‘A Grand Culmination of Thought’

                Comment on Paul Gauguin’s ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ 1897

When one views Gauguin’s “Where do we come from”, the word that pops into the head is ‘Humanity’. This work is a still, with moving emotions. It is a fragment of imagination inspired by the dilemmas of his mind. From a young schoolboy wondering about life and the many unanswered questions to questioning existence in his most profound piece of art. A piece of art moves a person when it touches a part of their soul and this work did that to me, it touched my inner self which had always wondered about my existence and humanity as a whole. This extraordinary piece of art is thought provoking and inspiring. We ask ourselves the most fundamental question of life — why are we alive? Though, no one seems to have the most accurate answer which we might deem suitable for life in the 21st century, we never stop asking. Gauguin, too seemed to have pondered over the same mystery 119 years ago. This masterpiece tells us a story, an enigma of the mind, a longing for the truth. It asks us about our basic existence — an esoteric mystery. 
 The painting is an accentuation of Gauguin’s trailblazing post-impressionistic style. His art stressed the warm use of colours and thick brushstrokes, principles of the impressionists, while it aimed to convey a psychological or expressionistic strength. The three fundamental questions in this catechism were: “Where does humanity come from?” “Where is it going to?”, “How does humanity proceed?”. I strongly relate with Gauguin as he considered this work of art as a grand culmination of thought. He had been strongly driven by spiritual questions on the nature of life from a very young age, and so have I. I would describe this painting as a ‘depiction of rumination’. Here, there are people and animals, closely packed while being shown as emotionally withdrawn. They are together, yet separated by emotional barriers. Almost like an urban city these days. The creatures shown in this work seem to be lost in some kind of dilemma related to daily life. Artist Paul Gauguin had suicidal thoughts after receiving word in April 1897 that his favourite daughter Aline had died tragically from pneumonia. This art carries with it grief, which might have been the reason for Gauguin to choose a topic so philosophical.
 What I found interesting was that Gauguin indicated that the painting should be read from right to left. Gauguin states that the three women with a child represent the beginning of life; the middle group symbolises the daily existence of young adulthood; and in the final group, according to the artist, “An old woman approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts”; at her feet, “a strange white bird…represents the futility of words.” The blue idol in the background apparently represents what Gauguin described as “the Beyond.” Of its entirety he said, “I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better—or even like it.”

This idea reminded me of Shakespeare’s ‘seven stages of life’ where he depicted life and the very attributes of different ages. This piece of work is definitely worth wondering about!

~ Hansikha Vohra

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