Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Not only is Gauguin’s painting a masterpiece the title holds its own mystery.
This summary is from the NYU database.
“The piece should be viewed as a text from right to left–a suggestion imparted by the
artist’s own letters–with the various figures representative of questions relating to
human existence. In this light, the babe at the far right signifies newborn life. The
figure of questionable sex whose back is turned to the viewer and who appears to
inspect his or her underarm could be understood as the beginning of an individual’s
realization of gender. The apple-picking male and the girl to his left who sits eating an
apple reenact the fable of Adam and Eve and the quest for knowledge. The old woman at the far left of the frame sits on the verge of death, unclothed as a parallel perhaps to the babe on the painting’s far right. As one examines the painting, the questions that make up the artwork’s title-“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”–-invite the viewer to contemplate the meaning of life with regard to the symbols Gauguin has left for us.
There is the provocative final question, memorable last words. When Gertrude Stein was being wheeled into emergency surgery her last words were spoken to her long time companion Alice B. Toklas. She asked, What is the answer? When Alice did not reply, she says, In that case…what is the question? Stein’s final words have guided my own quest.
In college, in Contemplation of Being, a philosophy seminar, I encountered the mind-bending questions of Zen Buddhism. I was intrigued by the idea of the koan as a question or as a statement the meaning of which could not be understood by rational thinking but may be accessible through intuition. After an intensive weekend reading for the class, in a flash of creative insight, I understood the structure and inner workings of the koan and made ones of my own- with words and images that became my book Happy Day You published in 1970 by Grossman Publishers, New York.
And, there is the question that I come to every Friday morning…
What am I doing here?