Wednesday, 4 May 2011

GAUGUIN: MAKER OF MYTH

A solo exhibition at the Tate Modern which... mumble, mumble... actually closed in mid-January. A very good reason for the lateness in posting this will come at the end of the piece.


“Your personality is completed by the antipathy that it generates”
-       Strindberg to Gauguin (1895)

The Artist and himself:

Gauguin is a Name, of course. Enough of a name that the Tate’s website advises tickets be purchased in advance. But, as ever, fame is the treasure which turns out to come with a curse upon it.

It could be argued that between them, Gauguin and his sometime compatriot Van Gogh embody the two main stereotypes of the modern artist – one the deranged visionary, the other the bohemian adventurer who defied all convention and sailed off out of bourgeois society.

Though Van Gogh is perhaps better known, if anything this is a worse problem for Gauguin – who very deliberately cultivated an image for himself. As Adrian Searle has argued: “he personifies the idea that the artist is as much an invention as the art itself”. To spend time dismantling this concoction feels like an exercise in the obvious. Yet at the same time it’s too deep-rooted, too inextricably interwoven with the art, to just ignore.

The show acknowledges this self-image, even starting with a room of self-portraits, ‘Identity and Self-Mythology.’ There’s so much variety in the seemingly simple format, as if he changed his identity as often and as freely as David Bowie would years later. (Virtually the only constant is Gallic moustache, a signifier like Mickey’s ears or Tin Tin’s tuft.)

But it also pulls the rug from under this myth through historicising Gauguin. Before Tahiti it was Brittany that he idealised as a haven of “the wild and primitive.” Yet this had actually just been opened up by the French railways, with tourist trips were marketed to the “pure but backward” land. He railed against the French colonial influence on Tahiti, yet also used it for the cultural links and mail routes which underpinned his career. It points out where the pure savages he paints have poses stolen from Classical works. (And as Julian Mills of the Tahitian Tourist Board pointed out in the Guardian, “when Gauguin was there, many Tahitians would have worn full western dress.”) In short, the primitive “other” he fetishised was simply a construct of contemporary Western society – not a window onto another world but an unshaven looking glass.

Of course the myth of the artist escaping stifling civilisation is inherently absurd. It’s like a man catching a disease and trying to slip it by running to where no-one else will have it – he will become a carrier of the contagion, not the other way around. (Not is that all that much of a metaphor. Linda Zuck reminds us of a few unfortunate truths,   “Gauguin was a syphilitic paedophile and a sex tourist.”)

At times it misses a trick. It’s notable, even after the dedicated first room, how many different self-portraits there are. (Presenting himself as, among others, Jesus and John the Baptist.) But there are few other male figures. And the women, even when he’s painting specific different women, are variations on a type. Gauguin, to Gauguin, is a multiplicity, while all women are One. (“Timeless figures rather than specific subjects.”)

Yet the show does something more important – it strikes the balance right. It titles itself with a dual meaning – both Gauguin’s self-mythologising and the general world of myth.  But from there it acknowledges this “shrewdly cultivated legend”, while focusing on the art. Gauguin was hugely influenced by place, to a degree which we jaded jet-travellers find hard to fathom. But his work was always more fable than documentary, and his never-quite-separable self-mythologising should be looked at the same way.

Never quite still:

While still living a bourgeois family life in Paris, and working by day as a stockbroker, Gauguin whiled away his weekends with still lives. I am not sure if I had seen a single one of these before this exhibition. These more conventionally domestic scenes might appear inessential, what would be juvenalia were he not painting them up to his late Twenties. We have after all learnt to despise the cosy still life, dismiss it as the antithesis of Modernism, an attempt to wall art off from social change inside a static enclosure.


Yet they have the unsettling quality of never being quite still. We never seem to be seeing all there is to see. As if the focus was somehow askew, figures hover in the background, often looking predatory if not demonic – like Fuseli’s imp. They sometimes look a little like that movie trick of panning to something innocuous as something horrible happens just offscreen. (See Interieur du Peintre Paris Rue Carcel’, 1881, above.) The objects themselves are painted in a kind of flickering flux, in a style quite similar to van Gogh. Not for nothing is this room titled ‘Making the Familiar Strange.’

There’s a parallel between these and the paintings of his children sleeping, such as ‘The Little One is Dreaming’ (1881, below) and ‘Clovis Asleep’ (1884). Though the child looks locked in sleep, objects behind them such as the wallpaper seem to ripple and pulse behind them, as if the ‘real world’ was suffused with dreams.


You are never quite sure if these works are supposed to look like that or not, a feeling that will stay with you throughout the show. To quote Searle again: “The quality of Gauguin's art that is ‘off’ and strange – even a bit mismanaged – is also its strength.” He’s like a singer who doesn’t conceal his vocal limitations but utilises them, wrongfooting the audience. Is this simple naive art? A sophisticated approximation? Heartfelt or considered? You will never be sure. In this was he was a rock star before his time.

A Ticket to the ‘Wild and Primitive’:

Next thing Gauguin has ditched the stockbrokering, packed his bags, parted from his family and headed for Brittany. (The details vary depending on whether you are talking to him or anyone else.) It is here that the bohemian artist we are more familiar with begins to appear.



 However, note the “begins”. Searle describes his art as “a hodge-podge of inconsistent and seemingly incompatible styles and manners.” Never more than in Britanny did this seem true.  In an uncommented juxtaposition, the show puts ‘Breton Girl Spinning’ (1889) alongside ‘Breton Girls Dancing’ (1888, both above). Despite the similar dates and names, these paintings could not be further apart. ‘Spinning’ looks influenced by folk art: flat and solid, codified like a cartoon, everything a representation. Perspective is absent, distance conveyed only by placement in the composition.


‘Dancing’, conversely, is built around perspective. It gives off the vertiginous sense of the dancers about to burst out of the frame. The painting is flecked with detail so it almost shimmers. This, of course, is Guaguin still under the spell of the Impressionists. (It could even be argued that the Impressionists used form merely as a means to convey light.) Though both fine in their own right, the two works point to man undecided between Impressionism and Symbolism.


Yet in another work from 1888, the famous ‘Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling With The Angel’ (above), Gauguin sets the contradiction to work for him. The bonnetted women in the foreground are Impressionistic, their white hats coloured into contours, yet the background is vivid with solid blocks of ruddy pigment. Gauguin explained that this background “only exists in the imagination”, that the Bible scene is the vision the women are seeing after their sermon. ‘Yellow Christ’, 1889, has a similar division, if in less rigidly separated spatial planes. (This formal separation between ‘real’ foreground and ‘vision’ background recalls the ‘dreaming children’ of Paris we saw earlier.)

Sombre Savagery in Tahiti:

Yet by the time we reach Tahiti Gauguin had tired of this rapproachment and Symbolism had won. Impressionism was concerned with the inter-relationship between what was there and what our senses took in. Symbolism, and Gauguin from this point on, cares only for what’s already in our heads. Achille Delarouche said of these in 1894: “Whether (they) are an exact representation of an exotic reality matters little to me. Gauguin has used this extraordinary landscape as the locale for his dream.” Like Jimmy Stewart in ‘Harvey’, Gauguin wrestled with reality before finally winning out over it.

Or, a little more accurately, Impressionism is not so much abandoned as conquered by Symbolism. Questions which used to be concerns consequently no longer seem to matter. Perspective can now be conveyed in multiple ways, sometimes within one painting, without any particular jarring effect.

It also, to some degree, undercuts the criticism that Gauguin was merely concocting a primitive from his own prejudices. Partly he saw Tahiti as the land of his dreams, but there’s also a sense where it was merely a means to him to get at his dreams. Gauguin himself explained in 1892, “my artistic centre is in my brain – and not elsewhere.” What he was trying to convey was something in his head.

Try contrasting Gauguin to an image from the contemporary pulp magazine ‘Journal des Voyages’ which appears elsewhere in the exhibition. A Negress beams decorously out of the cover like an alluring shop assistant. She is no black woman, but quite definitely a Negress - in the way an apple in a still life is an apple. She’s a mere token, there to titillate and to please.

Gauguin’s women, while no more real, are at least symbols – they are not going to offer everything to the viewer so easily. Their existence is not contingent on ours. Moreover, they are phlegmatic as much as they are exotic. They often meet the viewer’s gaze, but recognise us quite impassively while they go about their lives. There is a sombre quality to them, a sense in which they simply are. They are Mona Lisas without the smile. Look, for example, at 1893’s ‘Woman Holding a Fruit’ (below). Look, for that matter, at the detail on the exhibition poster.


Did Gauguin actually recognise that there was something essentially inscrutable to these Tahitian women, a barrier beyond any geography? Or was it yet another projection of what was in his own mind?

The most likely answer is something of both. But I’d like to imagine he was tapping into something inherent to folk culture – what the Spanish call duende, or exquisite sadness. As argued in previous posts on folk and country music, true folk culture does not idealise a happy past or lament its passing – instead it is flatly fatalistic. While we might rail against conditions and try to ask penetrating questions, these women seem to see past all that – but the knowledge traps them into simple acceptance.

Of course it is entirely possible that I am merely grafting my own perspective onto Gauguin, even as he grafted his onto these women in the first place. But that is simply to describe what always happens.

Nor should we go overboard in Gauguin’s rehabilitation. These women remain depersonalised representations of the Other. A room is given over to ‘The Eternal Feminine’, an unchanging nature straight out of Simone de Beavouir’s accusation that women were trapped in a life of “immanence” while men were allowed “transcendence.” The women may be granted a little mystery within their strictly delineated realm, but that is all.

The nature of nature:

However, as ever, we are really taken back to the way Gauguin saw things. It is his art which is being granted more depth, not his sense of sexual politics. Ultimately, just as each individual woman is only there to represent Woman, Woman herself is used to present a view of something else. And that thing is nature.

Nowadays we are divided between two opposing views. One sees it as a kind of rudimentary machine, which now needs updating through genetic tampering and the like. The other takes the inverse view, that nature is a machine too sophisticated for us, an intricate set of interlocking systems whose micro-complexity we struggle to understand. In the heat of debate we fail to see what these conceptions have in common. We cannot understand Gauguin’s nature either, but that is because it is too simple, too savage. We can only connect to it through our dreams, not our brains.

This quality is perhaps conveyed most irrefutably in Gauguin’s palette, which is rich in an earthy sense, vivid without being bright. Like Bacon or Guston, Gauguin has one of those signature palettes you could recognise at a thousand paces. Those big blocks of colour can make his works look enticingly easy, like you could knock off some yourself given a roller and an afternoon. Yet they also have an unsettling quality, haunting and inscrutable, hinting at something we haven’t quite got yet. They’re like one of those games which take a minute to learn but a lifetime to master. As Searle says, “The simpler Gauguin’s paintings are, the better they seem.”



This theme is presented remarkably consistently, despite the ranges in his style. It is there in the early still lives, the fruit in the bowl still resonant of the forest from where it came. And from there it grows. There’s a recurrent image of a figure reclining on the landscape, in those bold colours somehow looking giant. It’s there embryonically in  ‘The Little One is Dreaming’ (seen above), more clearly in  the Britanny-era ’The Loss of Virginity’ (1890/1) and the Tahitian ‘The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch’, (1892, both above). A simple change to a standing figure would change so much, make it stand astride the landscape like the Colossus of Rhodes. As it is, the lying figure does not look apart from the landscape but in some way incorporated into it. (A theme we also found in the later sculpture of Henry Moore during his Tate Britain exhibition).

Notably, two of these three pictures should, logically, be interiors. But neither feels like it, there is nothing limited or confining about them; the walls just seem to dissolve into unimportance, they belong with the rolling hills and vast horizon line of the third. Nature cannot be kept at bay; it is in everything, including us. The notation tells us that, unlike the Impressionists, Gauguin preferred to draw in the studio. Yet the effect of his work is quite the opposite.

Breaker of Myth:

I have at times felt that contemporary exhibitions can tend to stuff Modernism back into a box, the very box many of its practitioners were straining to break out from. I have even, at times, felt this strongly enough to have to remind myself that there wasn’t actually some kind of conspiracy. However, at other times Modernism bigged itself up with a set of self-aggrandising myths which can and should be punctured.

Gauguin is perhaps more easily absorbed into the world of Tate retrospectives than Duchamp or Rodchenko. But nevertheless this is a superlative show, which works hard to contextualise (rather than flatter or rubbish) him and largely strikes the nail on the head. It might skimp a little on his relationship with van Gogh, but overall complaints are few. Perhaps my praise is partly down to it being grist to my mill, its approach based on the assumption that there is still something valuable to Modernism once all the bohemian clich├ęs have been stripped away.

I have, incidentally, no good reason for the lateness of this – it just kind of happened! Truth be told, in deciding what to write up my eyes are always bigger than my belly. And I tend to go for the most recent on the list, as it is freshest in my mind. This increases the risk of other items getting perpetually shunted back into near-absurd levels of lateness. I would like to promise, however, that this sort of thing will never happen again... just as soon as my wealthy patron reveals himself and I no longer have to go into work every day.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for this. I know nearly nothing about art, and only read this because I like your Doctor Who reviews, but I came away not only entertained but educated. Nice work.

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  2. Glad you liked it, Mike! The best-read... okay, least-worst-read pieces here tend to be the Doctor Who and the art postings, and I suspect they have the least overlap in readership!

    One caveat about being "educated" though. A review of another art piece commented how "well-researched" it was, and I had to admit that the only 'research' I'd done was to go to the show, look at the works and read the labels! They're highly subjective impressionistic responses really, and should be read with the necessary note of caution!

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