Any exhibition of Gaugin is controversial. His unsavoury biography bedevils even the most skilled curator and in this show, co-curators Christopher Riopelle and Cornelia Homburg have been tasked with the quandary of celebrating Gaugin as an innovator, while not glossing over the uncomfortable facts of his life, namely that he abandoned his wife and children to travel to Tahiti where he entered into numerous sexual relationships with young girls, before eventually dying of syphilis.
But the exhibition doesn’t shy away from this rap sheet, in fact, it possibly exposes that Gaugin was an even worse person than previously thought. He was narcissistic and self-aggrandising, as the first room dedicated to his self-portraits shows. In these works, Gaugin projects himself as Jesus Christ, a suffering artist and a brooding bohemian. Annoying, yes, but by taking on the guise of multiple personae, Gaugin subverts the self-portrait tradition which until then had been thought of as a straight-forward depiction of the artist’s subjectivity.
Christ in the Garden of Olives, 1889, Norton Gallery of Art, West Palm Beach
Gaugin was also highly original in his use of colour. Ochres, limes, tangerines and yellows burn with symbolism throughout his canvases which would later inspire Henri Matisse and the Fauves. He combined flat colours with bold, unwavering silhouettes, mounting that ‘distinctness of outline is the attribute of the hand that is not enfeebled by any hesitation of will’.
This was just one of the many artistic tenets he tried to pass onto Vincent van Gogh during their time together in Arles. Another room dedicated to this period displays Gaugin’s portrait of Madame Roulin, the wife of the now famous postmaster, which Gaugin gave to Van Gogh to use as an example of how paint. Gaugin reflects back on this time and remembers himself as a kind of mentor: ‘I owe something to Vincent, and that is, in the consciousness of having been useful to him, the confirmation of my own original ideas about painting’.
Paul Gauguin, Portrait of Madame Roulin, 1888, Oil on canvas, 49 × 65.5 cm, Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given by Mrs. Mark C. Steinberg 5:1959, Image courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum
Having grown up in Lima, Peru for the first seven years of his life, Gaugin always felt himself on the outskirts of Western society, identifying more with what he perceived as ‘savage’ cultures. In 1891, he travelled to the French Polynesian island of Tahiti, persuading the French government to fund his journey with the promise of making ‘ethnographic studies’. No such studies were ever done, instead he painted Tahitian scenes and, in particular, Tahitian women in a number of fictional scenarios which he borrowed from descriptions in books and drew from his own fantasies of the exotic. It is hard to ignore the misogynistic, colonial narrative that permeates these works when we eventually encounter them. Barbarian Tales (1902), is especially repugnant, as we see a bearded white figure leering over two nude Tahitian girls.
Can you separate the man from the art? It’s a pressing question, especially at a time when Gaugin’s name recalls a litany of detestable figures such as Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein. But the exhibition doesn’t ask you to see the artist in a new light, merely to consider both the light and the shadows.
|The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Gauguin Portraits, The National Gallery review
|National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DN | MAP
|Charing Cross (underground)
07 Oct 19 – 26 Jan 20, 10:00 - 18:00 | Fridays: open until 21:00
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