Gauguin’s Ghost Story is a surprising book. We are proud to present you the first chapter of the book. Enjoy it!
Tony Stowers surprises us with this original book about the post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin. But Tony Stowers doesn’t limit himself simply to recreate some facts of Gauguin’s life, he goes deeply to create his own work, a true reflection about art, life and the experiences that can change our whole life. Congratulations for this great book, Tony.
Yareah Magazine will present you the firt chapter for the audience. If you want to read the book, you an easily buy it for just $10.73
The shaven-headed lunatic breaks from its chains and disappears across the rooftops.
Servants with burning torches jab the air with sharp sticks and snarl orders at none who obey them, beating pewter plates with bamboo, spreading behind the rich houses and palaces, between the luxury and the filth, bawling and clattering to feel alive and brace against the unknown.
I watch them from my window high in the palace of Don Pio. I am a boy. I am a child. I am a dream only half-remembered. The scents of the flowers from the garden in the courtyard rise up, as do the speckled moths drunk on the beauty of the night, enticing my eyes to drown dizzily in the vast unending canopy of the deep blue sky, sticky with the white points of stars. I glance over and see on a low balcony, a woman’s figure in a man’s shirt tied loosely in a knot across her middle. She watches the hunt then turns and looks up directly at me, her brown arms leaning on the balcony, unfastened shirt falling open as she leans forward. She smiles, fans herself and turns away, pressing a cheroot cigar between her lips. Behind her the bright room fills with moving shadow and a swarthy naked man emerges and but for the concealing balcony rails could almost pass as a cloven-hoofed Centaur. His head tilts back as a pencil of wine falls into a gaping mouth from a calfskin bottle he holds above his head in one hand, the other encircling the woman’s waist and she responds and they both laugh; a thin rope of wine pouring down his chin and chest like blood.
Far away a shrill scream cuts the dark of the night like a ribbon and a broken, half-naked figure on all fours scampers dustily across the dirt, its escape blocked by torchbearers until trapped in a tight circle at their feet it lifts its arms for mercy but the servants and downtrodden lash out viciously with sticks, fists and belt, thanking holy Jesus it’s not them.
A soft Spanish voice calls my name and I return, curling beneath the huge white silk sheet with my sister Marie, the warm brown arms of our Negress servant fastening around us, her firm black breasts on my back, humming a soothing lullaby as the cries of the lunatic outside fade to nothing.
* * *
I picked Stowers – he didn’t pick me.
In January 2008 I was in Brittany, having gone there from Paris. In Paris I’d been with Vincent, traipsing The Louvre and ogling the beautiful girls but even that got boring after a while, so I’d caught a train out to Pont-Aven for the New Year. One advantage to being immortal is you don’t have to pay for fares. For a start, I’m as light as a feather, much more agile than I was when I had a great bulk of weight to cart around on one gammy leg and I’ve squeezed into some amazing spaces since. Another advantage is I don’t feel the cold. I don’t feel the heat either, which is a shame because I used to love the Pacific heat, but there you go, you can’t win ‘em all.
Coming back to Pont-Aven in January was filled with memories, some great, some terrible. I was pissed off with what they’d done to my name and face: used it to sell everything from postcards to biscuits, tea towels to postcards and jam to beer. The town had grown a bit over the years, distorting some of my cerebral souvenirs but enough of the main arteries were still intact and brought a host of faces flooding back especially around the Lovers Wood and the church at Tremalo. I’d drifted down to the Hotel Julia in the mid-afternoon, except it wasn’t the Hotel Julia anymore: where the guests used to sleep was occupied by the 2008 Town Council. The dining room below was still pretty much unchanged but had become an exhibition space. The ground floor, that used to be the cellar and kitchens, looked like a vacant meeting room. I wandered into the exhibition space. It was empty. I stood in a corner. On exhibition were black and white photographs of the Hotel at least a century before. I had a glance and though I recognised no faces, it made me chuckle to think how if it hadn’t been for the invention of photography, I may very well have stayed in the Stock Exchange, but in truth I didn’t need photographs; I saw the room as I’d known it: a hundred people packed in, servants, trays and bowls of Breton cider, crowds, packed tables, bellies fit to bursting, laughter, smoke, leaping flames, warming hands, drying boots, clay pipes, back then, ah . . . and there he was: Antony John Stowers.
I heard my name through that fog of a clumsy English accent explaining in bad French to the volunteer on the door he’d come to look at the possibility of performing a one-man theatre show about me and wanted to know how much this room cost to hire? I was intrigued. He didn’t live locally – he lived in Angers. I’d heard of Angers, a few hours to the southwest, but never visited. He taught English and been in France for two years. In England he’d made a little theatre as a writer, director and actor and had written a one-man show about me: Paul Gauguin.
I then had to seriously reconsider my future.
Part of the deal I made with Tioka in 1903 on Hiva Oa was I couldn’t be free forever: I had to possess a living body regularly to exist and to get around but couldn’t spend more than a couple of years in them. He didn’t say a couple of years obviously, he said “eighteen moons” because it was more mystical but it’s roughly the same and as it’d then been a few weeks since I’d abandoned my last artist, a Russian dancer, I felt it was time. The Russian got some lucrative deals and furnished with sums disproportionate to what he produced started doing Class A’s to cope. Hard drugs make spirits like me seasick – I’d seen enough with morphine and absinthe. So I abandoned him shortly before he OD’d and played stepping stones with a number of “cold meats”, as I unkindly refer to non-artists – convenient hosts that enable me to get around. I tracked down Vincent and spent a few weeks in various bars but he hadn’t changed: still argumentative and clingy, especially when drunk which was often. Then I’d hitched a lift to Pont-Aven where serendipity had entered in the shape of Stowers. I think you could use some help.
“Ok, but don’t fuck me about – amount of times I’ve been fucked about is enough to drive most men round the bend.”
The feeling’s mutual.
Once inside I got to know how much he knew. He hadn’t done too badly: a small bookcase back in Angers held some good books and there was plenty in his memory banks. I liked David Sweetman’s “Paul Gauguin: A Life” (enormous detail), but I soon realised Stowers couldn’t get any closer until he understood more about Impressionism and he couldn’t understand Impressionism until he knew what preceded Impressionism and what it was reacting against. He was reacting against something too but he hadn’t yet seen the link.
If truth be told, I’d doubts that I’d made a wise choice – a glance into his memory banks revealed he’d had chances in the past and didn’t seem to have capitalised, yet when I looked at his back catalogue of personal work his CV read well and his charm, blue-grey eyes and Viking jaw bone should have guaranteed him success but there he was: mid 40’s, almost broke, unknown, living in a rented box in Angers and driving a 15-year old car. He also had a bad smoking habit, but who was I to lecture? I could have said twist but decided to stick. In total I’ve “possessed” about fifty interesting artistic souls – male and female – in my career, but multiply that by three or four and you’ve also got the failures I dumped. I suppose another deciding factor was getting to understand Stowers’ journey and though he’d had opportunities to let ambitions go, he persevered because he felt he had something to say. I could relate to that.
So, let’s just get stuck in: up until the middle of the 19th century, painting had become an art form shared by thousands but perfected by a few. The nature of art and artistic education is no different from other systems: success breeds success and, eventually, produces an intellectual elite who feel only they hold the keys to what’s acceptable and unacceptable in learning, that is: what’s important to learn and what isn’t. So it is with art – some would say it still is – and so it was with art back then. In the mid-19th century art from central Europe spread out and influenced styles around Europe and Japanese styles influenced Western artists and so on and for a long while painting was the only format available for recording our world, just as theatre was before cinema came along. Painting served as a direct mirror for the world and artists strove to reflect that reality in accuracy and colour as best they could. In this way, over the generations, a flat, representational way of thinking took hold and everybody thought and did the same thing, though their one big compromise was to understand perspective.
In France they created The Salon in Paris run by so-called Masters who deemed who was to have the chance of reflecting this accuracy successfully for the next generation and who wasn’t and if your style didn’t fit their thinking, you’d almost no chance and you’d not be able to sell your work. I hated them but needed them at the same time. Getting a painting into their annual exhibition got me noticed in ’76 but that was about it. If anything it just made me realise I was a “real” artist. Nobody had ever told me I was much good but when I saw strangers getting off on my work I realised all I really needed was a space and an audience that respected that space, not some old right-wing conservative berk telling people what was good for them or what wasn’t.
When photography came along, untrained people suddenly had the ability to capture reality, in far greater black and white detail (and in much less time). Photography was an invention of science, unlike painting, connected through cave painting, horsehair brushes, oil-based paints and material-based canvasses, to the natural world and by the mid 19th century the effects of industrialisation were everywhere as machines interacted with human imagination and created a rapid expansion of materials and ideas. So the human race grew and, as it grew, so did it experiment Suddenly painters seemed to be out of a job. What use had the world for painters labouring away at canvasses, when a man with a box of slow-developing film could receive an upside-down image onto acetate and then transfer that image onto photographic paper in a specially designed room using chemicals and a stopwatch? And yet, the paradox was, everybody was free to express themselves, it didn’t have to be all channelled through a small number of people who could control the output, shape it and cream off their ten per cent. The only exclusivity painting preserved by the late 1860’s (photography had first begun to be used commercially in the mid 50’s) was that to hire the services of a painter was considered a sign of affluence. Pass the sick bag. The Salon meanwhile stuck firmly to its traditions, as it simply didn’t have the capacity to admit it could be wrong. If it did, its very existence would be under threat. Thus we see the true nature of the beast under pressure: it stubbornly sits there until forced to move or left behind.
So, when a small handful of breakaway artists decided to throw caution to the winds and hold exhibitions of experimental work, it produced two reactions: one was the traditional world reeled about laughing and the other was that the commercial world, the world of the everyday onlooker, yawned, blinked and missed it.
Some of the principles behind Impressionism came about long before the term was coined. The idea wasn’t dissimilar to those of, for example, punk rock in modern Britain in the mid 1970’s, a genre I managed to learn about by picking Stowers’ memories at night. God knows I heard his Sex Pistols and Buzzcock’s a million times. Drove me fucking crackers but if it helps connect a few modern-day people who understand the importance of “punk” on contemporary culture get turned on to the deeper roots of new waves of thought through history, such as Impressionism, then why not? It’s all action/reaction.
So, mid 19th century artists like Delacroix made ordinary people the subjects of his paintings, not rich lords and royalty who could afford the services of a painter. Ordinary people could identify with the subjects. Artists could open their minds to interpret what they saw and not what convention dictated they ought to be seeing and the audience had the choice to decide where to spend their money. It was Boudin who once told Claude Monet: “Three brushstrokes from Nature, influenced by the natural sunlight, are preferable and more alive than three days work at the easel in a dark room somewhere.” Until then, convention dictated everything should be done indoors. The Impressionists reacted against that by doing the opposite and going plein air, or “outdoors”. I went a step further and, as well as painting plein air, as the Impressionists did and the Englishman Constable had done before them, I combined what I remembered outdoors with what I painted indoors. For the Impressionists it wasn’t that the whole world should see the same thing – for them the real value was what each one of them saw as individuals. What they painted was what the eye saw, the senses took in and sent out again in electronic impulses to the hand holding the brush. It basically meant that no two artists in the world could ever be the same and that was what was so exciting about the movement: it reinvented painting.
Theatre too is full of conventions and traditions and Stowers is proud to challenge those traditions as he attempts, in his own, infinitesimally tiny way to subvert norms and reinterpret forms. In 2004 he presented “One of the Lads” in a Victorian school hall (a play about how he felt about the invasion of Iraq in 2003) and put the actors and the action in amongst the standing audience, trying to create a new but equally-grounded reality in each performance: “Remember: a thought process as you digest what’s said to you, another as you prepare your response but don’t act!” It’s not the reinvention of a particular art form – it’s a reinvention of the self, how one thinks and feels and expresses as opposed to how one is programmed to think and feel and express. Maybe he wasn’t doing anything unique or revolutionary but it was unique and revolutionary to him and his experience.
It was Monet who inadvertently invented the term Impressionism: at one of the first exhibitions he’d titled one of his works “Impression: sunrise” and a Parisian reviewer called Leroy leapt at it as a term under which he could easily label all those who dared to break with convention. But the impressionists didn’t see themselves as some sort of coherent group, they were all too individual for that. Only in delivery were there similarities: they used differing styles with slightly different uses of colour and subject and they didn’t plan their paintings, aiming to achieve a fine finish of a serious subject and an exact replication of human vision. Instead they splashed colours on in spontaneous and daring ways in attempts to capture a fleeting moment of sunlight or a changing cloud. Their paintings appeared to the untrained as rough and ready and it was often impossible to see where the outline of one subject ended and the texture of another began. But by ‘86, Impressionist influence was on the wane. It was no longer seen as reacting against the Old. It’d been accepted and so almost immediately a “new wave” evolved which in turn reacted against Impressionism – post-Impressionism. A whole new group of thinkers and painters were appearing, wanting to take what they’d learned from Impressionism and push into uncharted territories of their own. This was where yours truly came into his own: Degas, Pissarro, Renoir, Seurat, Cezanne, and, finally, me were among this brave new band. It was Camille Pissarro who said our philosophy was an anti-authoritarian philosophy but that I personally was in error in moving away from it, but for my mind he should have kept his trap shut and just said: “Que sera, sera”, because letting the next generation find for itself what it wants from an art form is the purest way to react to experimentation. The Old School, who’d first informed, educated and guided me, saw themselves as the Masters so I reacted against them. Then, with my own star in the ascendancy, younger artists looking for inspiration hitched on and eventually reacted against me. This is how it is. This is how it has always been. It’s normal and it’s healthy. But Pissarro and Cezanne became no better than those of the Salon: the old order telling the new order what was best for it? Doomed stance.
I wasn’t trained in any art school. I was untrained and self-taught. Some thought me opportunist, sensationalist, an upstart. Sure, I studied other works and spent hundreds of hours with other painters and questioned their theories constantly being influenced by ideas, but ultimately I never set foot in an art school. My style was very much a small portion of my own theory and snatches of the theories and practise of those around all mixed up and despite my prodigious output, I sold sparsely in my lifetime.
Born in Rouen in 1849, my parents had to flee France for political reasons, so they went to Peru to Spanish relatives. Unfortunately, my Dad died on the outward journey. Speaking mainly Peruvian Spanish, I spent the first 4-5 years of life there before returning to France with my Mam. I was enrolled in a Catholic school in Rouen and excelled in very little apart from art, which was rarely encouraged as a career prospect, in much the same way theatre art wasn’t recognised as an academic subject in state secondary schools in England in the 1970’s, as well T knew. In 1866 I signed up in the French Navy and spent the next six years sailing between Le Havre and Rio in what had to be one of the toughest career choices available: a stoker, not the wimp in gold braid pottering about on the bridge with the Captain mind you. I learned to sew, clean, cook, drink, fight and fuck – in that order and in 1870 I was on a cruiser that shelled Prussian positions at Calais, for all the good it did. In ‘72, with the war lost, I left and went back to Paris to discover my mother had died and our house wrecked after Prussian infantry had used the rooms as latrines. I was sad she was gone of course but with the death of both parents had only myself to please.
By then a tough, burly and argumentative young chap, I was employed by Uncle Gustave as a debt collector and worked for a stockbroker in Paris, ensuring people who owed money paid their debts and it made me reasonably wealthy. I never had a lot of bother from people not paying up. Flushed with success, I met and married a Danish woman: Mette Gad. We lived in relative luxury in Paris, going on to have five children. She was a big lady, plenty to grab onto as they say, but I was naïve when it came to living in cultured society – I’d been living on a boat with 200 sailors for six years. I found cultured society fascinating and kind of fell in love with it all, as Mette Gad blindly fell in love with me.
In ‘82 I quit my job as I’d been doing pretty well with painting and thought I could take a year off and concentrate on it and if things didn’t work out, I could always go back to finance. But it didn’t work like that – I’d begun to dabble too seriously in what’d started out as a hobby. Influenced by the Impressionists, I’d spent a lot of spare time and money at the easel, my wife being happy so long as she lived in the style to which she’d become accustomed. I’d even had a piece of work accepted for The Salon in 1876, but it was widely held that it’d been accepted because it mimicked another style of painting known as The School of Barbizon. Bollocks it had – I just did what everybody else did: I looked at everything and then went away and made something that was mine. Nobody wanted to say “Well done” – it’d be like an Oxford Don telling an undergrad he was a genius – impossible.
Yes, it was a daft idea, looking back – the financial markets took a tumble and the marriage crumbled. True, I should have probably gone out and found another job, but instead I clung onto painting as if it was an escape from reality and in a way it was. I tried Copenhagen with wife and kids but fucking hated it – conventional. I tried to organise an exhibition but was forcibly closed down so I split and went back to Paris with my son Clovis for a year, but it was a bad idea – I never had anything to eat and he was always ill and cold. The best I could get was a job as a billposter for five francs a day but I might as well have washed fucking dishes, like Stowers.
When things are bad the only way to forget how bad they are is to fuck your head up so I took up a lifelong interest in absinthe, a potent liqueur very popular at that time. Freed from responsibility, I turned my life wholesale over to painting and drinking. Being a billposter was one remedy but that was only about enough to sustain. Otherwise I hustled, lived from day-to-day and debt-to-debt as I learnt to play all and sundry and stay afloat, just enough to keep on painting and sometimes, but not very often, I sold some work. I first went to Pont-Aven in Brittany in ‘86 and stayed for the summer as cheaply as I could to paint as much as possible and mix with other experimental artists who’d also gone there largely due to a sympathetic innkeeper called Madame Gloanec. Then I went to Panama and worked briefly on the canal before retiring to a broken down hut in Martinique with my friend Charlie Laval. Eaten to death by mosquitoes, I managed to get back to Paris with plenty of paintings but looking like a fucking skeleton and Charlie a year later as he was too ill to travel.
In ‘87 Van Gogh and I met at an exhibition in Paris and I realised straight off the guy had problems and in ‘88 returned to Pont-Aven and my work took on a new edge, especially with breakthrough paintings like “The Vision After The Sermon”. “The Vision” changed everything, everything. I got the idea from my mate Emile Bernard I guess because I had a talent for developing and maximising the ideas of others – is that a legitimate job? I’ll let you answer that. After I’d finished it, I didn’t show it to anybody for days. I kept unwrapping it and staring at it for hours thinking: “What the fuck is that, Paul?”
I did go to Arles and live briefly with Van Gogh. Bad move. Silly sod topped himself in ‘90. Terrified me that did. We’d talked about if often enough – if you had to do yourself in, how would you do it? I can’t remember the answers. Soon after, I held an exhibition of my Panama and Brittany stuff to raise funds and in April ‘91, set sail for Tahiti, my main aim being to paint a world where I believed I’d find the primitive drowned by the mechanical world in the West. And indeed I did, shagging, painting and drinking myself around but no worse than anybody else. I returned to Paris to shock the world but Paris was hardly shocked (few believed the foliage could really be as colourful and as translucent as painted) then an Uncle dutifully died and left me 9000F (about £900) and so I organised another exhibition.
I rented a studio in Paris, visited by artists like Munch – the use of lines around the central figure in “The Scream” a direct result of my use of lines to emphasise movement I’ll have you know – and the composers Delius, Maurice Ravel, Debussy and Greig, the playwright Strindberg and the sculptor Rodin and though they were still relatively young, they all went on to become legends. Jesus, we had some blinders!
In 1894 I went to Pont-Aven for the last time and, in Concarneau, got beaten the crap out of by locals while out on the piss, breaking my ankle in the process though I managed to lay two of them out beforehand. To make matters worse, I was then diagnosed as having the clap and alcoholism. The alcoholism was no surprise – I could have told the doctor that – but I wish I hadn’t shagged that last tart. Of course I’d escaped the precariousness of existence by drinking but I could hardly see any reason to stop drinking given that I’d been diagnosed with the clap. What is it better to die of?
Barely able to walk without a stick and numbed up to the eyeballs, I left for Tahiti in ‘95, never to return. I tried to top myself in ’97. Well, I knew where I was headed, you know? Better to get out while I was ahead, I thought: arsenic. But this stubborn constitution dictated otherwise. Eventually settled on a tiny island called Hiva Oa at what at that time was like the end of the fucking Earth, isolated at the end of a chain of volcanic islands called The Marquesas in the Pacific. I continued to paint (and annoy the locals) and it was there I died alone in May 1903, aged 54.
What the world doesn’t know is the truth, about my death. And as long as the world doesn’t know the truth, everything can be supposed. Shortly after his return to Angers in 2008, I planted a seed idea in Stowers’ hypothalamus, watered it diligently and waited.