Against Paragone: Alfred Jarry and Paul Gauguin

In 2018, I gave a talk at the annual College Art Association Conference in Los Angeles as part of a session organized by the Society of Paragone Studies. Entitled “Against Paragone: Alfred Jarry and Paul Gauguin,” I examined one of Jarry’s poems that he wrote after Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings, L’homme à la hache (1891), after seeing them in the fall of 1893. Jarry gave his poems to the artist and Gauguin placed the manuscript in an artist portfolio that is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The panel can be found here in the conference program.

Known today for his plays, novels, and prose, Alfred Jarry also wrote art criticism early in his career. In an 1894 essay for the Mercure de France, a central organ of the Symbolist movement, Jarry remarked upon the absurdity of his attempts to describe the work of Charles Filiger, which, he noted, added nothing. Around the same time, Jarry also turned his critical eye to the work of Gauguin, the subject of critic Albert Aurier’s famous essay, “Le Symbolisme en peinture”, published three years earlier. Instead of prose, Jarry chose to write poetry after Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings. This paper examined how Jarry drew upon Aurier’s critical legacy to write these poems, which were dedicated to Gauguin and given to the artist. In the early 1890s, Aurier theorized that a sympathetic relation between viewer and artwork was essential to aesthetic experience, and that poets were particularly well suited to offer insight onto visual works. Whereas artist-writer relations are often framed as competitions, in light of Aurier’s thinking, this paper uses a collaborative model. Taking a case study approach, I examined the interrelationships between Gauguin’s painting Man with an Axe (1891)and Jarry’s eponymous poem. Whereas the painting has been read largely in terms of Gauguin’s autobiography, Jarry’s poem offers new insight into the meanings of this opaque work. In addition, the pairing helps us think about how to view works by other Symbolists in a manner consistent with the thinking of Gauguin’s circle.