Gauguin’s The Meal (1891)

Painted in the first few months after his arrival in Tahiti, Gauguin's The Meal is often described as "contrived", the result, it is assumed, of his initial inability to find models. The proportions, we are told, are "astonishing"(Musée d'Orsay). However, if they look unusual to us, they would have looked unusual to Gauguin too which means he intended them to look that way. They must be part of his meaning.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Gauguin, The Meal (1891) Oil on paper mounted on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris

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There are two ways of seeing this painting in line with the idea that the artist is both model and painter, subject and object. As in still-lifes by Cézanne and Manet, the knife on the white table-cloth is a visual metaphor for a paintbrush on a gessoed canvas. In confirmation, Gauguin signed the tablecloth in signing the painting. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Gauguin's The Meal (1891)

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On the far left lies a bunch of bananas, more properly described in English as a hand of bananas. While the French do not use the same collective noun, a bunch still resembles a hand. It is unlikely that Gauguin juxtaposed this "hand" with a "paintbrush" unintentionally because the hand is the emblem of the artist's craft.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Gauguin's The Meal (1891)

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In comparing The Meal to a self-portrait, the two closest bananas rhyme with his hand. Note too how his glance is echoed in the oval bowls, the near eye large, the far one smaller. The latter is cropped and shadowed by his nose just as the bowl is by the gourd.1 Behind the table, the boy at left has his hair brushed forward like Gauguin's while the central boy shares Gauguin's flowing locks.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Gauguin, Self-portrait with Idol (c.1893) Detail
Right: Gauguin,The Meal (1891)

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What, then, are we looking at? I believe that we are inside Gauguin's mind as he searches inside himself for inner wisdom, translating his new experiences into a "Tahitian" painting. Across the "worktable/canvas" the trinity of boys represents Gauguin as a newly initiated great master.

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Gauguin, The Meal (1891)

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There are at least two ways to view this scene with the ambiguity between them enriching its meaning.

In the first reading the table might represent "the artist's worktable", like the bar itself in Manet's then-recently completed A Bar at the Folies-Bérgère.2 In that reading the fruit and bowls represent Gauguin's palette and pots of paint, the knife as his paintbrush. The scene of the three boys beyond is Gauguin's painting, a group alter ego of himself.

Alternatively in a second reading the boys might represent the artist imagining a new composition on the canvas/tablecloth, a still-life built out of Gauguin's own features.

Both readings are possible with each intended to convey the ambiguous relationship in art between the artist as subject and object, as both the painter and the painting. In unifying these opposites Gauguin further asserts that the search for meaning in life, whether in Paris or Tahiti, can only be found inside the artist's own mind where the dualistic distinctions of the exterior world are united.

If you have the time, take a look at my blog post Wisdom in Illustration which reveals how the same technique is still used by illustrators.

Notes:

1. The shadow under the oranges(?) may even suggest the shape of his moustache. 

2. An entry on Manet's last masterpiece will be published soon.

Originally published on the 14th May 2012.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 11 Sep 2012. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.