Where do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Gauguin imagined what critics might think of Where do We Come From? :
“They will way that it is careless, unfinished. It’s true that it’s not easy to judge one’s own work, but in spite of that I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better, or even like it. Before death [Gauguin claimed to have attempted suicide] I put into it all my energy, a passion so painful in circumstances so terrible, and my vision was so clear that all haste of execution vanishes and life surges up. It doesn’t stink of models, of technique, or of pretended rules – of which I have always fought shy, though sometimes with fear.”
Translated and excerpted in George Shackelford, Gauguin Tahiti. Exhibition catalogue. (Boston, MA: MFA Publications, 2004), p. 168.
Founder of Surrealism, writer André Breton (1896-1966), commented on Gauguin’s Where do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? :
“Without claiming to explain it, of course, I’m struck by how valid the fabric of Gauguin’s painting still is today, perhaps because of the universality of the questions it raises. It’s a kind of emotional ‘pattern’ from which the interplay of human anxiety and insane tranquility cuts its lights and shadows, which are constantly interfering with each other. Man is at the center, preoccupied with gathering fruit, which is life. Behind him a squatting figure, seen from behind – or as Gauguin said in a letter to [Henry de] Montfried, ‘an intentionally enormous figure, despite the perspective’ – watches amazed as two other figures pass, dressed in purple and ‘daring to ponder their fate.’ That’s more or less the state we’re in. The course of human existence unwinds on the painting from right to left, with its childishness, its grace, and the splendors that can make you forget everything – for starters, it’s the way one should live. As the same Gauguin said, ‘Everything takes place by a stream in the woods.’ Only carnal beauty and desire manage to blossom in that muted light, which brings us the sleeping child in the right-hand corner, and chases the old woman toward the left – the same woman (along with the others) whom Gauguin elsewhere gives the treacherous advice: ‘Be in love, and you will be happy.’ As if t were the result of a spiritual desertion, of the mind’s fundamental inability to meet the specific tasks facing it, love itself – to which everything here draws us, as a last resort – takes on a venomous character.”
André Breton, Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism (New York: Paragon House, 1993), pp. 230-6. First published as Entretiens in 1952.
Albert Boime, "Gauguin's D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?. Millenarianism and Necromancy in Fin-de-Siècle France," Revelation of Modernism. Responses to Cultural Crises in Fin-de-Siècle Painting (Columbia, MO and London: University of Missouri Press, 2008), pp. 175-6.