–he says–only fairly-well-executed paintings.

All the artists I know rather well–some 30, I would say–can be hyperfocused at times, so much so that they eschew the tasks of ordinary living. Which makes them sometimes hard to live with. Sometimes impossible to abide in the same room.

Do great artists need to be megalomaniacal? Do we mistake their singlemindedness, their focus on their work, for arrogance? If he needed to “forsake a middle class life” and his wife and children, and flee to Tahiti, to consort with prostitures and underage girls, and drink himself silly while he created, was the world recompensed by Gauguin’s art?

Is the difference between a hopeless schmuck and a great artist the world’s recognition of one and not the other?

If Iggy–the husband in Connie May Fowler’s latest novel, How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly–had been a great artist, would his treatment of Clarissa have been okay? Not to her, I think.And, apparently, not to the author. But to the world? What about  Rochester’s drunken rages and their subsequent dismissal as the ravings of a “sensitive soul” in Bronte’s Jane Eyre? (I can find few examples of female characters behaving arrogantly and being defended–a topic I promise to purse in the future.)

Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollack, not so great human beings, but great artists. Morris Louis, a mensch. Georgia O’Keefe, well, interesting example.

Are great artists–as opposed to “average” artists? As if there were such a thing–simply unable to curb their urges, and is that lack of self control also responsible for the full-throttle expression of their art? But color, to be drunk on color, like Gauguin . . . as we are drunk on words?

ask the wind,

the wave,

the star,

the bird,

the clock,

ask everything that flees,

everything that groans

or rolls

or sings,

everything that speaks,

ask what time it is;

and the wind,

the wave,

the star,

the bird,

the clock

will answer you:

“Time to get drunk!

Don’t be martyred slaves of Time,
Get drunk!
Stay drunk!
On wine, virtue, poetry, whatever!”

If Gauguin was following Charles Baudelaire’s poetic instructions, can we blame him?

Many a writer has tried to answer that question: Bronté, in Jane Eyre,a little; Connie May Fowler, in the above-named novel about Clarissa and her wandering husband, Iggy, How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly. Other examples? What’s your answer?

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  • James Housefield  On September 22, 2010 at 5:14 am

    You are right to point us to the ethics surrounding art and artists, and also to the powerful stimulus of Baudelaire for the 19th & 20th century artist. Perhaps if we can parse that history we can better engage the ethical questions that loom large from our 21st century views? This is what I’ll speak about in San Francisco in a month’s time:
    DeYoung Museum, San Francisco, Friday Oct. 22 @ 7 pm in the Koret Auditorium, to accompany the exhibit of Post-Impressionist works from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

    Professor James Housefield, University of California at Davis, discusses “Gauguin’s Baudelairean Dream.”

    Paul Gauguin’s paintings transport viewers to worlds of mystery,imagination, and dreams. This illustrated lecture examines how these connect to the literary dreams of the authors that Gauguin, Van Gogh, and their friends enjoyed, specifically the writing of Charles
    Baudelaire. Baudelaire’s influence as a poet and art critic transformed generations of artists and writers, offering alternative visions that challenged the mainstream in ways that echoed the efforts of the post-Impressionist painters. For Gauguin, following Baudelaire, art was a divinely inspired intoxication yet a distinctly earthly creation.

    Thank you for your blog!

    • Glenda Bailey-Mershon  On September 22, 2010 at 4:32 pm

      What an interesting nexus! How nice that you found my blog. Wish I could be there for your lecture.

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