Saturday, 1 August 2020


National Gallery, London

”I close my eyes to see.”
- Gauguin

Getting Your Own Good Side

The 2011 Tate retrospective on Gauguin being both comprehensive and incisive, the National smartly decide to focus on something in particular. (There’s a clue in the title.) So for the sake of convenience, let’s imagine that Tate’s still so fresh in our minds that we only need to look for new stuff here.

This being a portrait show and this being Gauguin, naturally there are self-portraits. In fact we start with a room if them. And the Tate show, that started the same way. There’s no other way to go into this, really.

We’re soon told “everything an artist does is in effect a self-portrait”. Even if you were disposed to disagree, you wouldn’t be likely to start from here. It concedes “his writings were emphatically self-centred”, but adds “making himself the chief subject was more than mere narcissism”. At which point you envision the word “discuss” magically forming out of the air. He may well have closed his eyes to see, but he still had a fixation for being seen. As one example, for his ’Christ in the Garden of Olives’ (1889) he modelled his Jesus on… yes, you guessed. Yes, he did.

’Self-Portrait’ (1185, above) is another artist-at-work image. Not only does that angled beam to his right suggest an artist’s garret, he looks hunched against it rather than sitting straight, as if its presence has gone on enough to be impregnated in his posture. Then the frame of (presumably) a canvas hems him in from the other side. He’s wearing a coat indoors. A shaft of light crosses across his face and drawing hand, a face looking pale and wan. Unlike the blocks of deep colour Gauguin’s known for, the only bright tones are found on his artworks within the artwork. Everything else is shades of brown, white and green. This is Gauguin pre-Gauguin, still under Impressionist influence.

But not for long. While ’Self-Portrait’ was unmistakably the self-portrait of an artist, ’Self-Portrait Dedicated to Carriere’ (1888/9, above) is equally obviously the self-portrait of Paul Gauguin. There might as well be a speech balloon saying “accept no substitute.”

This time he fills the frame, particularly with that shovel-sized chin, the confining beam replaced by a window view. Rather than gaze off mysteriously into the distance, thinking artist’s wistful thoughts, he firmly meets the viewer’s gaze. The composition seems to focus in on his left eye, everything else arranged around it. And if the colours aren’t quite as full as they’ll become, they’re more vibrant. Compare the two greens of the wall behind him.

Last show I said “the primitive ‘other’ he fetishised was simply a construct of contemporary Western society – not a window onto another world but an unshaven looking glass.” A line I wrote before seeing ’Self-Portrait’ (1890, above). Has he painted himself in brownface? Effectively, yes.

He had spent part of his youth in Peru and, much like Jim Morrison later fantasising about being Native American, had come to believe he had Inca heritage. (Unsurprisingly, he actually came from Spanish colonialists.) In something he’d indulge more and more this is the quasi-positive view of the ‘savage’, a word he often used to convey freedom from inhibition, something to proudly proclaim.

So this is the dashing and swarthy savage of a matinee movie rather than the bestial monster or idiotic clown of more overt racism. He’s captured less precisely than the earlier images, as if less graspable by Western art. (Somewhat ignoring the inconvenient fact that this is still Gauguin painting Gauguin.) But that is no break, it just makes it the opposite side of the same coin.

Let’s fast-forward to Tahiti, the era he’s best known for. (Besides the forthcoming Academy exhibition is titled ‘Gauguin and the Impressionists’, so it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to fancy that will deal more with his early years.)

It’s noticeable the self-portraits lessen from now on. The show comments: “While in Tahiti, with the French public far away, Gauguin stopped painting depictions of himself.” But this was more tendency than iron rule. For example…

’Self-Portrait With Manao Tupapua’ (1893/4), with that jutting beam now swapped to the other side, looks like the opposite book-end to the first self-portrait. The previously pallid garret-dwelling artist is now bathed in the yellow Tahitian light. Beneath an intrepid hat, his expression exudes confidence and insouciance. And why should this be?

In times past, a chief occupation of artists had been painting flattering portraits of the wealthy. Gradually these were replaced by the camera and ’Hello’ magazine. These would often flauntingly display things they owned which would include, somewhat recursively, other artworks. Here Gauguin effectively paints himself into this tradition, his own great man and flattering portraitist, bringing in one of his most recognisable works - ’Manao Tupapua’ (1894). Unlike ’Self-Portrait’ he’s not painting himself as a painter but as a possessor, we’re expected to know that work is his and accept what it confers upon him.

The show devotes a room to ‘surrogate portraits’, some more convincing than others. ’Still Life With ‘Hope” (1901, above) gets its title from the reproductions on the wall. Unlike the previous illo, this time neither are by Gauguin himself, the topmost being ’Hope’ by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. (The other is a Degas.)

When Gauguin had gone to stay with Van Gogh in the south of France in 1888, as a welcome his room had been hung with the recently completed sunflower pictures, which has enthused him. The most famous of the series wasn’t painted till the next January, though it would seem to be the one referred to here. Its fame lies in it being almost entirely painted in bright yellows and oranges, with only a few touches of offsetting green. The resultant effect is dazzling.

The two prints may well be included as hints to lead us into seeing the sunflowers here as Gauguin’s take on another artist’s work. And the colour scheme could not be more sombre. Compare the two walls, Van Gogh’s vivid yellow which barely looks solid to Gauguin’s slew of deep orange browns. Moreover, while Van Gogh allowed some sunflowers to droop Gauguin permits none of of his to rise, even laying one out flat on the table. Van Gogh paints not just flowers but flowering, Gauguin does the opposite.

He’d gone to some trouble to paint this, having to send off to Paris for - and then growing - the seeds. And the motive was most likely a memento for his old compatriot, who’d died little more than a year after painting that famous work. Being a lowbrow type, it mostly reminds me of the Prince lyric: “All the flowers that you planted in the back yard/ All died when you went away”. De Chanannes had also died, in 1898, and part of Gaugin’s motive in including him might have been to place ‘Hope’ in those inverted commas. (Though the ever-obstinate Degas lived to 1917.)

Though of course Van Gogh had died nearly a decade before, and his clashes with Gauguin were one more thing which pushed him into breakdown and suicide, so why wait till now? The reason was, inevitably enough, egocentric. The displaced portrait of Van Gogh turns out to be a self-portrait twice removed. By this point his own health had been declining for some years, and this painting suggests he saw the end in sight.

If ’Self-Portrait With Manao Tupapua’ was the composition of ’Self-Portrait’ inverted, not a marginalised outsider but a proudly successful artist, ’Self-Portrait’ (1903) goes back to the face from the earlier work. He’s painted directly, in a collarless shirt, in soft pinks, off-whites and greys. Unlike all the earlier works in this sequence, even the very first one, there’s no sign of a persona. The gaze in the painting is the gaze not just of a painter but of this painter, weak (his eyesight was failing among much else) yet unyieldingly self-scrutinising. Seeing in this sequence makes it all the more affecting. He died later that year, aged only 54.

Colonialism And Its Discontents

And still on Tahiti…

Walking round this show I did start to wonder how we’d respond if Jeffrey Epstein was discovered to have been secretly painting, and found ourselves looking at works which showed some artistic value. There’s not a great deal of difference between that scenario and this, after all, besides the passage of time.

To briefly recap a story everyone already knows, shortly after arriving in Tahiti he took Tehamana as his ‘wife’ when she may have been no older than thirteen. (He would call her a “girl” in his writings.) He later abandoned the child with her own child, a trick he went on to play on others. Her “experience of their relationship is not recorded,” the show notes - perhaps dryly.

What’s significant is that the way Gauguin conceived of women and the way he conceived of Tahiti are effectively identical, so both are epitomised by his paintings of Tehamana. Each is defined by primitive ‘otherness’. But that’s not seen as a strangeness, something which challenges our comprehension. Instead Gauguin ‘feminised’ Tahiti, made it his wife, assumed its role was to provide for him things he wanted. Hence the apparent paradox of him travelling to Tahiti for inspiration, despite his “look within” credo. (As in the opening quote.)

See for example a more unusual focus on a Tahitian male. ’The Royal End’ (1892, above) was painted after witnessing a King’s funeral. Though, disappointed by what he’d seen, he simply made up something more to his liking. The lips, already accentuated in the stereotypical depiction of ‘the savage’, are made more prominent by the profile view. This is a culture chopped off at the neck and mounted like a trophy.

The show supplies two interesting biographical details. He first ‘saw’ Tahiti through a display at the 1889 World’s Fair, a West-friendly construction of the place. But also, in 1901 he moved from there to the more remote Marquesa islands. His motive, in his own words, was the feeling that colonialism - and in particular the Church - had robbed Tahiti of its cultural identity.

Of course the complaint that old places are ‘spoilt’ and new ones now need to be sought is more the attitude of the holiday-maker than the anti-imperialist. And significantly this coincided with his finally giving up on art sales in Paris, a return to France in 1893 not being the triumphant event he had imagined. So he’d slunk back to the South Seas, no longer frontiersman but exile. He was looking back at a broken bridge, and proudly proclaiming he’d burnt it himself.

Still, from this point his criticism of colonial rule did become more overt. On arrival, he got himself into a grudge match with the local Bishop, who beneath his pious proclamations was having some less-than-holy dalliances with his staff. Gauguin carved a totem of him as a snake-tailed devil, which he goadingly stuck on public show outside his house. (Somehow it’s survived and is included in the show.)

Those two events, the World’s Fair and the conversion to anti-colonialism, are a decade apart. Nevertheless there’s a clear contradiction between them, inside which the essence of Gauguin lurks. His loud railing against colonialism doesn’t counteract his implication in it. In fact it’s the reverse, we are best off seeing these battles with the Bishop as a projected blame game - castigating another for his own sins.

And one reason we can be sure of that is, if this comes to a head in Martinique, it was seeded in Tahiti if not before. ’Melancholic’ (1891, above) for example uses Tehamana as a model. She wears the modest, full-length ‘missionary dress’, so-called because they were what the Church tried to impress upon the local women rather than traditional clothing. Yet at the same time she’s barefoot.

That far-away look this does have much of the Romantic sense of the inscrutable allure of women, as featured heavily in the Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelite show. Yet there’s another and perhaps more interesting approach to ambiguity going on behind her. Is that a painting or a window view? The former would seem to lend more to the show’s preferred reading: “Gauguin possibly sought to evoke a mood of nostalgia for a way of life disappearing.” Tehamana’s in Tahiti. Logically, she should be able to see Tahiti out the window, or at least some portion of it. But the ambiguity raises a question. What if the real Tahiti’s now only preserved in art?

Gauguin, at least in this period, seems to have a dislike of interiors, often conveyed as confining to the point of being stunting. (The exceptions being when they seem more porous membranes to the outside world, such as the light bathing ’Self-Portrait With Manao Tupapua’.)

And this motif, of a painting of a figure placed before another painting, is established before Tahiti. The painting’s even larger in ‘Portrait of Madame Roulin’, painted in 1888 while he was still in France. Or perhaps further still.

Gauguin commented of his earlier ‘Vision After the Sermon’ (1888) that the background was formally separated because it existed only in the imagination of the foreground characters. Something similar is afoot with ’Tehamana Has Many Parents’ (1893, above), even if ‘imagination’ is being replaced by memory. Her whole past is lined up behind her, like she’s the living growth at the head of the coral. There’s the same ambiguity as ’Melancholic’, that background may or may not be literally present. But it’s best understood symbolically, as if her past is standing behind her.

There’s also a similarity to ’Young Christian Girl’ (1894, above), painted during his brief return to France and employing an unusual synthesis of Tahitian and Breton imagery. Both place a young woman before a backdrop, a separation enhanced by placing them both in so brightly coloured dresses. (And she’s in another missionary dress, not a native Breton costume.)

But the way this figure fills the frame, combined with her closed eyes and raised hands, recall votive art. We’re used to seeing Christian art where peripheral objects are placed around a main figure as a way of informing us about them, almost like cartouches in ancient art. And at the same time there’s more links between her and her background - the circles on her collar which are carried on past her right shoulder, the elongated paying hands echoed in the tall red trees. Perhaps, like her artist, she closes her eyes to better see what’s around her. If Tehamana remains linked to her past, she is associated with her world.

‘Barbarian Tales’ (1902, above) may be the projected guilt at its most extreme, depicting as a devil in Tahiti’s paradisiacal garden. Absurdly cross-dressed in another missionary dress, just to make it clear whose side this devil is on. He seems stitched into into the composition, as if he doesn’t really belong there. (Would anything seem absent or imbalanced if he wasn’t there?) And with the two other figures so otherworldly and oblivious to him, he looks poised to spill poisoned words into their unsuspecting ears.

The figure is one of Gauguin’s old painter compatriots, Meijer de Haan. What he did to deserve this dishonour isn’t clear, in fact by this point he’d been dead some years. The show suggests that by this point Gauguin was so isolated his companions had effectively been reduced to ghosts.

Gauguin’s growing critique of colonialism shouldn’t be seen as giving his story some sort of redemptive arc. Because his story hasn’t got one. But it is further evidence he was a great artist, even if less successful as a human being. Though it may have been a self-critique he could only express by displacing onto others, this doesn’t prevent his critique from having bite.

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