Objects of Memory: Paul Gauguin and Still-Life Painting, 1880-1901
Shields, Caroline D.
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Memory plays a profound role in the aesthetic philosophy and still-life painting of French Symbolist artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Throughout Gauguin’s career, memory and imagination served him as an artistic tool, a personal resource, and a metaphor for the freedom of artistic expression. These themes recur in his writing, and this dissertation locates their visual expression in Gauguin’s still-life painting, wherein he gave tangible form to his theories through reflection upon and manipulation of objects. In chronologically-arranged case studies, I examine three types of memory: visual memory, nostalgia, and the ephemeral nature of autobiographical memory, situating each within nineteenth-century and present-day science. In so doing, I perform a type of interdisciplinary methodology called “cognitive historicism” that is new to art history. Art historians have long noted the exceptional qualities of several of Gauguin’s still lifes, but have not to date identified what in particular sets the genre apart. My research has located and articulated the achievement of Gauguin’s still life as a body of work in which he repeatedly grappled with memory, its processes, and its meaning. A concentrated analysis of period beliefs about memory and the ways memory appears in Gauguin’s visual art and writing reveals the depth and significance of the relationship between aesthetic Symbolism and the nineteenth-century interest in individual, autobiographical memory. In turn, this study contributes to a larger historical inquiry into the meaning of memory to the late-nineteenth-century mind. As Gauguin was explicitly attuned to the scientific developments of his time, he functions as a lens through which to consider the art and science of memory. While I ground my investigation in theories proposed during Gauguin’s lifetime, I situate historical intellectual developments in the context of recent science. This project thereby constitutes an exploration of interdisciplinary methodologies that bridge science and the humanities in a way that privileges the artwork and its historical circumstances. It demonstrates the rich but previously untapped potential of this method that uses frameworks and vocabulary derived from cognitive science to inform art historical inquiry, which promises to provide new directions for the discipline.