Saturday, 5 April 2014

Head-shaped Jug by Paul Gauguin

Gauguin, Van Gogh and the origin of a Self-Portrait


Van Gogh wished with all his heart that his friend Gauguin could reach him in the South of France where he had settled. Even though he was in need of money, Vincent was there to get to know how to sketch a Nature completely unfamiliar to him: olive trees, corn fields and cypresses were shining under a Mediterranean sun whose rays were a discovery he wanted to share with Paul by giving birth to an artistic friendship.

We can track this wish on many of Van Gogh’s missives addressed both to the French Painter and his brother Theo.


Dear Theo, 
I was thinking about Gauguin: if Gauguin wants to come over here, we should think about the travel and two beds or two mattresses which, in this case, we need to buy. But then, being Gauguin a guy who sorts it out, we will probably be up to prepare our food at home. And with the same amount of money that I spend for myself we will manage to live in two. You know that it seemed always foolish to me that painters live alone ... When you are isolated you always lose. […]


Finally, on a day of December 1888 Gauguin went to the Provencal town of Arles. Deplorably, the incompatibility of the two personalities made of his stay over the Flemish painter a 9 weeks period of fire and delirium. During this time they reached the point to face each other with a razor, the same object Van Gogh used afterwards to cut his left ear without any apparent reason. 

With the blood pouring fluently all over his neck, Vincent wrapped the piece of flesh in a newspaper and run to the brothel where he used to find relief whenever his pockets allowed it. Once there, he committed the ear to the hands of a girl, but not before making sure that she was going to take really care of it.


When Paul saw Vincent coming back home with his head all in blood, he got so scared that something in his soul -something located in between pride, understanding and bravery - trembled on its foundations. It was most probably because of this new frightening knowledge that a few days later, back in Paris, Gauguin attended the execution of Prado, old owner of Le Café des Artistes “Le Tambourin”, sentenced to death by guillotine for murder. I suppose that Gauguin was there because he was set on a particular kind of quest: he wanted to overcome the burning feeling of uncertainty unexpectedly disclosed to his inner self.

Unfortunately the execution didn’t go how it was supposed to go. At first the blade fell aslant and it cut only part of the face of the convict who stood up again with preternatural force. Only with the intervention of several guards it was possible to put the man back in position and perform the execution a second time. Eventually Prado’s head fell down.

We don’t know if Gauguin found what he was looking for, but following these events he carved the Head-shaped Jug (1889), a porcelain self-portrait today kept at Copenhagen Kunstindustrimuseet.   

A work of art that combines the Japanese style of painting and the crafting of glazed ceramic while realizing a concept typical of the Peruvian tradition: an object of everyday use fashioned in a human form. An object that, through the picture, doesn’t show the macabre energy it conveys when seen alive.