Home Articles Spirituality Gauguin's Questions

RSS Syndication

Subscribe to my RSS Feed!
feed image


Gauguin's Questions PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, July 20 2004 19:00
Along with a closely packed group of visitors, I viewed the recent show of  Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian work at the Museum of Fine Arts. This 19th century painter began his artistic career in his native France, and then lived and worked for many years on the South Pacific island of Tahiti.

Among his major paintings, one stands out for its provocative quality. Sister Wendy, the television art critic, calls this “Gauguin’s ultimate masterpiece.” She suggests that, if only one of all his paintings were to be preserved, this would be the one to choose.

The painting, one of the jewels of the MFA’s permanent collection, shows a number of beautiful and mysterious people and animals in an idyllic tropical setting. Three questions are attached to it by the painter. “D’où venons nous? (Where do we come from?); Que sommes nous? (What are we?”) Où allons nous? (Where are we going?).”

Of course, Gauguin does not intend to provoke a philosophic discussion by means of these questions. Nor does he provide answers to them. Rather, he presents an artistic response to these great issues that confront every human being.

When I came to this painting toward the end of the show at the MFA, I felt the power of the questions once again. Though I tried to appreciate the way Gauguin poses them in visual terms, still I sensed myself thrown back to my early childhood when I first confronted these central issues in my catechism classes at home and in church.

These questions have stayed with me ever since. They have remained unanswered, at least in any detailed way. And yet, I take it as a gift that they stay fresh for me, and give meaning to my life.

The small book of questions and answers that, in my tradition, is called the catechism, provided an answer to all three questions at once. “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this life and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.”

Of course, this answer was given us children by the church before we had much grasp of the question. And yet, the response printed in the catechism did give us a strong foundation for later life. We had an answer handed down by an old and valued tradition that contained the roots of a spirituality rich in both thought and emotion.

In a world marked by the decline of some religious traditions, many people live without the advantages of this kind of teaching. They declare themselves not to need such guidance and say they are getting along just fine without it. In fact, many do not even ask the Gauguin questions any more because they do not seem relevant to their lives.

To me, however, the questions open the mystery of the world and our existence in it. I value the way asking them provokes thought and stirs reflection on why things are as they are.

These questions proceed from a sense of wonder. You can go at them from at least two different angles: Why is the world in which we live such a crazy mixed-up place? or Why is the world so splendid, so beautiful in its never-ending complexity?

Not even asking about where we come from, who we are, and where we are going also strikes me as defeatist, an admission that we cannot know anything about the really important things in life.

I cannot prove myself to have originated with God and being bound to end up with God. Even if I could, I’m not sure proving it would be good. Would it not take away the depth and mystery of human life?

Of course, like everybody else, I feel bamboozled by evil. Why have some 90 children been burned to death in a fire in an Indian school? Why are thousands of people in Sudan dying at the hands of their neighbors simply because they hold a different faith?

But still, the knowledge and love of God are precious spiritual gifts that enable us to live fuller lives. I intend to keep asking the three questions in hope of appreciating more the mystery of my own life and that of the stupendous universe in which I exist.

Richard Griffin