When Gauguin left for Tahiti (1891 and 1895) “he took with him a trunk full of photographs and reproductions of art and artifacts that he admired, as well as books, sketchbooks and manuscripts… a portable reference library he would continually turn to for inspiration” (Gauguin, Metamorphoses, MOMA, 2014). He wrote, …”I am taking a whole little world of comrades who will chat with me every day.”
When I started making art, this kind of chat was more like a one-sided conversation. The images of other artists dominated the conversation. I was a spectator who saw and listened. My goal was to speak their language, to command their vocabulary, and to replay their themes.
Like other academic disciplines, I thought an art education was the mastery of skills acquired by deceased masters. I made myself an apprentice. A mystification of the past overshadowed my own identity and my perceptions of the present. I didn’t understand until later that the past does not lead you to the present. It might influence the present but the past was of another world, a world that has pasted away. An artist must live in the here-and-now.
Gauguin’s “comrades” were never allowed to overpower his perceptions. Quite the opposite. Gauguin took what he wanted, and used it as he needed. Poses and postures, he took them from his reproductions, sometimes changing the sex if the figure, always adapting them to his particular interest in Tahitian mythology and culture. Borrowing from classical sources, he created new compositions.
As a naturally stubborn individual, it took me some time to realize that I couldn’t draw with the skill of Leonardo, Picasso or even Paul Klee. I hated to give-up but, totally frustrated, I decided I had to learn how to draw like myself. I made an oath not to open an art book for one year. I had to stop depending on the art of others for my own legitimacy. I didn’t keep my oath but by declaring independence, I set the stage for my own autonomy.
As an alternate way of working, I reviewed my earlier work. I was looking for possibilities to explore. I dug out stacks of old drawings, and flipped through them like a card player shuffles a deck of cards. I dusted off old sketchbooks, and as I perused them, relived some of the particular places and people I had drawn. It was like discovering a mine of gold in my own backyard.
Out of these drawings, in part or whole, I borrowed some element(s): an image, idea, composition or sometimes a technique. It could be as simple as the arc of a line. Then, using trial-and-error, I worked the old element into something new, something that reflected my perceptions.
How I determined “what is my own” is the subject of yet another blog. What is important is that I had a lifetime of reference material squirreled away in a bookcase in my own studio. I was my own teacher. I had only to learn to recognize the clues, and to follow the scent. The trail was endless.
Nowadays, I sometimes look at art books and reproductions (maybe too often). But unlike the past, I see in them ideas I can use for my own work. Perhaps more importantly, I derive inspiration from artists like Gauguin. They, too, struggled to absorb and overcome the powerful allure of artists they admired as they carved out their own identities.
Chiseled into Cezanne’s tombstone, I believe, is the epitaph: “A student of Pissarro.” A student, indeed!