Few paintings can boast of having such a convoluted symbolism as this, originally named D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous in French, title which can be seen written as well on the top left corner of the piece over the golden field that frames it. Paul Gauguin considered it to be his most complete work, and would have said that, such was the feeling that he could never paint something to surpass it in his life that he had gone into the mountains to commit suicide, although that might have been more showmanship than the actual feeling and actions of the artist.
The fact is that, when the painting was finished, Gauguin sent it to Paris for sale, along with a rather long description of every symbolism included in the canvas, from the blue idol, which is meant to symbolize “The Beyond”, through the woman picking fruit in the center of the composition, which is meant to answer the second of the three questions, all the way to the white bird holding a lizard in its claws at the feet of the old woman on the left of the canvas, which is meant to symbolize the uselessness of words.
Like many of the mystic writings of old, the painting was meant to be read from right to left and answer, in Gauguin’s way, the questions posed in its title. Being so, life begins with the child laying on the rock, already under the scrutiny of the cloaked figures in the background, and moves on through the women sitting with inviting looks, while another woman pick fruit and a child eats, surrounded by a variety of animals. In the end, an old woman accepts, in either shock or despair, her fate, while the young woman worries and the child is oblivious, all under the purview of The Beyond, which falls over all.
Gauguin took great care to ascribe meaning to every element in the painting, every stroke of the brush loaded with symbolism. He meant this to be the epitome of his work, the philosophic treaty that contained within itself the totality of what the artist wanted to communicate throughout his whole career. Not only a work of unique beauty but a deep reflection on the artist’s views on life, art and what it means to be human
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