Writer/Artist: Fabrizio Dori
Translator: Edward Gauvin
Release Date: March 14, 2017
Following last year’s Munch by Steffen Kverneland, SelfMadeHero has released the next entry in its line of artists’ biographies in comics form. Each one, whether on Picasso, Van Gogh or Dali, comes from a different cartoonist with a different approach; Fabrizio Dori doesn’t seem to have been obsessed with his subject in the way that Kverneland was, and this book is slimmer than its predecessor, but the result is still readable and interesting. He starts from a defensive posture: if most people know anything about Gauguin other than that he spent some time in Tahiti and got a late artistic start in life, it’s that he was a jerk with an unpleasant personality who abandoned his family to shack up with young island women. It’s not entirely untrue! He and Van Gogh lived together for a while, and there’s a theory that Gauguin was directly responsible for the other painter’s mutilation. Even if that’s not factual, they fought furiously, and those disagreements with others were common for Gauguin. So how do you keep people reading?
Dori finds a partial solution in rendering his pages in the same kind of lush color Gauguin used in his paintings, making a book that feels like being inside the titular artist’s gallery. Depending on the setting and the time period represented, he varies the style to incorporate a cooler or a more vibrant palette, a more impressionist or post-impressionist approach. Slightly less successfully, he crafts a story that draws on the Symbolist aspect of Gauguin’s artistic practice. He draws on Tahitian mythology to present the artist’s journey toward death, escorted by a mystical and obscure figure who encourages him to reflect on his life.
The book feels a little slight, even as it contains interesting nuggets of information, like the genesis of his famed painting “Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch),” which also supplied the figure mentioned above. What, exactly, is happening isn’t very clear, but it rarely is in Symbolist art, which often avoided straightforward, naturalistic depictions in favor of representing universal truths through evocative, dreamy shorthand. The point is not an obvious lesson or a one-to-one allegorical correspondence, but, rather, a kind of spiritual feeling awakened in the viewer, and Dori is somewhat successful at creating those kinds of emotions. It all makes for a better read than a standard list of dates and actions, and the pages are undeniably lovely. Whether the approach would work for a different subject is up for debate.