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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

This is one of Paul Gauguin's most famous paintings. He inscribed its title - in French - in the upper left corner: "D'où venons-nous? / Qui sommes-nous? / Où allons-nous?" and instructed us that the painting be read from right to left, with the three major figure groups illustrating the questions posed in the title. The three women with a child represent the beginning of life; the middle group symbolizes the daily existence of young adulthood; and in the final group, according to the artist, "an old woman approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts;" at her feet, "a strange white bird...represents the futility of words." The blue idol in the background apparently represents what Gauguin described as "the Beyond." Of its entirety he said, "I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better—or even like it."

In this painting, Paul Gauguin depicts his - and our own - struggle with the meaning of existence. As the agnostic ex-bishop Richard Holloway said, "Being human is not easy - we are thinking animals who know we are going to die. Therefore, throughout history, man has turned to faith, believing there is a God who is a 'broadcaster' of big bang revelations." We are indeed all victims of that freakish twist of evolution that grants us self-awareness but not the requisite psychological equipment to deal with the pain of our transient existence. It's all a bit difficult to put into words which is why the American painter Edward Hopper once said if he could say it he wouldn’t have to paint it.