Paul Gauguin: The Dark Stage of Alchemy / by Sam Abelow

Part Two

Paul Gauguin. Detail, Contes Barbares (Barbarous Tales), 1902.

In part one, on desire and immortality, we saw how the archetype of immortality is propelled by the biological need for sexual reproduction as well as the psychological experience of a consistency of selfhood throughout time. Furthermore, it is desire which incarnates and drives the personality to live.

Further, we were introduced to psychological terms derived from alchemy. The categories in alchemical material are ideas produced by the unconscious psyche itself, and are therefore useful for conceptualization. This included coagulatio, which stands for the processes by which a personality becomes active in the world. 

Because incarnation is activated through the feminine principle, the creative libido of the artist is often catalyzed through projection of the anima onto the muse.

Paul Gauguin, throughout his painting career, remained attached to this unconscious relationship with the anima complex, and its corresponding projections. This is evident in the fact that the recovery of his own savage nature and pursuit of a lasting art was dependent on a relationship with Tahitian women.

In other words, he had to remain in a hut, and he could not integrate his discovery of the primal Eve, which would require a reconciliation with his European heritage. Thus, he was caught in a loop: compelled to confront the West, finding no recognition, needing to be in Tahiti to work, but distant from the Paris art world where his ambitions remained.

Therefore, much of Gauguin’s personal struggles and pitfalls were related to unconsciousness of the anima function, as still contained within the mother complex. In this section, we will parse through the psychology of the anima and mother. There will be a lengthy exposition of basic Jungian theory, which will become relavant later, in order to see how the muse situation functioned in Gauguin. This will further clarify the artist’s aesthetic pursuit, as well as the psychological processes which accompanied such works.

I. Psychological Theory Regarding the Male Artist

i. Complexes in the Male Artist

As mythology, dreams and other psychic manifestations would have it, because a typical man is consciously identified with his gender, the unconscious contents are mediated by his opposite — a female image. In Carl Jung’s model of the psyche, the term “anima” is a label for this phenomena within the male psyche. The anima complex is, roughly speaking, a mediating sub-personality that acts as a bridge between the unconscious and conscious mind. Because conscious and unconscious are opposite, the psyche seems to personify the opposite of the male-ego in the form of the female “soul image,” or anima, which has a closer relationship to unconscious contents.

Psychological complexes are containers of psychic energy, which manifest themselves in both an image and an emotional intensity. At the root of a complex is an archetype in its most abstract and primordial form. A given archetype then exists in gradations from that impersonal beginning up to the given impressions and associations of an individual. These complexes are active in all personalities, in mainly unconscious ways.

Complexes act as sub-personalities within the individual, and decisively influence a person’s behaviors and attitudes. When the complex is maladapted or repressed, contradictory and even destructive outbursts can occur. The average, healthy, functioning person will live a life unaware of such unconscious factors, leaving the development and modulation of intrapsychic influences up to his family, friends, country, religion or political ideology. However, these external influences cannot keep a person’s house entirely in order, and even the most ordinary individuals are bound to erupt when taken a hold of by one complex or another.

Jung describes these sub-personalities as “pre-conscious structures.”

“In the last analysis, therefore, it is impossible to say what [the archetypes] refer to. Every interpretation necessarily remains an 'as-if.' The ultimate core of meaning may be circumscribed, but not described. Even so, the bare circumscription denotes an essential step forward in our knowledge of the pre-conscious structure of the psyche, which was already in existence when there was as yet no unity of personality” [1]

“Archetypes were, and still are, living psychic forces that demand to be taken seriously, and they have a strange way of making sure of their effect. Always they were the bringers of protection and salvation, and their violation has as its consequence the ‘perils of the soul.’” [2]

The male artist-type commonly has an unusual relationship to certain complexes, especially the mother and anima. Oftentimes, the artist will closely experience the impersonal, archetypal core of the complexes, which introduces a pronounced emotional and creative power. This is a gift, in that this connection is the vehicle for inspiration and intuition for what the collective society is lacking. It is also a curse, in that he risks being overwhelmed by the anima, or else destruction by way of dangerous proximity to powerful, impersonal dynamics.

ii. The Mother and Anima Complex

Typically, a man’s first important encounter with a female is with his mother. Therefore the anima and the mother complex begin as a singularity, with the nascent opportunity for differentiation. When the mother and anima remain tethered in the male psyche, the man’s projective attraction to a woman remains tied up with his personal impressions of the mother.

This observation was made by Freud when he discovered the Oedipal situation, and also is repeated in the popular trope that “men marry their mothers.” The notion that a man unconsciously seeks out his mother in a prospective wife, or other times the complete opposite, speaks to the potency of the impact of the personal mother on the mother complex and anima.

Jung noted: “In treating patients one is at first impressed, and indeed arrested, by the apparent significance of the personal mother. This figure of the personal mother looms so large in all personalistic psychologies that, as we know, they never got beyond it.” [3]

Theoretically, the mother is the most fundamental archetype. Its most primordial form is uroboric, meaning that is all-containing. This psychological reality is both the literal experience of the infant, being that it is untouched and contained by the womb, and of the most animal experience of mankind, without self-awareness, in complete oneness with the environment. This state of being is represented as feminine, but also as a mother-father, feminine-masculine unity.

Erik Neumann, in his books The Origins and History of Consciousness and The Great Mother reveals in great detail, how the ontological development of the individual is a recapitulation of the historical evolution of humanity. In other words, it is possible to trace both the stages of collective and individual development as initially contained, and grounded in the mother archetype.

Neumann outlines, with extensive mythological, cultural and historical references, the evolution of the feminine archetype as it emerges out of the original, uroboric unity. A multifaceted understanding of the world as positive, supporting, nourishing, or negative, menacing and ruthless, is slowly developed, and this differentiation is expressed through art and mythology.

In Origins, Neumann shows how the human race developed increasing understanding of the environmental situation and their relationship to it, as well as with one another. He also shows that each individual graduates from a unified experience with the personal mother, to increasing separation and independence. The symbolic associations to these two processes — collective and individual — are the same. In both processes, the development and strengthening of the ego complex, as the center of consciousness, is at work.

Pivotal to understanding Gauguin, and many other artists, is to see that however much a man may seem to be independent and self-aware, the regressive qualities of the mother archetype remain potentialities, which can seize and inundate the ego.

Jung writes: “Our task is not, therefore, to deny the archetype, but to dissolve the projections, in order to restore their contents to the individual who has involuntarily lost them by projecting them outside himself.” [4]

It is in unconscious processes, such as projection, that the individual falls back into the mother complex. When the mother and anima complexes are not separated, there is a dual-issue. Here, the fascination with a lover, or an ideal such as beauty and art, can be vehicles not towards psychic growth, but towards regression into the uroboric state.

This regression characterized by the swirling disorientation of the masculine ego, submerged back into the Great Mother, is expressed best by Neumann himself:

“She is the creative Earth, which not only brings forth and swallows life, but as that which transforms also lets the dead thing be resurrected and leads the lower to the higher. All developments and transformations that lead from the simple and insignificant through all gradations of life to the complicated and intricately differentiated fall under her sovereignty. This matriarchal world is geocentric; the stars and signs of the zodiac are the heavenly girdle of the Earth Goddess and are arranged around her as the true center around which everything revolves.” [5]

This massive array of images is threatening to the undeveloped ego, which remains at risk of dissolution.

On the other hand, if the individual develops a meaningful relationship with his wife, or with his inner feminine, he may be challenged to develop his eros function. This would include accessibility to his emotion, an acceptance of the incomprehensible, and a relationship to all matters of the body and of the erotic.

Eduard Edinger, a Jungian psychologist and writer, separates the “acquired” influences, as those coming from experience in life, from the “innate,” which are archetypal. 

“The major contributors to the anima experience in the man, in addition to the mother, are the sister, the daughter, the lover, the wife and companion. Those are all on the acquired level. Behind those personal experiences will be archetypal factors which will be met as divine guide and source of inspiration, or evil seductress, or a personification of fate or destiny or life itself, and finally the principle of eros.” [6]

The anima, as mediating the archetypal feminine, in a man, is the source of all creative acts. Her spirit is the impetuous. Her evil guises introduce a self-naughting, self-criticism and depressive moods which shrink and dispose of the man’s life force.

The opposite potentialities both revolving around the artist’s relationship to the mother and anima complexes are therefore that of creative and spiritual magnificence, or, conversely, the degeneration of the personality. The resultant outcomes of interfacing with the feminine, divergent as they appear, leave for the male artist a serious challenge.

ii. The Archetype of The Self and Individuation

We have so far seen that the original situation of humankind and of the individual is contained in the unconscious, uroboric state. The “self” is a term which denotes a psychic phenomenon which encompasses the entire personality — unconscious and conscious. The self is present in the initial stage of infancy and similarly the primitive’s uroboric unity. With the gradual development of consciousness, a distinct relationship between the ego and self can emerge. The ego remains as the center of conscious experience, while the self is the center of the entire personality, including all of the unconscious. The self is a central archetype present in the psyche from the beginning and also a supra-ordinate organizing factor which functions throughout life. [7] 

This capacity for psychic wholeness, guided by the self, has historically been mediated to individuals by religious constructs. 

Edinger explains:

“As long as one is contained in a particular set of religious beliefs, the dogma carries the projection of the self. The self is equivalent to the inner God-image, and in such a situation the self, or the God-image, is found in a metaphysical projection. This serves a certain protective function. While the projection remains intact, there will not be any direct encounter between ego and self.”

The intact projection of a religious structure insulates individuals from breaking their identification with the self. This state of unconsciousness keeps an individual from encountering the manifold influences of the sub-personalities, which would destroy the preliminary experience of unity.

Dissolution of a particular religious system threatens a feeble ego. However, the self always remains a psychic reality within each of us, full of unique and spontaneous promise.

The self is a force which brings individuals towards a theoretical state of completeness, which encapsulates the whole of the unconscious and conscious mind. It functions through the transcendent principle, which is beyond comprehension, and leads to resolution of the opposites, and therefore wholeness. 

This is the potential state of psychic unification that comes after an ego’s separation and development out of the uroboric origins. It is a distinct type of unity from the uroboric one, in that this ego-self integration entails an intact consciousness.

Being that this unification is the ultimate goal of psychic life, it is the “opus” of alchemical work. The final stage of alchemy, the cunionctio — a sacred union — is symbolized by a marriage of the king and queen, or hermaphodite. For a man, this would be the marriage of the anima and ego, among all other resolved opposites. The distinction of this state from the uroboric one is that it consists of a special consciousness which is aware of the opposites but is able to maintain them in balance.

Individuation is the archetypal process by which a personality builds towards this cunionctio, which is the result of bringing the unique qualities of the self into reality.

Now we can see that ultimate possibility of the individuated personality can be symbolized in the hermaphrodite, which paradoxically puts the beginning with the end goal. That is, the uroboric origins have a representational kinship with the pinnacle of development.

The archetype of individuation was strong in Gauguin’s life. Jungians refer to this as individuation having been constellated. But, his initial task of integrating his primal sexuality and spirituality — in alchemy referred to as the prima materia — was acted out projectively, and therefore stunted, incomplete. 

Individuation is not something chosen by the ego; it comes about spontaneously, through a correspondence of a given personality with the time period they encounter. The intense processes of integration of the unconscious can easily be neglected. Instead, an individual can be tasked with individuation, but unconsciously fall into the traps at one stage or another. 

Jung writes of such cases:

“If he voluntarily takes the burden of completeness on himself, he need not find it ‘happening’ to him against his will in a negative form. This is as much as to say that anyone who is destined to descend into a deep pit had better set about it with all the necessary precautions rather than risk falling into the hole backwards.” [9]

Among other factors, the regressive dissolution of the mother complex remained a lurching threat to the stability of Gauguin’s personality. This is because the artist’s individuation process remained involuntary, and with stagnation on the “initial stage” of the process — the prima materia.

Paul Gauguin.  Exotic Eve , 1890. Oil, gouache, and mixed media on paperboard mounted on canvas; 43 × 25 cm (16 15/16 × 9 13/16 in.). Pola Museum of Art, Hakone, Japan.

Paul Gauguin. Exotic Eve, 1890. Oil, gouache, and mixed media on paperboard mounted on canvas; 43 × 25 cm (16 15/16 × 9 13/16 in.). Pola Museum of Art, Hakone, Japan.

Return to the Origins: Prima Materia and the Darkness of Gauguin

i. The Delightful Land: Sexual Liberation in the Primitive

Just before his first voyage to Tahiti, Gauguin had seen an exhibit at the World’s Fair of French Polynesia. From these initial impressions, he depicted his first Eve.

This image is effectively a blueprint for his initial plans to continue Manet’s deconstruction of the Western nude, and the recovery of an unleashed sexuality. This was, in part, his task.

Jung writes on the power of the such essential drives:

“The erotic instinct is something questionable, and will always be so whatever a future set of laws may have to say on the matter. It belongs, on the one hand, to the original animal nature of man, which will exist as long as man has an animal body. On the other hand, it is connected with the highest forms of the spirit. But it blooms only when the spirit and instinct are in true harmony. If one or the other aspect is missing, then an injury occurs, or at least there is a one-sided lack of balance which easily slips into the pathological. Too much of the animal disfigures the civilized human being, too much culture makes a sick animal.” [10]

While living as stockbroker and “Sunday painter” [11] Gauguin was that “sick animal.” Gauguin was incomplete within himself, because of cultural morays. The archetype of individuation emerging in Gauguin’s life motivated an attempt to unify his psyche. He needed to be truly himself, and movement towards that potential meant an exploration of his erotic instinct, which as Jung notes, is also connected to the “highest forms” of creativity.

Gauguin’s hunch was that he must go to the root of the sexual issue, and therefore all the way back to Eve. He was, in a psychological sense, correct. And what he discovered is typical. This primal eroticism, as connected to the anima, is tied up with the mother-image. That is why he paints his first Eve with the likeness of his mother, Aline.

Gauguin intuitively entered into the initial stage of the alchemical process, also understood as an analog to individuation; the artist returned to the prima materia.

This process was in no way linear, or regulated. When he first arrived on the island, Gauguin was disappointed by the colonized port town, Papeete, that did not fit his fantasy. [12] When he arrived on the island, high minded ideas lingering in his mind, Gauguin could not help but fall back into the potency of the uroboric confusion. Temporarily abandoning his elevated artistic goals, Gauguin spent a couple of months boozing and paying for sex with locals. [13] This dissolution of the ego and “descent into the unconscious,” referred to as solutio, [14] is a type of experience that feeble egos find blissful.

“An immature ego may find it pleasant to surrender to containment in a blissful regression. However, at a later stage of development, the prospect of solutio, will generate great anxiety because the hard-won state of ego autonomy is being threatened with dissolution. A blissful solutio is the most dangerous one. It corresponds to Neumann’s concept of uroboric incest.” [15]

A gradual development takes place, in which Gauguin eased up on the indulgence and began to study the local people’s features and sketches the landscape. In his fantasy-filled memoir of that time period, Noa Noa, Gauguin speaks of the lush land and his perfect encounter with a youthful beauty named Tehamana. Whether or not he told the story truthfully is not certain, but he did consummate a relationship with a local [16] and with this connection to the muse, Gauguin was able to renew his original blueprint with fresh inspiration. His mother is replaced with his new, young lover, with her distinct Tahitian features.

The artist used this motif, the Tahitian Eve, in monotypes, woodcut prints, on the cover of his journal, as well as on the back of a carved wood head. The repetition indicates the centrality of this theme for Gauguin psychologically.

Paul Gauguin. Te nave nave fenua (The Delightful Land).
1892. Oil on canvas. 36 1⁄4 × 28 15⁄16" (92 × 73.5 cm). Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Japan

This focus culminates in the masterpiece oil painting, titled The Delightful Land, which Gauguin completed during his first stay in Tahiti, in 1892. Here we can most sense Gauguin’s psychological reconfiguration to his eros function, as contained in the archetypal feminine: The land is rich and fruitful; there are dark and saturated trees, flowers, rolling hills and winding vines. This is all imagery associated with the mother archetype, in her positive aspect, as life-giving, nourishing and full of fecundity.

The Tahitian woman’s posture was copied from a Buddhist temple relief. This suggests the spiritual significance that Gauguin attributed to his primordial woman, and the universality of her importance. She is naked against a natural backdrop. The figure looks off towards the right of the canvas, suggesting that she is indifferent to any onlookers, which, in the context of the painting, implicates the subjects attitude towards the viewer.

The artist later reflects on “The Delightful Land” in a letter to August Streinberg, which put “civilization” against “barbarousness”:

“Before the Eve of my choice, whom I have painted in the forms and harmonies of another world, your chosen memories perhaps evoked a painful past. The Eve of your civilized conception makes you, and makes almost all of us, into misogynists; the ancient Eve, who frightens you in my studio, might someday smile on you less bitterly. The Eve I have painted (she alone) logically can remain nude before our eyes. Yours in this simple state couldn't walk without shame.” [17]

William-Adolphe Bouguereau. The Birth of Venus, 1879. Oil on canvas. 300 cm × 218 cm (120 in × 86 in). Musée d'Orsay

A typical example of Gauguin's despised Western nude.

In Gauguin’s view the Westernized "Eve," (a term he uses loosely, to denote sexual imagery of women) the traditional and accepted version, makes viewers into misogynists because she is guilty for the Fall into sin. Furthermore, Gauguin’s logic is that a naked Eve is a contradiction in a civilized setting, because the rawness is considered indecent. Only in the most primitive conditions, in “another world,” an exotic world, can the primal sexuality be expressed unabashedly, without shame or guilt.

By focusing on this theme, we can further understand this original situation of primal sexuality, which the conventionality of Europe sought to repress and which Gauguin mustered to recover. In describing the First Stage of alchemy, Edinger outlines this process of returning to the instinctual psyche. Citing the “stages of transformation of instinct as formulated by Esther Harding, being the Autos, Ego, Self” as a model, Edinger points out that, “although Harding uses these terms to denote successive centers of consciousness in the course of psychological development, they can also be understood as residual structural layers of the adult psyche that are subject to reactivation.” [18]

This means that in the course of psychological development, individuals learn to control their instincts and develop a civilized personality. Gauguin, as an alchemist seeking psychological truth, delves backwards, into the primal drives. Edinger goes on to say that in the “first stage of Alchemy,” the ego is given over to instinct. This signifies “the regression of ego to the original ‘autos’ stage of autoerotic desirousness.” [19]

Edinger notes that “the new Christian spirit was the spirit of sublimatio” [20] in that it attempted sublimate, or spiritualize, purify, the base instincts. In alchemical texts influenced by Christianity, “the dragon is ‘a personification of the instinctual psyche’ [21] and is one of the synonyms for the prima materia.” [22]

The ancient Genesis myth placed a serpent in the Garden of Eden, which tempted Eve with the knowledge of “Good and Evil.” Acceptance of this offer prompted an expulsion from paradise. This allegory expresses the notion that the self-awareness of our instinctual side means a separation, a differentiation, a coming to consciousness which entails a fall from the uroboric, unified experience.

Gauguin’s image is a return to the Garden, and to Eve. He exchanges the serpent with a dragon, and places it over the right shoulder of his Tahitian Eve. She is unperturbed, regal and seemingly in touch with this black dragon, with red wings.

The initial stage of alchemy brings the individual into contact with the prima materia. The return to the instinctual psyche is marked by its nigredo, or blackness, since the material is still in its raw form.

Carl Jung explains:

“In psychological terms blackness refers to the shadow. These texts that speak positively of blackness would thus be alluding, on the personal level, to the positive consequences of being aware of one’s shadow. By the law of opposites, an intense awareness of one side constellates its contrary.” [23]

A black dragon is a transfiguration of the serpent. Gauguin’s Eve is close to this symbol of intense instinctual and animal desire. All of this had been repressed, and therefore held within the civilized European shadow. It is through a certain proximity and awareness of this animal-side that the alchemical process begins; it was at this point where Gauguin became stuck.

Paul Gauguin. The Loss of Virginity (Awakening of Spring), 1891

Paul Gauguin’s psychological fixation on this dark stage was also reflected in the last painting he completed before leaving for Tahiti. In, The Loss of Virginity, a youthful, pale woman lays nude, with an evil fox resting over her. Gauguin picks up on the archetypal symbol of the fox, or wolf, as representing instinctual desirousness. The first stage of alchemy, in processes of calcinatio, depicts the king being fed the wolf. This represents the ego’s return to the primal instinct. The artist lived out these themes, as the girl in the painting was Gauguin’s 20-year old mistress, Juliette Huet, whom he left behind, pregnant, as he moved on for Tahiti.

King being fed to a wolf, alchemical manuscript

What could’ve emerged from Gauguin’s sexual inquiry, we will never know, although speculation is possible. There are no certainties when analyzing a figure through his work and historical context. However, it is apparent that Gauguin remained in a state of fascination with this initial encounter of the prima materia. The breakthrough he experienced in rendering a shameless sexuality and his own experience with it, was so captivating that much else remained foreign to him. He relegated the primitive sexuality, which is free from shame, to that of the highest ideal, and it was as if that maneuver was as much as he could bear.



1. Carl Jung, CW Volume 9, par. 265

2. Ibid, par. 266

3. Ibid, par. 159

4. Ibid, par. 160

5. Erich Neumann, The Fear of the Feminine and Other Essays on Feminine Psychology

6. Edward Edinger, The Aion Lectures, pg. 29 (Inner City Books, 1996)

7. Refer to: Edward Edinger, Ego and Archetype, pages 1 - 10 (Shambhala, 1992)

8. Edward Edinger, The Aion Lectures, pg. 36 (Inner City Books, 1996)

9: Carl Jung, Aeon, par. 125

10. Quote attributed to Carl Jung, in The Psychology of the Unconscious

11. David Sweetman, Paul Gauguin: A Life, pg. 70 - 82 (Simon & Schuster; First Edition, 1996)

12. Ibid, pg. 276

13. Ibid, pg. 286

14: Edward Edinger, Anatomy of Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy, pg. 48 (Open Court Publishing Company; 3rd Edition, 1991)

15. Ibid, pg. 49

16. David Sweetman, Paul Gauguin: A Life, pg. 346 (Simon & Schuster; First Edition, 1996)

17. Peter Brooks, Gauguin's Tahitian Body, in The Expanding Discourse, edited by Norma Broude and Mary Garrard, pp. 329-345. Find:

18. Edward Edinger, Anatomy of Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy, pages 18 - 22 (Open Court Publishing Company; 3rd Edition, 1991)

19. Ibid

20. Ibid, pg 139

21. Ibid, cites: Carl Jung, CW Volume 14, par. 548

22. Ibid, pg 139

23. Ibid, pg 149