Top: "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?"
Bottom: Detail of the work
oil on canvas, 139 x 375 cm. - Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
Gauguin himself affirmed that after painting “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going” he tried to commit suicide. We do not know for certain if that confession is true, but it is a fact that just before painting his masterwork, a series of events followed each other in a dramatic sequence, as presaging a tragic and bitter end for his romance with Tahiti.
Firstly, his economic situation became extremely difficult –however, Gauguin rejected an important amount of money offered by the French Ministry because he considered it a “charity”- while syphilis and alcoholism turned his life into a torture. Nevertheless, the worst blow arrived by mail: in the spring of 1891, a letter informed him of the death of his daughter Aline, at the age of 21. This tragic event provoked not only the break-up with his wife –irrationally accusing her of Aline's death- but also his definitive rupture with any vestige of faith. In a devastating letter Gauguin affirmed: “My daughter is dead. Now I don't need God.”
In such psychical condition Gauguin embarks on the epic task of creating his artistic testament, a work that resumes all his other creations: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? is not only the most colossal canvas ever painted by Paul Gauguin, but it is also the work that explains the entire philosophical and pictorial doctrine of the artist.
In a striking horizontal format, the canvas follows an inverted chronological order, beginning at the left corner with the heartrending figure of an ancient mummy in fetal position, her ears covered with her hands; while at the right corner a baby -a symbol of life and innocence- is surrounded by three Tahitian young women. At the centre of the composition, the figure taking a fruit symbolizes the temptation of man. By structuring the canvas in an inverted chronological order, Gauguin pointed at primitivism and innocence, the only one way for the artist.
Text by G. Fernández, www.theartwolf.com