Gauguin Portraits @ the National Gallery

This is a spectacular exhibition, bringing together a range of masterpieces by Gauguin from collections around the world to give you a really deep, rich sense of his boundary-breaking artistic attitude and achievement.

The exhibition is beautifully staged and arranged, with a generous free booklet giving a paragraph or two of informative explanation about each of the show’s 55 exhibits, many of which are mind-blowingly beautiful – the whole thing only slightly spoiled by the nagging political correctness of the audioguide.

Portraits and self portraits

For a start there are two categories: self portraits and portraits of others, which can themselves further be divided into paintings and sculptures.

Gauguin painted a lot of self portraits and it is clear that right from the start he dramatised himself, creating and embroidering various strands of self-mythology. This took several forms. He played on the fact that, as a child, he had been taken to live in South America, and thereafter claimed to have Incan or Peruvian blood, being especially proud of his strong hook nose. In the later 1880s, he also took to deliberately comparing himself to Christ, as a victim, martyr and outsider – as in the extraordinarily strange and vivid Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889).

What appeals to me in all these paintings is his use of paint, the heavy visibly brushstrokes reminiscent of Cézanne, the strong black outlines a bit reminiscent of Degas, and the counter-intuitive use of stark colours (blue trees, red hair) which anticipates the Fauves.

Christ in the Garden of Olives by Paul Gauguin (1889) © Norton Museum of Art

Gauguin’s careful nurturing of the image of himself as outsider, primitive and ‘savage’ went into overdrive as a result of his two trips to French Polynesia (1891-1893, and 1895 till his death in 1903). Reporting back by letter, or arriving back in Paris 1893-5 he justifiably presented himself as a man with a unique knowledge of, and identification with, the more backward ‘primitive’ natives, and yet…

It’s a striking fact that during both his South Sea stays it seems that Gauguin stopped painting self portraits, striking evidence that the numerous self-portraits he made in Europe were made for social reasons:

  • as gifts to other artists
  • as calling cards to dealers and potential buyers
  • and to fashion an image of himself, to create a brand with which to position himself within the Paris art market

Props

And what vivid and effective branding he created. Haunting images of the hook-nosed outsider, an image we see again and again in this exhibition.

Self Portrait with Yellow Christ by Paul Gauguin (1890-1891) © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / René-Gabriel Ojéda

But this time, look at the background.  Once you look, you see the backdrop isn’t just a room or wallpaper, but is entirely filled with two artifacts. On our left as we look, is the yellow Christ, itself bizarrely coloured. And on our right what looks to be a version of the primitive-style ceramic pot in the shape of a face which is also included in the exhibition.

The point is that, above and beyond the image of himself, Gauguin is using props – and not casual props, but extremely significant and meaningful props. Here is the artist caught between Europe and Christianity and the savage and primitive. Even more simply, between light on the left, and dark on the right.

You or I are free to interpret their precise meaning at our leisure, but there is no doubting the intention that the chosen objects charge the painting.

Symbolism

Gauguin’s habit or tendency or aim in placing and positioning props and (quite often) text into his paintings, is part of the reason he’s sometimes seen as a forebear of Symbolism, the movement in art and poetry and prose which aimed to hint or suggest at deeper and, generally, hidden meanings.

It’s at work in even his earliest paintings. Take this apparently innocent painting of his son, Clovis, asleep. Innocent until you really start looking at it — at which point you notice three things.

Clovis Asleep by Paul Gauguin (1884) Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

One: the post-impressionist use of very broad, highly visible brushstrokes, laid on in rows, and using vivid colours.

Two: the tankard. The longer you look at it the more you realise how grotesquely over-large it is, as if it is growing, looming, almost threatening.

Three: the swirling patterns on the vivid blue wallpaper. What are they, birds, fish? Or… are they creatures emerging from Clovis’s dreams? Are they dream animals playing on the wall?

Tahitian meanings

This brings us to the numerous paintings he made on his two stays in the Pacific, where this technique of symbolic props and writing come into their own.

Every aspect of this painting is eerie with meaning. For a start it is surreal to see a Tahitian woman dressed in the ankle to neck dresses forced on them by the French Christian missionaries. Especially when you connect the covered woman with the painting of the naked woman apparently on some kind of frieze in the background – the women in the foreground is not only totally covered but unnaturally still, sitting in a missionary-approved polite posture; while the woman in the frieze is not only mostly naked but has her arms raised as if in some meaningful gesture, and appears to be interacting with at least two other figures we can glimpse. And all of that is going on before you begin to interpret what look like golden letters on the upper wall, and smaller black letters written at the bottom left.

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

In other words, like many of his self portraits, this painting is brimful of meanings, overflowing with significant poses, prose and props.

So one of the immense pleasures of the exhibition is being able to walk between the paintings and see how Gauguin develops this visual language of symbolic props.

The commentary goes heavy on how his travels to the South Seas were in pursuit of ‘authenticity’, in quest of a more simple, pure and unsullied form of life. Unfortunately, as any cynic might have told him, by the time he arrived the early ‘unspoilt’ life of the natives was destroyed by Christian missionaries, by European laws and trade and money and capital.

But I suggest we see his travels to Tahiti and then on to the Marquesa Islands as a quest in search of more props and meanings. It’s as if he had created a vivid, unnaturalistic post-impressionist style, a style of vivid powerful primary colours and people drawn in blocky outlines but now… he needed to find a society which suited his style more than boring, commercial Paris.

They tell us he went in search of Paradise. But I think he also went in search of a society and culture which was somehow answerable to, adequate to, appropriate to, the visual style he had forged for himself.

Portraits without people

The curators pick up on the tremendous meaning Gauguin was able to pack into his paintings through the use of props, and in particular the use of other works of art, or his own works of art, in the background — by devoting an entire room to portraits without people.

For if a person’s personality or character can be indicated by the props you place around them (and around yourself) then why couldn’t you indicate a person via props alone? Have nothing but props in a picture to convey the person you’re depicting?

This is the rationale for the exhibition having a roomful of still lives of flowers which, in greater or lesser measure, portray people, people who just happen to be absent from the picture. My favourite among these was a wonderfully vivid vase of colourful flowers behind which, if you looked hard enough, you can see a vague grey portrait of Gauguin’s lifelong friend Meyer de Haan. Once you’ve noticed it you realise its presence suffuses the image.

Even more comprehensive is the still lifes Gauguin painted of sunflowers. In 1888 Gauguin spent a famously intense and tumultuous nine weeks staying with Vincent van Gogh at the latter’s Yellow House in Arles in the South of France. It ended badly with Gauguin storming out but the working, painterly and psychological relationship went so deep that years after van Gogh’s death, in 1890, Gauguin sent a letter from Tahiti asking a friend to send him packets of French flower seeds, including sunflowers, for him to grow in his garden And as late as 1901 and 1902 Gauguin painted a series of still lifes with sunflowers which can be taken as a very moving tribute to his wonderful friend. But note the use of props – the painting in the top left is Hope by Puvis de Chavannes, and the bowl the flowers are in appears to be a hand-carved Tahitian bowl with two carved figures. Vincent is here by default, but so are various other threads and themes in a tangle of meanings.

Still Life with ‘Hope’ by Paul Gauguin (1901) Private collection – Milano, Italy © Photo courtesy of the owner

Carvings and ceramics

There’s a lot more to be said about the paintings, about how he did portraits of useful and important people in the Paris artworld, or what the portraits he did alongside van Gogh show about their respective approaches, or how the images of good friends changed over the years, let alone the world of ideas and issues, from comparative religion to under-age sex which are thrown up by the brilliant South Sea paintings.

but the revelation of the exhibition for me was what an absolute genius sculptor Gauguin was. I was shattered by this massive and chunkily carved portrait of his friend, the Dutch painter Jacob Meyer de Haan. Apparently Gauguin carved it out of a piece of waste wood he found lying around, part of which still shows burn marks, which makes it ten times more attractive to me, as I love art made from waste or industrial products. But, for me, it is quite simply one of the most electrifying and brilliant sculptures I have ever seen.

Bust of Meyer de Haan by Paul Gauguin (1889) © National Gallery of Canada

The exhibition includes several ceramics, including a terrific ‘portrait vase’ of the wife of Gauguin’s friend, Émile Schuffnecker, as well as bronze casts of plaster faces he made of Tahitian friends or lovers which show Gauguin’s restless and experimental side.

But it was the carvings which came as a complete surprise to me and blew my mind. Here’s a carving in a different style, on a polished wood, using a ‘primitive’ style to portray the characters from the the poem by Stephane Mallarmé, Symbolist poet and supporter of Gauguin, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which the artist brought back from the Pacific in 1893 and gave to the poet in person.

L’Apres-midi d’un faune by Paul Gauguin (1892)

There were half a dozen other wood carvings, including a haunting portrait of his young ‘wife’, the fourteen-year-old Teha’amana, and several casts of ‘savage’ masks. But it was my first real introduction to the fact that wood carving, woodcuts and ceramics took at least as much of his energy in his last decade as painting, and it made me want to see a lot, lot more of all of them.

Conclusion

A wonderful bringing-together of rare works of art from collections around the world, which really bring out what an innovator, and what a restless creative force Gauguin was. Huge and enormous pleasure from all parts of his career, in a surprising range of media, including not only oil paintings, but drawings, prints, ceramics and wood carvings, which also allow really penetrating and interesting discussions of what a portrait is, what a portrait is for, and how Gauguin deliberately burst open all kinds of traditional constraints on the genre, to create something utterly new and thrilling.

Tehura (Teha’amana) by Paul Gauguin (1891-1893) Coloured wooden mask © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Gérard Blot


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1 Comment

  1. C A Clarke

     /  December 27, 2019

    I think, after seeing these and other Gaugin works, that he had his own internal world that vibrated to symbols and ‘statements’ or connections. In the South Seas, he painted ‘totems’ and darik statues of dark gods that do not actually exist in Polynesian culture — certainly not in the Marquesas, although they have an abundance of carvings and gods and spirits. It is as if he wanted them to have these ‘totems’, and so he put them into his paintings. I also think he used the xscuse of the vivid southern colours to rip into his developing palette: he loved these great inverted or surprising juxtapositions of colour and Tahiti, Marquesas etc gave him permission.

    Reply

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