Art in Advent 2015: God’s Child
The painting: The child of God (The Nativity) was painted in 1896 by Paul Gauguin while he was in Tahiti. Mary is shown looking completely exhausted after the traumas of birth. The model for Mary was his young Polynesian teenage mistress, who was pregnant at the time. Jesus is seen in the hands of the woman next to the bed. The traditional animals within the stable are there although the scene is transposed to the South Seas. An angel with green wings can also be seen in the background. It is a brilliant departure in other ways from traditional nativities and has a relevance for our contemporary world.
Gaugin was a French Post-Impressionist artist who was recognized for his experimental use of colour and synthetist style that were distinctly different from Impressionism His work was influential to the French avant-garde and many modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Gauguin, both man of the world and self-professed savage remains a problematic artist. Yet it is these problems that make Gauguin popular, particularly the Tahitian women, the dusky flesh, the foetid jungle, the yearnings for lost paradise and innocence, the animism and the return to nature that have put posters of his work in a million bedrooms. Not to mention the syphilis, the abandonment of his family, the brawling and insufferable self-aggrandisement, or his taking, in middle age, barely adult Polynesian lovers. Gauguin’s sense of himself as an artist was multiple and various. He personifies the idea that the artist is as much an invention as the art itself. The quality of Gauguin’s art that is “off” and strange – even a bit mismanaged – is also its strength.
Gauguin never gives us the whole story, probably because there isn’t one. He harks back to a culture that was already destroyed by missionaries and disease long before he arrived on Tahiti. He moves Mary and Joseph’s flight into Egypt to a Polynesian island, and the Calvary and crucifixion to Celtic Brittany. They are the possibilities of stories, rather than illustrations, allegories or history paintings. Their content is as mysterious as their colour. He is almost a magic realist before the fact.
Into a world of sin and shame,
Of war and waste
Of pain and loss
The Saviour Christ was born.
Into a world that’s just the same
He’s born again today.
This is the real world, the harsh world
He came to save.
This is my world of which I am but a small part.
Come and live in me, that I might live with you,
Jesus, Child of Bethlehem.