Monday, January 24, 2011

Art Review : Gauguin : Maker of Myth (Tate Modern 14/1/11)

"Gauguin : Maker of Myth" which recently closed at Tate Modern was apparently the Tate's most popular exhibition ever, which underlines Gauguin's resonance with the British public. The reasons for his visual appeal are immediately apparent - his exotic themes, his big bold colours and senuous lines, paintings which are mysterious yet accessible. Yet part of the appeal is also Gauguin the man : the stockbroker who took up painting, who quarrelled with Vincent van Gogh and then set sail forever to live and paint surrounded by scantily-clad Tahitian beauties in his South Sea Island paradise.

Yet the story of Gauguin the man is in part one of his most careful artistic creations, part-truth and part self-mythologising, a complement to his work on canvas. The object of this magnificently conceived and curated exhibition is to demonstrate the extent to which the paintings can only be understood in the context of Gauguin's self-projection, and that his life is an integral part of his art.

Gauguin's early works are unremarkable - a talented impressionist, closely mimicking the syle of his mentor Camille Pissarro. The stock-market crash of 1882 persuaded him to take to painting full-time, but his circumstances declined rapidly and he moved from Paris to Rouen to reduce his living expenses. Shortly after, his Danish wife Mette returned to her family in Copenhagen and he was free to follow his artistic inclinations.

Vegetation Tropicale
by Paul Gaugin (1887)
National Gallery of Scotland

Autumn in Glencairn
by James Paterson (1887)
National Gallery of Scotland
Gauguin liked to portray himself a savage, part-Inca. In actual fact he was born in Paris but brought up in Paru to where his father travelled in exile following the revolutions of 1848. In 1887 he sailed to Panama and Martinique where he had his first close experience of native life in the French overseas colonies. But his paintings at this time are unremarkable, demonstrably Impressionist in origin, they display the flat perspectives and broad patches of colour of naturalists like Bastien-Lepage and his followers, such as the Glasgow Boys.

Le Pardon de Pont-Aven
by Emile Bernard (1888)
Private Collection

Vision of the Sermon
(Jacob wrestling with the Angel)
By Paul Guguin (1888)
National Gallery of Scotland
 It is not until he returns to Brittany in 1888 that his work transforms. He starts to work with Emile Bernard, and his style transforms under his influence. Compare Gauguin's work to the left with Vegetation Tropicale above, carried out the year before, and with Emile Bernard's work opposite. Bernard had been a student of decorative art, and his theories of Cloisonnism (bold shapes divided by dark outlines) were already well develloped when he started to work with Gauguin. As Bernard also experimented with religious symbolism in his works, his influence on Gauguin's mature style seems very apparent to me, and if there is one shortcoming in this exhibition it is that this thread of influence is underrecognised (This idea is developed at length on the Emile Bernard wikipedia page .) It seems to want Gauguin's genius to come wholly from within him which is not the case.

In 1891, Gauguin set sail to Tahiti for the first time, by when he had met Stéphane Malarmé and become heavily imbued with Symbolist ideology. Where this exhibition excels is in its juxtaposition of Gauguin's writings and paintings, which clearly demonstrates the extent to which he viewed his output as a Gesamtkunstwerk. Motifs, such as Ondine the swimming nymph or Oviri the savage, are sketched, printed, sculpted and reproduced in paintings. Typically, Gauguin supplies an allusive or teasing title for his paintings, often in Tahitian, hinting at the meaning of the whole.

To take an example, his painting Te Nave Nave Fanua contains a motif of what appears to be a naked maiden plucking a flower. Closer examination shows a lizard whispering in her ear - the title means "The Delightful Land" and the painting can thus be interpreted as a representation of the Fall of Eve. The exhibition shows how is motif is repeated in prints, watercolours, always with attendant lizard, and finally in his most significant literary work, Noa Noa, his travelogue with etchings which tells of his time in Tahiti combined with folk tales and the work of the Symbolist poet Charles Morice.

Which leads me to a couple of pedantic points. In the otherwise splendid catalogue, Noa Noa is translated as "Fragrant." (Catalogue Pg 37). However, wikipedia lists Noa as meaning "free" in Hawaiian, or "free from tapu or restraint" in Maori. . The translation of Noa Noa as "fragrance" comes from Gauguin himself - but he is both unreliable narrator and translator. It would be in character if his intention was to emphasise the "free" aspect of Noa, but chose to diguise it, to place a poetic slant on it. On another pedantic point, the Norwegian tankard shown is not a "Tine" (catalogue Pg 93), which is a Norwegian carved ornamental box with a handle.

Nevermore O Tahiti
by Paul Gauguin (1897)
The Courtauld Gallery London
However, the great pleasure of this show, and a reason for its success, is that one can examine the main themes in detail, but there are sufficient great works which can be enjoyed simply for themselves. Look into the face of the girl in Nevermore O Tahiti. Is she sad, is she sulking? What are the women saying - is the girl listening? And what is that clunky badly-drawn raven doing with the ominous Poe reference in the title? Add the colours of the girl, the sumtuous curved line of the small of her back and paterns of the pareo - a complex, beguiling, beautiful masterpiece - and there are many more.

You can enjoy his exquisite late works, explore the man, his myth, his art at whatever level you want. And if you want to avoid overcrowding at Art Galleries, then curators will have to strive to ensure that shows aren't as good as this one.

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