Where do we come from Paul Gauguin 1897

“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Paul Gauguin (1897)

In 1891, searching for a simpler, more elemental life, Paul Gauguin left his native France for the exotic paradise of Tahiti. There he painted this masterpiece, about which he wrote, “I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better—or even like it.”

Throughout the ages artists and storytellers, philosophers and sages have tried to divine and express the deeper truths within the human experience, to answer the great questions posed so succinctly by Paul Gauguin. For many the answers are clear, yet to some the answers will never be settled and the restless, creative search for your own truth, your own purpose, remains a lifelong pursuit.

In our current commercial, material, informational, transactional and organisational Age these questions tend to be undervalued, overwhelmed and actively denied. Space for a reflective inner life only exists on the margins, a residual if we’re fortunate. Unsurprisingly though, they burst into sharp focus at points of existential crisis.

Working with leaders and teams I regularly encounter questions about purpose. Striving to make more profit, to serve a customer, to meet a deadline, or to earn a higher salary never reaches deeply enough within to generate true human satisfaction. It is difficult to connect corporate goals with intrinsic needs for human growth and healthy relationships, however when successful, a vitality and spirit infuses people and their work.

In the painting, the pair of yellow corners suggest (to me) remnants of a covering or wrapper which has been torn away to expose the complex life beneath. With a glance across the surface, his painting spans every stage of a human life from birth to death, from mundane to mystical. Taking more time, its dream like symbolism registers, I peer more deeply and am puzzled by what it all means.

Gauguin doesn’t directly answer the questions he poses. Instead, the foreign images and decorative style leave an aftertaste, an impenetrability, a faint unease. I sense that life, like his painting, won’t settle for tidy explanations.

Days later … it strikes me that deep answers can hardly sit on the thin, inanimate surface of a canvas painting, no matter how masterful. Re-reading his statement, I now suspect the answers to his questions are embedded in the making of his art, the effort and imagination required, the days and weeks he lived with and worked on the emerging mural, the fevered culmination of his life experience. Purpose then turns out to be more about creating, being, doing and relating than about meaning, things and end points.

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