Letter to Fontainas – Gauguin
In the January number of the Mercure de France, you have two interesting articles, ‘Rembrandt’ and The Vollard Gallery.’ In the latter you mention me. In spite of your dislike you have tried to make an honest study of the art or rather the work of a painter who has no emotional effect upon you. A rare phenomenon among critics.
I have always [thought] that it was the duty of a painter never to answer criticisms, even hostile ones – especially hostile ones; nor flattering ones, either, because those are often dictated by friendship.
This time, without departing from my habitual reserve, I have an irresistible desire to write to you, a caprice if you will, and – like all emotional people -I am not good at resisting. Since this is merely a personal letter it is not a real answer but simply a chat on art; your article prompts and evokes it.
We painters, we who are condemned to penury, accept the material difficulties of life without complaining, but we suffer from them insofar as they constitute a hindrance to work. How much time we lose in seeking our daily bread! The most menial tasks, dilapidated studios, and a thousand other obstacles. All these create despondency, followed by impotence, rage, violence. Such things do not concern you at all, I mention them only to convince both of us that you have good reason to point out numerous defects, violence, monotony of tone, clashing colors, etc. Yes, all these probably exist, do exist. Sometimes however they are intentional. Are not these repetitions of tones, these monotonous color harmonies (in the musical sense) analogous to oriental chants sung in a shrill voice, to the accompaniment of pulsating notes which intensify them by contrast? Beethoven uses them frequently (as I understand it) in the ‘Sonata Pathetique,’ for example. Delacroix too with his repeated harmonies of brown and dull violet, a sombre cloak suggesting tragedy. You often go to the Louvre; with what I have said in mind, look closely at Cimabue.
Think also of the musical role color will henceforth play in modern painting. color, which is vibration just as music is, is able to attain what is most universal yet at the same time most elusive in nature: its inner force.
Here near my cabin, in complete silence, amid the intoxicating perfumes of nature, I dream of violent harmonies. A delight enhanced by I know not what sacred horror I divine in the infinite. An aroma of long-vanished joy that I breathe in the present. Animal figures rigid as statues, with something indescribably solemn and religious in the rhythm of their pose, in their strange immobility. In eyes that dream, the troubled surface of an unfathomable enigma.
Night is here. All is at rest. My eyes close in order to see without actually understanding the dream that flees before me in infinite space; and I experience the languorous sensation produced by the mournful procession of my hopes.
In praise of certain pictures that I considered unimportant you exclaim: ‘if only Gauguin were always like that!’ But I don’t want to be always like that.
‘In the large panel that Gauguin exhibits there is nothing that explains the meaning of the allegory.’ Yes, there is: my dream is intangible, it comprises no allegory; as Mailarme said, ‘It is a musical poem, it needs no libretto.’ Consequently the essence of a work, unsubstantial and out of reach, consists precisely of ‘that which is not expressed; it flows by implication from the lines without color or words; it is not a material structure.’
Standing before one of my pictures of Tahiti, Mallarme also remarked: ‘It is amazing that one can put so much mystery in so much brilliance.’
To go back to the panel: the idol is there not as a literary symbol but as a statue, yet perhaps less of a statue than the animal figures, less animal also, combining my dream before my cabin with all nature, dominating our primitive soul, the unearthly consolation of our sufferings to the extent that they are vague and incomprehensible before the mystery of our origin and of our future.
And all this sings with sadness in my soul and in my design while I paint and dream at the same time with no tangible allegory within my reach – due perhaps to a lack of literary education.
Awakening with my work finished, I ask myself: ‘Whence do we come? What are we? Where are we going?’ A thought which has no longer anything to do with the canvas, expressed in words quite apart on the wall which surrounds it. Not a title but a signature.
You see, although I understand very well the value of words – abstract and concrete – in the dictionary, I no longer grasp them in painting. I have tried to interpret my vision in an appropriate decor without recourse to literary means and with all the simplicity the medium permits: a difficult job. You may say that I have failed, but do not reproach me for having tried, nor should you advise me to change my goal, to dally with other ideas already accepted, consecrated. Puvis de Chavannes is the perfect example. Of course Puvis overwhelms me with his talent and experience, which I lack; I admire him as much as you do and more, but for entirely different reasons (and – don’t be annoyed – with more understanding). Each of us belongs to his own period.
The government is right not to give me an order for a decoration for a public building which might clash with the ideas of the majority, and it would be even more reprehensible for me to accept it, since I should have no alternative but to cheat or lie to myself.
At my exhibition at Durand Ruel’s  a young man who didn’t understand my pictures asked Degas to explain them to him. Smiling, he recited a fable by La Fontaine. ‘You see,’ he said, ‘Gauguin is the thin wolf without the collar’ [that is, he prefers liberty with starvation to servitude with abundance – John Rewald].
After fifteen years of struggle we are beginning to free ourselves from the influence of the academy, from all this confusion of formulas apart from which there has been no hope of salvation, honor, or money: drawing, color composition, sincerity in the presence of nature, and so on. Only yesterday some mathematician [Charles Henry] tried to prove to us that we should use unchangeable light and color.
Now the danger is past. Yes, we are free, and yet I still see another danger flickering on the horizon; I want to discuss it with you. This long and boring letter has been written with only that in view. Criticism of today, when it is serious, intelligent, full of good intentions, tends to impose on us a method of thinking and dreaming which might become another bondage. Preoccupied with what concerns it particularly, its own field, literature, it will lose sight of what concerns us, painting. If that is true, I shall be impertinent enough to quote Mallarme: “A critic is someone who meddles with something that is none of his business.”
In his memory will you permit me to offer you this sketch of him, hastily dashed off, a vague recollection of a beautiful and beloved face, radiant, even in the shadows. Not a gift but an appeal for the indulgence I need for my foolishness and violence.