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Gauguin’s absorbing art tells the story of his life

This article is over 13 years, 3 months old
There’s more to the painter Paul Gauguin than his bright colours or ‘exotic savages’, writes Siobhan Schwartzberg
Issue 2225
Paul Gauguin’s Vision Of The Sermon (1888)  (Pic: National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh)
Paul Gauguin’s Vision Of The Sermon (1888) (Pic: National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh)

The hugely popular Paul Gauguin exhibition at London’s Tate Modern is the first major display of his paintings in Britain for 50 years.

Gauguin was a stockbroker before he became an artist, and I arrived thinking of him as a capitalist darling.But there is more to his story and his art than that.

His mother was forced to raise her children on her own after his father, a left wing journalist, died when Gauguin was three years old.

He also spent time with his maternal grandmother, Flora Tristan, an influential socialist. She believed that the emancipation of the working class would liberate women.

Gauguin had many careers. His first job was in the navy, which undoubtedly ignited his obsession with what he called the exotic “savages” he later depicted in his art.

He went on to work as a stockbroker, a journalist, a manual labourer, and finally an artist.

His art seems so reflective of the developments of his career and character, that it absorbs you into his world. 

Whether you like Gauguin and his views or not, you can’t help but feel that you get to know him.

This exhibition starts by exploring ideas of identity in Gauguin’s work. This is a key theme, yet when he is exploring the identity of others Gauguin has emotional distance—so his identity is the only one present.

In its most undiluted form, this is found in his paintings of Tahitian women.


His self-portrait, titled Portrait Of The Artist With The Idol (1893), suggests the distance he has to his art and his subject. The idol in the painting is a stone sculpture he carved himself and can be seen in some of his still life paintings.

Even Gauguin’s still life works are rarely straightforward.

He always gives his still life something extra—either by distorting objects in it or placing an unexpected onlooker in the frame.

But people were always the most important subject of his work.

This can be seen in the several portraits he painted of his friend and fellow artist Jacob Meyer de Haan.

In each one, Gauguin emphasises certain elements of his friend’s features—such as an enlarged forehead or piercing bulbous eyes.

Gauguin is best known for his ­paintings of young Polynesian women.

His interpretations are often so distant and so reactionary it seems he himself couldn’t work out whether he felt absolute disdain or great adoration towards the objects of his art.

There is fascination, but no empathy.

Gauguin said of the women he painted in Martinique, “What I find so bewitching are the figures every day here, there is a continual coming and going of black women decked out in their colourful finery, with their endless variety of graceful movements.”

One of the most enjoyable things about Gauguin’s work is his use of colour.

Vision Of The Sermon (1888) is a good example of how warm colours are harmoniously contrasted with cold ones to create a rich depth and texture.

Gauguin was constantly willing to explore, as the variety of mediums he used shows.

Whether its his colourful oil paintings such as Good Morning, Mr Gauguin (1889) or his Self-Portrait Vase In The Form Of A Severed Head (1889), his work is so visually attractive and engrossing it’s worth seeing.

Gauguin: Maker of Myth is on until 16 January 2011 at the Tate Modern, £13.50/£10. Go to

Self-portrait with Manao Tupapau (1893-4), (Pic: © RMN (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski)
Self-portrait with Manao Tupapau (1893-4), (Pic: © RMN (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski)

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