D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous – asked Paul Gauguin in the yellow splash at the top left of this painting from 1897.
There are no questionmarks; they are added in the English translation (the title of this post). In this it reminds me of Bruce Chatwin’s final book, titled “What Am I Doing Here”. The lack of a questionmark led some to think Chatwin was intending to tell the meaning of it all, or perhaps it was a typographical error. In fact, it was a decision arising from the cover design. But although the narratives within the covers shared Chatwin’s passion for living investigation, they never explicitly tackled the ‘question’ at all.
Gauguin’s painting is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which says: “In 1891, Gauguin left France for Tahiti, seeking in the South Seas a society that was simpler and more elemental than that of his homeland. In Tahiti, he created paintings that express a highly personal mythology. He considered this work—created in 1897, at a time of great personal crisis—to be his masterpiece and the summation of his ideas. Gauguin’s letters suggest that the fresco-like painting should be read from right to left, beginning with the sleeping infant. He describes the various figures as pondering the questions of human existence given in the title; the blue idol represents ‘the Beyond.’ The old woman at the far left, ‘close to death,’ accepts her fate with resignation.”
Through the symbolism in the painting, Gauguin invites the viewer in to contemplate the meaning of life. But perhaps our conclusions would differ from his. In a letter, he wrote of the painting: “I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better—or even like it”, and after completing it, he felt so convinced that the rest of his life would be unsuccessful that he attempted suicide, unsuccessfully. Yet the answer to his second question What are we? (similar to my first question Who am I?) has to be more than a sum total of our successes or failures. And in the end, “Living the questions” does involve living.