Monday, 30 May 2011

DOCTOR WHO: ‘THE REBEL FLESH’/’THE ALMOST PEOPLE’

Spoilers! More spoilers!


Tell you what, I won’t start this review by saying “well at least it wasn’t ’Fear Her’.

True, Matthew Graham wrote what is often considered the all-time low point since the series’ return. But all jobbing writers have off days. And besides, as we all know by now, he was bounced into speed-writing that script when an intended episode by Stephen Fry fell through. (Only because Fry was temporarily unavailable for rewrites. Let’s hope it re-surfaces someday.)

This, conversely, seems to have been planned to fill the slot of ‘traditional two-parter,’ previously staffed by the episodes popularly known as “that bloody Sontarans two-parter” and “that bloody Silurians two-parter.” These are usually scheduled half-way through a season, presumably intended as a kind of hand-hold, a central pillar to keep aboard all those trad fans who feared things were getting much too modern.

...and indeed we get a ‘classic’ base-under-siege scenario and a plot that borrows liberally from ’The Thing’, (the original ’Thing From Another World’ of course a big influence on the Second Doctor era), Duncan Jones’ ’Moon,’, the Cylons from the “reimagined” ’Battlestar Galactica’, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and that old stalwart ’Frankenstein’.

That last example probably sets the tone of the episode more than any other, which actually works out pretty well. The Gothic fits the show like an old velvet jacket, it feels fitting for them to be running round the corridors of a dimly lit monastery. Inevitably it means science is cast as an anti-religion, with coffin-like objects for the humans to climb in, and a kind of font for the clones (dubbed ‘Gangers’) to appear from. (The latter part an almost complete steal from ’Battlestar’, but what else is new?)

Given this shopping list of ingredients, it may be appropriate that it’s a story about clones who often appear semi-shaped. It’s a rough approximation of a script, in the semblance of form but forever slipping back into some pile of protoplasmic ooze. Many of the twists are too predictable, even for a show such as this. (Did anyone not foresee the ‘ganger’ Doctor appearing, or the two then switching roles? And why do the Gangers take him for one of them, when at that point they’ve no reason to believe there is a Doctor copy?)

Several story elements just kind of sit there, expecting to be accepted. Was it ever explained why they were mining and exporting the acid to the mainland? “Gee, something highly corrosive and toxic – thanks guys!” (Of course it’s there so the humans can ‘dissolve’ in death like the gangers do, but would it hurt to have an explanation internal to the story?)

And as with that bloody Silurians two-parter, there were set-ups which went precisely nowhere. When one crew member starts sneezing, we assume he’ll either pass the Gangers a virus which kills them, or claim to be one of them only for a sneeze to give him away. As it happens, he just sneezes a bit. (Maybe the actor actually had a cold and they just left it in...)

And yet at times there were signs of imagination, even moments which worked well. It was as if the actual Matthew Graham was intermittently wresting the controls from his ganger, and saving the script from being a simulacrum of itself. It even manages a fresh take on the alien imposter theme.
< The central premise succeeds in being more than the aggregate of its influences. The Gangers are not id-figures but genuine clones, perfect copies of us - they think and act just as we do. Our most precious illusion, that we are at our core a unique individual, is violated. (Graham has commented: “it’s a Frankenstein’s monster tale and complexities that comes out of the story are moral and social complexities rather than timey whimey stuff.”)

Admittedly this is interesting only in some abstract philosophical fashion. It’s not like one of those science fiction stories which acts as a metaphor for the real world, for slavery, the extraction of wage labour or some such. (And it’s another thing which makes no internal sense. In the future why don’t they just use robots for dangerous work? That’s what we’re already doing in the present, after all!) But it’s dramatically effective. When the scene is with the humans you side with them, but as soon as it switches to the gangers you find that so do your allegiances.


Graham also pulls a nice switch, in making two Gangers opposites, or shadow selves. The human site boss, Miranda, is a battleaxe who immediately sets about seeing the sentient Gangers decommissioned. Jennifer, meanwhile, is little more than a damsel in distress. But with the Gangers their roles are reversed, Miranda is philosophical and fatalistic while Jennifer becomes the ruthless decision maker. (She even makes a speech about being lost as a child, and imagining another self who is strong and decisive.) Admittedly this is yet another element which goes unexplained, but dramatically speaking was quite the right decision.

Reviewing the first episode, Mike Taylor takes issue with a scene where Jennifer shapeshifts in (appropriately enough) a toilet: “It’s not just that the effect wasn’t convincing; it’s that it was the wrong effect. The story doesn’t want or need to go there — we don’t need weird body-shaping powers for the duplicates. The thing about them that makes them interesting is that they are people — precisely not that they are monsters.”

...then in the second part this is compounded by yet another grievous logic-lapse. As Jennifer’s megalomania worsens, the other Gangers desert her for the humans. At which point she turns into a huge rampant monster, whose terrifying menace is only exceeded by its poor quality CGI. Yet the other Gangers seem to entirely lack the ability to respond in kind, despite being made from the same pliable stuff.

And while we’re at it, there’s repeated suggestions that the Flesh (the putty from which the Gangers are formed) is sentient. (The Doctor claims it scans him, and it goes on to make a copy of him without anyone asking it to.) Yet this seems at odds with the notion that the Gangers were given life by accident, by a freak Frankenstein storm, and so are as thrust into events as the humans.

Okay, they can’t be bothered to work this stuff through so we’ll have to do it for them. Imagine that, unknown to both humans and Gangers, the Flesh is somehow sentient. To manipulate the Gangers into doing it’s bidding, it takes the form of their weakest member. (Who then becomes the strongest. It’s like ironic, gettit?) But its string-pulling fails and they side with the humans. At which point it abandons its Jennifer disguise and rears up in its true monster nature. (Incidentally, I would still have cut the toilet scene. The only sign of shapeshifting in the first episode would have been the later neck-twisting, shot in a quick blink-and-you-miss-it moment.)

You don’t really expect things to end by resolving the age-old philosophical question of what constitutes self, in fact you kind of figure there’ll be a monster and a big explosion. But there is something egregious in the way it ends up in such a pile-up of get-outs. First, fate conspires so that some humans and some Gangers survive, but no actual duplicates. Then it turns out the Tardis is handily kitted out to cure both ‘Gangeritis’ and the blood clot which Miranda suffers from.

There’s also something rather incoherent and dissatisfying about the cliffhanger we’re then served. Not over where any of it is going, of that only the Lord and Moffat know. (Though frankly I’m starting to have doubts about Moffat.) But how it fits with the episode we’ve just watched. Even if Amy is somehow a Ganger, and has been since before the episode started, how come the Doctor simply dissolves her? Hasn’t he spent the last hour and a half convincing us that the Gangers are a sentient life form, that to dispose of them is murder and all the rest of it?

Despite all the lapses and failings, there was enough good stuff to keep you watching. In the best trad two-parter so far, it pulled together some of the appealing elements from the old show and spread something more challenging (albeit thinly) on top. It’s just a shame it couldn’t have delivered a little more on its promise. In fact it seemed less a throwback than a typical episode for this season; a bunch of stuff slung together, some of which is quite appealing in itself. I’ve been tempted to call it ’The Almost Episode’ but perhaps we’ll end up using that description for the whole season.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

I'M LATE! I'M LATE!


...okay, what else is new?

There's simply been too much good stuff going on lately for me to catch up with it all! This tends to happen this time of year with the Brighton Festival, but I've also been to a couple of other cool things in London I'd love to post about. (Just as soon as they invent more hours in the day...)

Of course this also means that when I'm finally able to write about it then it'll be late. But then you're surely used to that round here!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

DOCTOR WHO: ‘THE DOCTOR’S WIFE’ (POSTSCRIPT)


Regular readers may remember me foolishly committing myself to print by saying of this episode:

”Everything seemed built around her [the Tardis].”

Then later I read the Guardian’s Q+A with writer Neil Gaiman where someone asks…

”Was this the one great Who story you've always wanted to tell?”

…which would pretty much have been my question. Surely this was the Who story which had been buzzing around Gaiman’s cranium since he was a young fan. “When I become a big, famous writer I shall do a ’Doctor Who’ where the Tardis is a lady!” Why, you could see that all over this episode!

But he replies…

”The story actually came about backwards. It began with me wanting to do a story like THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME set in the TARDIS, with the Doctor being hunted. And then I thought, that's no fun, because he knows everything about the TARDIS. It's no contest. It would be more interesting to have a companion be hunted through the TARDIS...

And I thought, Or even have something malevolent possess the TARDIS. But if I did that, I'd need to put the TARDIS consciousness somewhere.


And then I had a story.”


I had pretty much considered the corridor-chasing to be tangential to the main story, in effect a ‘bubble universe’ of its own. (Though of course it added to the tension and was fun in its own right.) We could have had the whole ‘possessed Tardis’ thing without it, in fact Amy and Rory could have been completely cut out of the story… maybe on a second honeymoon somewhere… with little functional loss. We would still have gone outside the universe, met everyone and come home again. Yet, like someone building an extension then figuring they need a house to go with it, that was the bit which came first.

It’s bizarre to think how many times the spark for a story turns out to be a stray spark, outside the main body of the thing.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

FIERY GAV

(with apologies to Mark E Smith)

 My face is slack
And kidneys burn
In the small of my back
Will never learn
Well I'm not going back
To the slow life
Because every step is a drag

Cause I am Gav
From a burning ring
My brains I have
And I think think think
I just think think think
Too fast to write
Too fast to work
Just burn burn burn

I sat and thank
While my dreams decay
I'm forty-five
Cause I am Gav
From a burning ring
And my brains I have
And I think think think
I just think think think
Too fast to write
Too fast to work
I just burn burn burn

I eat veg saus
I cook stir fries
I'm forty-five
Cause I am Gav
And I think think think
Just think think think
Too fast to write
Too fast to work
Just burn burn burn

And post my left-wing tirades
On the film and TV trades
End free trade
I say eat this grenade
Gonna eat this grenade
Cause I am Gav
I march through North Laines
They not smart
Their brains are half
They never end
Just follow trends

But I am Gav
I post my left-wing tirades
On the film and TV trades
End all free trade
I said eat this grenade
I said eat this grenade
End all free trade
I said eat this grenade

Sunday, 15 May 2011

DOCTOR WHO: ‘THE DOCTOR’S WIFE’

Plot spoilers... and how!!!


In a recent ’Radio Times’ feature, Steven Moffat enthused that this episode would be by Neil Gaiman – a “Proper Writing God.” He seems drawn to the idea of getting in one Proper Writer per season, even though the marriage hasn’t always worked well.

Neil Gaiman is a more complicated story. Starting out in the then-marginalised field of comics, he’s more of a genre-buster than a ‘proper’ writer, which is all to the good. He’s a known ’Doctor Who’ fan, though of course that can work for either good or ill. But more to the point, if truth be told I’ve never been much of a fan of his.

I’ve sometimes wondered if he’d listened to Bob Dylan’s ’Blonde on Blonde’ too much at am impressionable age. He tends to create a locale, then fill it with a collection of incongruous characters and get them to talk in idiosyncratic cadences. And then... well, he often seems to forget to then do anything else. A setting is a fine thing for a song or a painting, but a genre storyline really needs causation of one kind or another. There’s a reason why we call them storylines. His comics often read like someone had hired Samuel Beckett to write a thriller, the result being neither very Beckettian nor very thrilling. And indeed things start off with our crew stranded in a locale where everyone talks funny...

But just as we’re taking in this ill-boding - how brilliant a concept! That audacious-sounding title has been dangling before us for weeks, now we’re told the answer and its head-slappingly obvious! The Doctor’s wife has to be his only constant companion, the Tardis itself! All these years we’ve believed he stole that timeship and, as it turns out, they virtually eloped... The scenes between the Doctor and Suranne Jones as Idris/ the Tardis were perfectly played, blunted only slightly by the fact we’ve already had the bickering old couple routine between the Doctor and River.

Everything seemed built around her. There’s the supreme irony of the Doctor being drawn in with the promise of seeing his people again, only to finally meet the one he’s always had beside him. Beyond their sharing sentience, the House is of course the anti-Tardis, the perfect adversary. It is male to her female, it draws things to it rather then venturing afield, it’s inhabitants live on its surface not inside it, it treats those inhabitants as it’s servants not it’s master, as toys or parts.

All these sentient objects and people who behave like toys. Even the junk in the junkyard turns out to be Tardises! (In Gaiman’s original concept, they transform into Tardises.) Sailors commonly give their ships female names and figureheads. It seems to make sense that, come to life, the ship would first try to kiss her Captain. But perhaps there’s something deeper - a child’s drive towards animism, to ascribe every place and every thing with a personality. There’s a strange parallel with the sadness at the heart of ’Toy Story’, where this great love between person and object must always remain unstated.

(Though this did lead to one of the few complaints I could make. The Doctor seemed almost as indifferent as the House to the deaths which occur. Of course he is angry about the distress call scam, but even so...)

I am on record as having an antipathy to the Tardis being made the focus of the story, previously insisting “it works best as a Narnian wardrobe, enabling another adventure then sitting quietly in the corner until its end.” Of course there need to be firewalls against its use as a deus ex machina device, but there’s more to it. With it’s bigger-on-the-inside business, it is like a microcosm of the Whoniverse - it needs to be strange, unpredictable and seemingly infinite. When fans try to map it into a foolish consistency they erode one of the most vital ingredients of the show, it’s mystery, and kill the thing they love.

So it was splendid to see Tardis space presented as ceaselessly mutable; creating, changing and destroying rooms like files on a computer. This is an object lesson in the way you do continuity on a long-running show; past events can be evaporated into never-was at any point, without so much as a backward glance, but can be brought back without comment just as quickly. (Isn’t that the way we live our lives, after all? Don’t we rework the meaning and significance of past events according to what we’re doing now?)

In general, Gaiman gave us the upside of fannish writing – putting in things for other fans, but never to the degree that the general audience would notice they were missing something. Even the comparatively recent moment of bringing back the previous console worked this way, for only Amy and Rory step into it. Like any new audience member, they have never seen it before, so can’t start talking about things the viewer knows not of. (Meanwhile some of us oldsters were making mental references all the way back to ’Edge of Destruction’!) There was even a gag about running through corridors, transformed into something genuinely frightening.



Like the junkyard setting and its patchwork people, the whole thing was cobbled together from parts. ’The Bride of Frankenstein’, ‘2001’ (both the HAL plotline and the hotel room ending), the Avengers episode ’The House That Jack Built’, ‘The Shining’... I probably missed some in the headlong rush of it all. But, unlike other episodes we might mention, rather than recycle all these it combined them into strange new arrangements – it was collage, not facsimile.

My fears over Gaiman were ultimately unwarranted. A great concept was the focus for a good story, not a replacement. Stuff happened. People did things, went places and it all led to a resolution. Above all, it set the right tone - it was a tale of reckless adventure and cheerful absurdity. It probably all falls apart the second you stop to think about it, so let’s not. The love between a madman and his box may be integral to the show, but that’s only a means towards realising its very core. Gaiman has described the Tardis as “a door to adventure.” For ultimately, what this show is is a love affair with adventure...

Saturday, 14 May 2011

GIG-GOING ADVENTURES: ASIAN DUB FOUNDATION (MUSIC OF RESISTANCE)

Brighton Dome, Sat 7th May, part of the Brighton Festival.
(Photo taken in Berlin by Libertinus.)


It is not normal practice to start a gig review with what the reviewer saw on the telly the night before. But bear with me...

The night before, this reviewer watched a documentary on the telly about Primal Scream. At one point Bobby Gillespe asserted “the great thing about us is that we’re not really a band.” He then broke off, unable to quite articulate what he meant.

What I think he meant was that they were more a collective. A band ends up with a guitar solo and a keyboard line on every track because they have a guitarist and a keyboard player, and they want to keep their turf. A collective is amorphous, free to float in and out of every territory that interests it. (The irony being that for long periods Primal Scream have been just a band, and it usually led to the tiredest of rock and roll clichés. They needed to break from those mooring to do anything worth listening to.)

I’ve now seen Asian Dub Foundation more times than I can actually remember, including (unusually for a laggard like me) relatively early in their career. Despite the collective-sounding name, I thought of them as a band in the best sense of the word – a lean and efficient machine, a bunch of guys united in a common purpose, driven to what they were doing. (“An Asian fights back, can’t afford to be meek/ With your back against the wall you can’t turn the other cheek.”)

But when they lost Deeder, their original frontman, quite literally on the eve of the millennium, they kind of lost their point - in the way a knife might lose it’s point. Key member Chandrasonic, effectively the Jerry Dammers of the band, was still aboard. But from that point they had collective-ness thrust upon them...

This led to what Homer Simpson calls a “crisotunity”, throwing them into things they might never otherwise have attempted. I thrilled to their live soundtrack to ’The Battle of Algiers’, premiered in 2004 at this very venue. But I remember that night above their gigs, which were no longer hitting as hard as they used to. It’s like it was hard for the collective to turn back into a band. So, given this night came with something of a concept, I wondered who would show up - band or collective?

Proceedings open with some spacey music, complete with violins, set to a video recording of a speech by Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. All very collective-like...

...only for things to explode with passionate fury. Turns out they now have a new frontman, Al Rumjen, to hold things together. (Unbenownst to me, he was even on the previous album.) The tracks were almost all new to me. But it’s the most intense I’ve seen them since the early days.


 It also turns out that their new release, ’A History of Now’, as part of it’s themes of refugees and globalisation, comes replete with guest stars. And we get all those guest stars tonight – Chinese violinists, Romany singer Kerieva, Indian drum troupe the Ministry of Dohl, a chap called Flutebox (who somehow seems able to beatbox and play the flute simultaneously) and others I think I am forgetting.

The result is a kind of win-win situation. The live unit of the band keep it forever tight and focused, the ceaseless parade of guest stars keep it fresh. They’re hitting you ceaselessly, but from ever-new angles. It’s like they’ve become band plus collective.

Another point worth emphasising... this is not the product of dilettantes, parading a self-conscious eclecticism, like that party trick where someone juggles three incongruous objects. It sounds a seamless blend, the musical corollary of their antipathy to closed-minded racism. This is underlined by the rhythm section, a combination of turntable beats and live Indian percussion. It became surprisingly hard to tell one from the other, several times I thought a beat music be electronic only to realise it was being supplied live.

In a fitting gesture, the guest stars played their own set on a small stage in the bar afterwards, sometimes separately, sometimes jamming with each other. Like an over-spilling glass, there was simply too much energy to keep inside one set list...

Nazis have Screwdriver. We listen to Asian Dub Foundation. Which side would you rather be on?

From Paris, last month...

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

DOCTOR WHO: 'CURSE OF THE BLACK SPOT'

Plot spoilers ahead, so there be!!!


Well, I was pleased it wasn’t ’Pirates of the Caribbean.’

Well, obviously it was. It was made entirely because of the popular film series, and was bumped up the season schedule in order to coincide more closely with the latest installment’s release. (Audaciously, it’s precisely one word away from duplicating the name of the first film!)

But if that’s the sort of thing that bothers you, then this is the sort of thing that bothers you. This is a show that has made off with others’ treasure a thousand times. It’s even stolen from pirates before! As Robert Holmes used to say “all you need is a strong, original idea. But it doesn’t have to be your own strong, original idea.”

No, I feared this because I thought the show would try and emulate Hollywood again. And whenever it tries that it sets itself a losing game, giving up everything that makes it idiosyncratic for a special effects arms race which it can only lose. Moreover, the style of ’Pirates of the Caribbean’, a theme park ride with Screen Guild membership, lurching from one high-concept set-piece to the next, would most likely lend itself to the show’s worst instincts. And is a TV set, even in these widescreen days, really big enough for the larger-than-life Cap’n Jack and the Doctor?

It didn’t really do that. Of course, it was equally frivolous. Amy donning her Pirate Queen costume so early on was a signifier. It’s here to play with the pirate dressing-up box; the cutlasses, the treasure, the mutinies, the planks for walking and... oh, yes... the black spots. But that’s just the way you do pirates. They pretty much are their paraphernalia.  There’s ‘revisionist’ Westerns, war films and Victoriana stories, conceived to ditch the clichés and genuinely convey the era. I can’t think of a single pirate story like that. No-one cares what they were really like. (They were actually all libertarian communists. No, really!)

Instead it decided to rip itself off. A base under siege, a plot conceit taken wholesale from ’The Empty Child’, Rory dead again... oh, wait... not. Which isn’t plagiarism or theft, it’s zombie cannibalism. This show is fast becoming like that Marx Brothers scene, where they have to saw off bits from the train they’re riding, to feed them to the engine and keep the self-same train going. For the sake of a gag, I’d call this episode becalmed. But to be honest it was more mired.

Nice bits included:
-       the Doctor running through several theories on the back of each other, instead of just coming up some smartypants breakthrough when we clock up forty minutes;
-       Rory’s seduced/ possessed babblings;
-       Lily Cole so looking the part you wondered if it was built around her.


 Some particularly rubbish bits:
-       The Tardis being “sick”. Did that make any sense at all?
-       The Doctor and pals waking up on the alien ship unnoticed by the Siren when she had everyone else trussed up. (See above.)

Things they should have done but didn’t:
-       Lost the Cap’n’s tiresome ‘atonement with the child’ subplot and have the crew fret and finally mutiny over whether their treasure “be cursed” or not. (About which they wouldn’t be entirely wrong.)
-       Dress Amy up as a “cabin boy,” for her safety or some similar contrivance. Not only would that have played up the panto, it would make the only two women in the macho pirate’s eyes the siren and the dutifully dead wife. With the pricking fingers, drawing blood and sheathed swords we already have some fairly obvious fairy tale style symbolism. We even have the Doctor’s “Freud would say you’re compensating” line. (No Rory dressed up as the dame though.)
-       Make the Siren/Nurse a mollycoddling kidnapper, keeping the crew in stasis for their own protection. A well-intentioned adversary, but then they’re always the worst kind. (Half of them are only in for pricked fingers after all...)

Will things carry on in this self-cobbling way? Treading-water sessions strung between the event episodes, watched by dutiful fans only for the few clues to the through-line? I have never been much of a Neil Gaiman fan, but am trying to be hopeful for next week. After which, I am looking forward to the two-parter by the guy who wrote ’Fear Her.’ [/sarcasm]

...and as for that through-line, I think I’ve hit on it. The Doctor strips the Silence of their powers, so they can be observed at all times. Then they take out a super-injunction on him and the whole thing’s useless... 

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 clichés 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.