Thursday, 10 October 2019

Gauguin Portraits - National Gallery, London

Vahine no te vi (Woman with a Mango)
Paul Gauguin 1892© The Baltimore Museum of Art / Photo: Mitro Hood

Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) painted people throughout his career – from his own family to the Polynesian beauties he found in the South Pacific. This sweeping exhibition brings together more than fifty works from museums and private collections throughout the world, showing how the French artist revolutionised the portrait with his intense use of colour, unconventional symbolism, and lack of flattery or marks of social standing.
Mette in Evening Dress
Paul Gauguin 1884 © National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo
As a young man with a lucrative job as a stock broker he collected art, got to know the Impressionists, began painting and was invited to exhibit with them. His early portraits were mostly of family and friends – we see his wife, Mette, in an evening dress, surrounded by the trappings of a comfortable life. When the Paris stock market crashed in 1882 he lost his position and decided to paint full time. Having largely abandoned Mette and their five children, he began exploring his own, highly original ideas about art. Part of his childhood had been spent in Peru, the home of some of his mother’s relatives, and this left him with a fascination with societies that to him seemed close to nature. In the years that followed he was constantly in search of such cultures. The exhibition starts with a room of self-portraits.
Christ in the Garden of Olives
Paul Gauguin 1889 ©Norton Museum of Art
One of his favourite subjects was himself, usually showing the aquiline nose of which he was very proud. (He claimed it was a sign of Inca blood through his mother’s side, though in fact her grandfather was not Peruvian, but a Spanish colonial.) We see him in various guises, even as Christ (above), mostly reflecting his feelings of isolation as an outsider, and the way his lack of commercial success made him a misunderstood martyr to his art.
Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin
Paul Gauguin 1889 ©Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
In 1886 in search of a more ‘primitive’ and ‘pure’ society, he moved to Brittany on France’s north-west coast (above). However all was not as it seemed – fast trains had made the area popular with artists and the ‘peasants’ were happy to dress up in traditional costumes and perform dances in return for cash. Eventually he moved to the more remote village of Le Pouldu where he formed a close circle of fellow artists, including the Dutch artist, Meijer de Haan, whom he portrayed many times. He also met Theo van Gogh, who in 1988 persuaded him to move to Provence in an attempt to found another artists’ community there with his brother, Vincent.
L'arlésienne, Mme Ginoux
Paul Gauguin 1888 ©Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California
In Arles, the two artists worked intensely, often side by side with the same subjects. Gauguin gave this sketch of Marie Ginoux to Van Gogh, who later used it for a series of portraits. But after three months the experiment ended badly and Gauguin returned north. Still in search of an ‘unspoiled’ culture, his next move, in 1891, was to the French colony of Tahiti. The trip was funded by the French government, for whom he was supposed to be recording local customs. There’s little evidence of this, apart from an invented scene where he painted the recently-deceased king as a trophy head.
Arii Matamoe (The Royal End)
Paul Gauguin 1892 ©Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

He did, however, enter into relationships with young teenage girls, marrying two of them and fathering children. One 'wife', Tehamana a Tahura, may have been 13 when they met. Christian missionaries had been at work there for decades, compelling the women to wear ‘modest’ dresses based on European models. Gauguin was outraged at this, but featured them in several portraits, including this one of Tahura, which mixes the colonial present with a background of a mythic past.

The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana Has Many Parents (Merahi metua no Tehamana)
Paul Gauguin 1893 ©The Art Institute of Chicago

In 1893 he went back to France with a trunkful of exotic clothes and full of his experiences. He painted his studio bright yellow to evoke the atmosphere of the South Seas, and on a return visit to Brittany portrayed a peasant girl at prayer, wearing a brilliant yellow ‘missionary’ dress. But his paintings were not a success, and in 1895 he returned to Tahiti. By this time he was in poor health and had financial worries. In 1901 he moved to Hiva Oa in the Marquesan Islands, where life was cheaper. Here he painted what the exhibition terms ‘Surrogate Portraits’, evoking the memory of  friends such as Van Gogh with a still life of sunflowers, and de Haan as a grotesque devil-like figure beside a serene Polynesian couple.
Contes barbares
Paul Gauguin 1902 ©Museum Folkwang Essen / ARTOTHEK
Gauguin died in 1903 at the age of 54. His last self portrait is very different from his earlier creations – simple, without symbolic objects or inscriptions.
Paul Gauguin 1903©Kunstmuseum Basel
His legacy is complicated. He seems to have been a difficult person – self-obsessed, restless, short-tempered, and quick to exploit his position as a privileged Westerner to make the most of the sexual freedom available to him in Polynesia. The exhibition doesn't ignore this, but puts it in context, and invites you to enjoy the explosion of colour he brought to portraiture.

Gauguin Portraits is at the National Gallery, London until 26 January 2020. Admission charge.

No comments:

Post a Comment