PLAYWRIGHT MAUGHAM'S ARTIST IS OUTSIZED IN 'MOON AND SIXPENCE'
THE FRENCH PAINTER Henri Matisse, thinking of his artistic predecessor Paul Gauguin, traveled to Tahiti in 1930 to try to catch the same exotic inspiration extolled by the man who advocated “savage” art. Unfortunately, Matisse found Tahiti to be no more stirring than a beach in the French Riviera.
Eleven years earlier, however, the British playwright W. Somerset Maugham found all the inspiration he needed in the myth of Gauguin in Polynesia. Maugham wrote The Moon and Sixpence (1919), which he described as a take-off on Gauguin. The painter had died in 1903, but had since catapulted to fame as an innovator in symbolist, expressionist, and primitive art.
In writing the novel, Maugham had a dramatic point to make: there is a type of individual who is in society, but is completely, and heroically, indifferent to its rules. The novel has been taken as Maugham own reflection on his struggles as a literary artist in British high society, since, despite his marriage and rise in London theater, his homosexual affairs put him at odds with the anti-sodomy laws.
In Gauguin, presumably, Maugham had located a kind of person who could throw his rebellion in the face of society, and yet in the end, become a towering figure in society—as in Gauguin’s case, heralded as a modern genius.
Today, Gauguin is considered a benchmark in art history. Nevertheless, he was a rather cagey fellow. He left his family in the 1880s to paint and worked tirelessly to portray himself as the great “savage” artist who had, for the sake of Parisians, discovered the erotic idyll of Tahiti. Despite this self-promotion—he penned two autobiographies—his twenty years in the Paris art scene brought him no recognition. After his death, that changed.
In The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham creates a parallel personality. He is Charles Strickland, a London stockbroker (as in Gauguin’s Paris profession). One day, Strickland leaves his wife and children and goes to Paris. The story is told by an acquaintance of Strickland’s wife, who goes to find the absent husband. It was not a woman who made him leave, the gruff Strickland tells his intrepid visitor. “I want to paint,” he says.
The story of Strickland (i.e. a Gauguin type) is first told by the narrator’s observations of him on a brief meeting in London and then over a brief period in Paris. Our narrator has a falling out with Strickland after the former stockbroker breaks up the marriage of another artist; that wife, drawn by Strickland’s animal magnetism, kills herself when the painter leaves her. Strickland goes to Marseille and in time boards a ship for Tahiti.
Years later, our narrator also goes to Tahiti. Through four witnesses he hears the story of the rest of Strickland’s life on the island: fights with authority, living like a beachcomber, marrying a native girl, producing magical paintings, and dying of leprosy, isolated in a backwater and shunned for his plague.
When the narrator arrives, though, the late Strickland’s paintings are selling in Europe for astounding prices. Our narrator meets locals, such as acquaintances and an art dealer, who marvel at how much the odd paintings now are worth. To end on a heroic note, Maugham limns how Strickland had painted the walls and ceiling of his jungle house with a marvelous mural of exotica, and was at last found as a decayed heap in its corner, dead from leprosy. Strickland required his Polynesian wife to burn the house after his death, proving even more that he was not after fame, but simply was driven to express himself on his own terms as an artist.
Gauguin was rugged and daring, to be sure, shouldering a good deal of hardship in his quest for fame. As scholarship now shows, he was also quite an operator, making modern-day PR look tepid by comparison. As noted, Gauguin had so built up Tahiti as an exotic paradise, that Matisse was destined to be disappointed when he actually went there. (Maugham, otherwise, does paint it as paradise, easy to do in contrast to cold, Protestant England).
Still, Maugham captures a kind of impossible—or admirable, depending on your point of view—human being in Strickland. At one point our narrator challenges the painter over how he treats his family, someone else’s marriage, and social norms in general.
“Look here,” he says to the painter, “if everyone acted like you, the world couldn’t go on.”
“That’s a damned silly thing to say,” says Strickland, now in a Paris garret, bearded, unkempt, an ornery. “Everyone doesn’t want to act like me. The great majority are perfectly content to do the ordinary thing.”
Narrator: “You evidently don’t believe in the maxim: ‘Act so that every one of your actions is capable of being made into a universal rule.’”
Strickland: “I never heard it before, but it’s rotten nonsense.”
Narrator: “Well, it was Kant who said it.”
Strickland: “I don't care; it’s rotten nonsense.”
It is on such themes—and in descriptions of Polynesia—that Maugham is deeply eloquent. He forces readers to decide whose side they’re on, Strickland’s or that of society? (Maugham leaves room for both evocations, since Strickland can be so impossibly offensive at times; and yet the author seems to take his side in the end). The title comes from a quip made about Maugham’s writings: someone can be distracted by gazing at the moon (idealism) and miss seeing sixpence dropped on the street (practicality).
Critics have pointed out how Gauguin and Strickland are the same and different. Perhaps the differences are the most telling. Gauguin traveled much, dying at age fifty-four in the South Pacific; Strickland made one great trip to Tahiti. Gauguin was in the thick of the Paris art scene; Strickland knows nothing of art trends, striking out on his own. Finally, Gauguin tries mightily to persuade Parisian society of his greatness; Strickland turns his back on everything.
The Moon and Sixpence is one of those novels, perhaps like Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness (1899), in which we meet a haunting central figure (with Conrad, the narrator Marlow sets out to meet the ivory trader Kurtz deep inside the Congo). In such novels, after the particulars are over, a type of persona lingers on, ghost-like.
Strickland is more this larger-than-life persona that even Gauguin had been, which reveals the strength of fiction versus biography. More than a few artists, past and present, have leaned toward Strickland’s outlook, and have been honored for this (think of the French poète maudit, the poet who lives “against” society). That is the ideal (the title’s “Moon”), of course, for most artists—from Gauguin to Maugham—seek social recognition, a practical matter, and the more the better.