The Characters referenced in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (Part 7 Paul Gauguin)

How Should We Then Live Pt 7

Dr. Francis Schaeffer examines the Age of Non-Reason and he mentions the work of Paul Gauguin.

Kurt Fuller as John and Mimi Kennedy as Helen in "Midnight in Paris." 2011 Roger Arpajou / Sony Pictures Classics

Kurt Fuller as John and Mimi Kennedy as Helen in “Midnight in Paris.”

I love the movie “Midnight in Paris” by Woody Allen and I am going through the whole list of famous writers and artists that he included in the movie. Today I am looking at Paul Gauguin. By the way, I know that some of you are wondering how many posts I will have before I am finished. Right now I have plans to look at Lautrec, Geores Brague, Dali, Rodin,Coco Chanel, Modigliani, Matisse, Luis Bunuel, Josephine Baker, Van Gogh, Picasso, Man Ray, T.S. Elliot and several more.

Gauguin was a financially successful stockbroker and self-taught amateur artist when he began collecting works by the impressionists in the 1870s. Inspired by their example, he took up the study of painting under Camille Pissarro. Pissarro and Edgar Degas arranged for him to show his early painting efforts in the fourth impressionist exhibition in 1879 (as well as the annual impressionist exhibitions held through 1882). In 1882, after a stock market crash and recession rendered him unemployed and broke, Gauguin decided to abandon the business world to pursue life as an artist full-time.

In 1886, Gauguin went to Pont-Aven in Brittany, a rugged land of fervently religious people far from the urban sophistication of Paris. There he forged a new style. He was at the center of a group of avant-garde artists who dedicated themselves to synthétisme, ordering and simplifying sensory data to its fundamentals. Gauguin’s greatest innovation was his use of color, which he employed not for its ability to mimic nature but for its emotive qualities. He applied it in broad flat areas outlined with dark paint, which tended to flatten space and abstract form. This flattening of space and symbolic use of color would be important influences on early twentieth-century artists.

In Brittany, Gauguin had hoped to tap the expressive potential he believed rested in a more rural, even “primitive” culture. Over the next several years he traveled often between Paris and Brittany, spending time also in Panama and Martinique. In 1891 his rejection of European urban values led him to Tahiti, where he expected to find an unspoiled culture, exotic and sensual. Instead, he was confronted with a world already transformed by western missionaries and colonial rule. In large measure, Gauguin had to invent the world he sought, not only in paintings but with woodcarvings, graphics, and written works. As he struggled with ways to express the questions of life and death, knowledge and evil that preoccupied him, he interwove the images and mythology of island life with those of the west and other cultures. After a trip to France (1893 to 1895), Gauguin returned to spend his remaining years, marred by illness and depression, in the South Seas.


Below is from an article by Brian Thomas and is based on Francis Schaeffer’s film series “How should we then live?”

Gauguin as an artist strived to give his work a more human touch, expressing feelings and knowledge and human reactions to the realities of life, while at the same time freeing himself as an artist to express color and design boldly, overcoming the narrowness of merely copying what the eye can register as the impressionists painted. In an attempt to obtain his goal of “regaining humanity,” as he called it, he moved to Tahiti in 1891. It was here that he painted his greatest work in 1897: Whence? What? Whither?

During the course of 1897 Gauguin referred increasingly to his own death, alluding to suicide in letters and his journal. In the autumn he noted that “The artist dies, his heirs make a grab for his works, sort out the copyright, his estate, and whatever else there might be to do. Now he has been stripped to the bone. I think about these things, and am going to strip myself first: it gives me a sense of relief.”

As Gauguin contemplated taking his own life he set out to create a painting that would leave a lasting legacy of his faith, worldview, artistic insight and intentions by asking three metaphysical questions: Where do we come from? What art we? Where are we going?

From Wikipedia:

Woher kommen wir Wer sind wir Wohin gehen wir.jpg
Artist Paul Gauguin
Year 1897-1898
Type oil on canvas
Dimensions 139.1 cm × 374.6 cm (54.8 in × 147.5 in)
Location Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


In a letter to friend Daniel de Monfreid, he describes the painting as a “philosophical work” which could be compared to the Gospels. We must read the work, he said, from right to left and interprets it as such:

“In the bottom right-hand corner there is a sleeping child, then three covering women. Two figures dressed in purple are deep in conversation. A crouching figure, which defies perspective, and is meant to do so, looks very large. This figure is raising its arm and looking in astonishment at the two women who dare to think about their own fate. The central figure is picking fruit from a tree. Two cats by a child…a white goat. The idol is raising both its arms with rhythmic energy and seems to be pointing to somewhere beyond here. A covering girl appears to be listening to the idol. An old woman, close to the end of life, completes the circle. She is ready to accept her fate. At her feet a strange, white bird with a lizard in its talons symbolizes the futility of empty words…”

Where do we come from? A baby lies next to some young women as the source of life. What are we? A woman stands reaching for the apple, a probable reference to Eve in the garden and man’s fall into sin and ruin. Where are we going? From right to left we see the process of ageing taking place culminating in an old woman, “ready to accept her fate.” Art historian H.R. Rookmaaker suggests that in the background “mysterious figures, in sad colors, standing near the tree of knowledge, are sad as a result of that knowledge.”

It is interesting to note that a few days after completing this work, Gauguin went off into the woods and swallowed a large amount of arsenic. But his body rejected it and he was unable to keep the poison down.

I give this example to show how form and content can beautifully integrate in such a way as to make the work a more powerful vehicle of expression. It should be obvious to the reader by now that I do not share Gauguin’s unfortunate outlook on life, but as an artist and a Christian, I appreciate the thought and purpose behind his masterpiece. Both the aesthetic quality and intellectual content marry to form an important and thought-provoking piece of art. The creators of the religious kitsch that line the shelves at your local happy Christian bookstore could learn much from the serious attention Gauguin put into his work.

As Schaeffer was quick to warn, we should not judge art by this criterion alone, but view all works of art by its technique, validity, worldview, and suiting of form to content to gain a deeper understanding, appreciation, and true evaluation.


I got to visit the exhibit “The Impressionists and their influence,” presented by Harriet and Warren Stephens at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock in June of 2011. I got to see this painting below:


“Yes, indeed, the savages have taught many things to the man of an old civilization; these ignorant men have taught him much in the art of living and happiness. Above all, they have taught me to know myself better; they have told me the deepest truth. Was this thy secret, thou mysterious world? Oh mysterious world of all light, thou hast made a light shine within me, and I have grown in admiration of thy antique beauty, which is the immemorial youth of nature. I have become better for having understood and having loved thy human soul— a flower which has ceased to bloom and whose fragrance no one henceforth will breathe.”

Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa

The passage above comes from the end of Paul Gauguin’s travel journal in Tahiti entitled Noa Noa. Literally meaning “fragrant, fragrant”, the phrase noa noa is introduced to the reader at the end of the opening chapter when Gauguin describes the intoxicating scent of the Tahitian women upon his arrival. “A mingled perfume,” he writes, “half animal, half vegetable emanated from them; the perfume of their blood and of the gardenias— tiaré— which all wore in their hair. ‘Téiné merahi noa noa (now very fragrant),’ [the women] said.” (Gauguin 8).

During his first visit to Tahiti (1891-3), Gauguin documented his experiences on this two-year journey from beginning to end, even starting with his initial disappointment at the overwhelming presence of French civilization in Polynesia. Upon viewing the queen of the island at her husband’s funeral, however, Gauguin is taken by her “Maori charm” (Gauguin 6) marking the beginning of his passionate love affair with Tahiti. Gauguin not only recorded his personal encounters with the land, the people, and specifically the women, but he also made his journal a sort of anthropological report: providing first-hand accounts of their customs, religious beliefs and cultural history. In one section, Gauguin even discusses Tahitian astronomy, listing mythical histories behind the names of the stars, and the Polynesian version of Genesis, even complete with detailed accounts of whom originally begat who, as is provided in the Old Testament of the Bible.

TeFaruru.jpgWhile it is important to remember that Noa Noa is a journal and lacks the objectivity needed for a truly comprehensive and factual account of nineteenth century Tahiti, this bias gives us a personal window into what Gauguin saw through his eyes. The juxtaposition of sketches mixed with his own words allowed Gauguin to provide us with the Tahiti that he wanted to share with the world. One of the most interesting artistic elements of his original manuscript was his series of ten woodcuts that he intended to publish as a part of the journal. Drawn to the “primitive” techniques and materials used in this artform, Gauguin even used unsophisticated tools to achieve a new, less traditional print (Chapman, Unfortunately, as Noa Noa was considered “a bit much for stuffy 1900 Europe” (Gauguin ix), Gauguin had to publish the journal himself and omit the woodcuts. In newer versions of Noa Noa, however, the woodcuts have been included alongside his words and several of his original sketches.

In all, perhaps the most valuable thing to come out of Gauguin’s accounts in Noa Noa is an intimate look into the motive behind many of his great works of art. Frequent themes in the journal are also found throughout his works such as Polynesian mythical culture, Tahitian women, androgynous figures, sexual freedom, and the beauty of this Paradise on Earth. In the spirit of a true artist, Gauguin even has his journal come full circle as he ends the book with the flower that his wife once wore behind her ear, now wilted on her knee, a symbol of the end of a journey that opened with an introduction to the flowered, fragrant women observed at the start, who would eventually become the inspiration for such an important period in his life and career.


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