The first thing you see in the Gauguin: Maker of Myth exhibition is a room of self-portraits. Paul Gauguin’s art, his carefully crafted public persona and his life are inseparable.
He was born in 1848 in Paris. His father was a journalist who took the losing, radical side in the revolution of that year, and the family was exiled to Peru. He returned to France aged six, and for ten years after leaving school seemed a solid bourgeois. He worked as a stockbroker, got married and painted on Sundays. He had talent, exhibiting with the Impressionists.
The early paintings suggest currents beneath the respectable surface. “The Little One is Dreaming” shows his daughter asleep – are the birds over her bed printed on the wallpaper or in her dream? “In the Painter’s House” shows Gauguin and his wife in sombre colours at the back of a room in their bourgeois home, almost hidden by the furniture.
In 1882 the stock market crashed. Gauguin decided to become a full-time artist, abandoning his wife and children. He travelled and painted, looking to the traditions of remote parts of France, and non-European societies, as alternatives to mechanical, artificial, modern society. He saw himself as a bohemian anti-hero battling against orthodox religion and sexual repression. He favoured the primitive and irrational, travelling first to Celtic Brittany and then to Tahiti.
You have to see this in context. Contacts between France and non-European cultures were expanding because of French imperialism – all the countries Gauguin visited were French colonies. Better transport – within France and abroad – also made tourism possible. Gauguin was a tourist-painter: he visited “exotic” places and painted “authentic local culture” – culture sometimes packaged for tourists, or even rediscovered or made up by Gauguin himself. He always kept one eye on what would sell in Paris – he needed the money.
Two of his great paintings from Brittany address religious themes. Breton women in traditional dress gather at the cross in “The Yellow Christ”, and they imagine Jacob wrestling with an angel as they hear this described in church in “Vision of the Sermon”. The paintings break with realist convention. Jesus in “The Yellow Christ” is painted in a flat, unvarying yellow, stylised and lacking in detail – “primitive”. The background of “Vision of the Sermon” is an equally unvarying red.
The picture breaks with conventional perspective and realism, separating the pious women from the religious vision by the placement of a tree branch.
Many artists painted Breton peasants, and the women relied on the money they made from posing as artists’ models in their distinctive costumes. So this is not a simple record of peasant customs. It’s also hard to judge Gauguin’s attitude to the women he paints – is he respectfully representing their beliefs or suggesting they are simple-minded and superstitious?
In 1891 Gauguin travelled to Tahiti, where he made his most famous paintings. He expected to find a non-Christian tropical paradise characterised by nudity and easy-going sexuality. However, the Tahitians had adopted Christianity, and women wore dresses covering them from neck to ankles. Gauguin painted the Tahitians as if none of this had happened, using accounts of their religion and society he found in textbooks.
Gauguin painted the Tahitian women’s features accurately – he didn’t Europeanise them as other artists had done. But these are not portraits of individuals: the women are impersonal, symbolic. He also had relationships with Tahitian women until the end of his life, even after he caught syphilis, marrying one of his models when she was 13. It’s pointless to deny that there is something exploitative and tacky in Gauguin’s portrayal of non-European women as compliant sexual objects, just as there are parallels between his life and those of modern-day sex tourists.
Yet, despite his limitations, Gauguin made great art. He broadened what was possible in painting, opening the way for artists like Picasso. The exhibition’s title, Gauguin: Maker of Myth, reflects that complexity and ambiguity. It is an excellent account of the man and his art, well worth seeing and making up your own mind over.
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