Poetry

Gauguin on Inishmaan

I
Cobalt shadows define the ragged edges of Inishmaan
the cliffs slashed with vermilion and violet notes
below blue streaked creams of a torn and ravished sky.
This primal land of rock and flesh is made anew
its shoulder buttressed against wind and wave,
steeps muted with seabirds and storm wrack,
existing as something Gauguin has sought
so long now that memory beguiles him as he paints.
South Seas colours are spread on tender canvas skin,
staining the ground cadmium yellow and ochre.
Unsettled viridian grass toss bleached stalks over
dashed pinks trembling in Prussian blue crevices.
The russet of bracken wears a crown of emerald
green and gold made from fresh curled fronds.
All this he sets down as doubts rise and strength fails.

The Irish in their skull houses possess their plant colours
which they wear homespun and layered, like their myths,
spoken quietly in the rush-lit centre of a shadow world.
Haunted by fears and winter hunger, their earthy tongues
are secretive as ash under embers of turf and driftwood fires.
Outside the women hide their faces from him under shawls
hark only to the keening of drowned souls as light fades,
the mourning of ghost birds drawn to their shore.
On these quiet nights the island lays in the lap of a gentle sea
as silvered waves lullaby fishermen to untroubled sleep in their cots.
Gauguin moves unnoticed through the smoke wreath of the village,
to the pewter fringe of the seas ultramarine dress and looking out,
hears, like a beating heart on the darkening horizon, the call of paradise.

II
Here he would have to remake what he has sought with his brushes
this island life harder than he had known and unforgiving.
The people kneel before their stone crosses in fear of blight
and dare not look on the distorted mirror of his art and truth.
His alchemy thought unholy and windblown across a superstitious island
the canvases are kept turned to the wall and their curse averted by prayer.
With a heavy heart Gauguin mounts the sea in their tarred skin boat.
Looking back at the dark row lining the strand in the chill morning air
until the spell breaks and they drift away without wave or call,
taking again the stony paths between lime-washed walls.
Old and sick he knew he could take away nothing of this.
Lifting his bundle of canvases he pushed them into the sea
watching as they joined the flotsam of the world’s gyre
drifting into the magic of never been.

John Charles William Morris
9th December 2014 revised 14th January 2015

(1)This poem takes the imaginative idea of Gauguin visiting Inishmaan, the middle of the three Aran Islands off County Galway as its inspiration. Whether he was aware of these islands is unknown. Inishmaan or Inis Meain in Irish is today described as having a more ‘authentic culture’ providing an escape from the modern world and is marketed to tourists as such. It was brought to the world’s attention by John Millington Synge in his book about the islands published in1901. I’ve tried to portray how Gauguin would have been inspired by the island and how the population may have responded to the man and his paintings. I have placed the chronology after his time in the South Seas where Gauguin died of syphilis in 1903. What if he had travelled to Inishmaan in his search for a new Eden? Synge spent five summers on the island in a quest to recover a culture he felt was being lost as Ireland entered the 20th Century. These ideas have not gone away in the 21st Century with the quest for the unspoiled and sustainable continuing to influence the imagination and motives of people today.

We know that Gauguin went first to Brittany to find new subjects for his paintings and then to Martinique and Tahiti in search of the primitive and unspoiled. He wished to make a break from Impressionism and create an art influenced by his exposure to non-European artefacts. He was a complex character that art and social history has not always treated with understanding and compassion. Knowledge of his scheming and sexual proclivities has detracted from the contribution his art has made to modern painting and those artists who came after him. His interest in the ‘Primitive’ and ‘Savage’ can be understood as a 19th Century reaction to a rapidly industrialising Europe which he developed in his own manner. He interpreted a popular quest for a return to Eden or Arcadia. This is now seen as inevitably flawed in the context of Colonial expansion and paternalism. The indigenous populations were rapidly influenced by their contact with French administration and missionary priests, much to Gauguin’s dismay. He believed they had been living a more idyllic life before their discovery and tried to recreate it in his art. Gauguin’s work is a synthesis of many concerns both painterly and sociologically and should be judged as of its time. He left us lasting images of his very human search for meaning and beauty in a world changing under the impress of industrial and technological progress.