French poster for Lust for Life
Great French poster for Lust for Life with a laughing Anthony Quinn as Gauguin

I’ve been taking a look at some film representations of Gauguin. I remember seeing Lust for Life (1956) when I was very little and feeling so sorry for poor old Van Gogh. Gauguin didn’t really register with me at all (perhaps I shouldn’t admit to that) -  but then his character was only on screen for about twenty-four minutes. Having watched it recently I was really struck by how good the casting was; apparently during the filming someone who claimed to know Van Gogh said how much Kirk Douglas looked liked him. I thought Anthony Quinn was really good as Gauguin, albeit on the high-octane, testosterone-fuelled end of things. And he had the look of Gauguin - stocky,  athletic build, strong facial features, and swarthy complexion - definitely not a delicate little flower. Delving a bit more into Anthony Quinn’s biography, I discovered that although generally described as American, he was in fact Mexican-born with Aztec and Irish ancestry. Apparently his looks meant that he was often cast in ‘exotic’ roles, native American, Inuit, Arab, Greek, you name it! This definitely reminded me of Gauguin. After all, sliding into different personae was right up his street. He was particularly proud of being part Peruvian, claiming that his mother had Inca ancestry, which he often played up when contrasting himself with his Paris-based contemporaries. In fact, the longer I work on this project the more I think Gauguin’s greatest source of subject matter was himself. He certainly had a talent for self-mythologizing (I know, we all do it, right?) - judging from his many, many self-portraits. None of them are what I would call straight-forward, whether it’s his expression, clothes or surroundings.

Christ in the Garden of Olives
Gauguin's Christ in the Garden of Olives 1889

His features also have a habit of springing unexpectedly out of his paintings, carvings, prints etc. Look at Christ in the Garden of Olives. Recognise anyone? And how about in The Vision of the Sermon. Is he there? Colourful costumes, alter-egos and even animal forms - with all this identity shifting and role-playing, if Gauguin were alive today he’d probably be an actor… 



I did not see, but there is "Paradise Found", directed by Mario Andreacchio, in 2003, with Donald Sutherland, as Paul Gauguin, and Nastassja Kinski, as Mette Gauguin.


Talking of movies, have you seen this one? Again about Van Gogh's life but obviously Altman couldn't avoid his relationship with Gauguin. It's beautiful!

Christine Riding

Thanks for your comments and suggestions. I'm going to try and get hold of the movies you've mentioned - more nights in watching DVDs!

Dionea - yes, we're hitting the 'myth' thing head on, especially Gauguin's self-mythologizing.

ThermoCat1969 - great question, and worth a long answer (so I'm going to focus on Gauguin and Van Gogh in a future blog)

Thanks again,



Gaugin and Van Gogh...? How rare is it to have 2 great artists in the same space?What a nightmare,but, also what did they gain from that experience? Was it something that- despite their differences, changed their paths of creativity?

christine lemee

I watched Lust for life but I prefer an other nice french movie about this time : Van Gogh by Maurice Pialat !


I watched Oviri: The Wolf at the Door (1986), directed by Henning Carlsen and starring Donald Sutherland, in the 80s... so cannot remember much about it, only that Gauguin reminisces a lot about his time in Tahiti and that the film puts emphasis on his sexual persona. See:

Regarding Gauguin's identity, it is interesting to note how his son, Emile Gauguin, opens the preface to "The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin" (1923): "A fantastic legend, distorted in many retellings, has come into being. A legend far better known than his strikingly individual pictures are known..."

Will this show build upon the legend?


Lust for Life is one of my favourite films in which Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh was superb. But Anthony Quinn who was not so wonderful, playing a version of A.Quinn rather than the complex Gauguin, got the Oscar. Very much a stereotype of the time and a shame for Douglas, who deserved it. I'm looking forward to an exhibition that reveals the many layers of Gauguin's character and dispels many of the myths.