Monday 18 October 2010

Gauguin at Tate Modern

Gauguin: Maker of Myth
Tate Modern, London

Laura Cumming
The Observer
Sunday 3 October 2010

There is a painting in this momentous exhibition that stops you dead. It shows a large chunk of ham on a salver. An ordinary enough subject, except that a fierce orange wallpaper is blazing behind it, sending out sparks, and a glass of black liquid is skulking beside it. And reflected in that chilly surface is the beginning of a row of pale shallots issuing across the canvas like mysterious speech bubbles.

You look for their source, which is none other than the ham itself, now beginning to resemble a severed head. The picture turns out to be as circular as the salver. What had seemed a seductive still life, as sensuously painted as anything by Manet, becomes its opposite: a living head still arguing with everything around it in this astonishing outburst of a picture.

The Ham feels practically on fire. No reproduction can prepare you for its energy and colour. And the same is true of nearly every work in this show, which spans Gauguin's career from the early days in Paris to Martinique, Brittany, Tahiti, Arles and eventually the Marquesas, where he died of syphilitic heart failure in 1903 at the age of 54.
This is the first full-dress show in Britain for half a century. People who know the legend of the stockbroker turned artist who abandoned his family and took the banana boat to Tahiti for free food and sex, may never have had a chance to see the paintings at all. And even for those who have, there will be revelations: the portrait of Gauguin's sleeping child from Copenhagen, anxious dreams unfurling in the air around him; the spectral riders approaching a cobalt Styx in Moscow's The Ford (Flight); the self-portrait as a vermilion-haired Christ in the garden of olives, flown in from Palm Beach, Florida. This is Gauguin's pictorial imagination at full stretch, the show of a lifetime.

Now you could view this mass gathering of almost 200 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures as resounding proof of Gauguin as the pioneer modernist, his statuesque Tahitians forefathers to Picasso's early figures, his tendrils and curlicues twining their way through Matisse, his wild and dissonant colours a palette for the fauves. This is the exemplary Gauguin, the conceptual painter who decouples line from description and colour from nature, the sophisticated savage who ferries his art books to the jungle, whose line is so supple, strong and incisive, sometimes soothing, sometimes whipping his earthy forms into shape.

This version of art history, as many of us received it, conveniently bypassed all sorts of embarrassment, from Gauguin's brute behaviour to that of his frequently inscrutable paintings.

But what's so remarkable about this show, as the title declares, is its emphasis on Gauguin as maker of myths, narratives and tall stories, notably his own well-burnished legend. The opening gallery sets the scene, superbly condensing both the life and the art in a sequence of self-portraits. From the young loner in his garret, a conventional archetype in a conventional style; to the prophet unrecognised in Paris, a Tahitian odalisque glowing behind him in the cold studio; right up to the shorn and spectacled invalid staring out of the blue twilight of his days. It is not just that Gauguin changes, it is that art changes too, in his intimidating hatchet of a face.

All the aspects of Gauguin's life that might have been side-stepped are thus examined through the art – the boorishness, drink and grotesque self-pity; the absurd outrage, on arriving in Tahiti, that Christian missionaries had got there before him so that he would have to mock up his own carved idols, smuggling them into the paintings as ancient artefacts.

Here are the carvings, the mythical friezes and the acid caricatures of friends and foes. Here are the thumbnail diagrams of deliberately hazy allegories. Tate Modern even has the carved façade of Maison-du-Jouir, Gauguin's last house in the Marquesas with its lewd, screw-you name intended to affront the local clergy. Above all, this focus on narrative makes one look more keenly at the content of the pictures, which sometimes seems buried beneath the pressure of colour. And this is a crucial opportunity.

For the elements of Gauguin's mystique are apparent enough: a portentousness of pose or motif, a figure catching one's eye with a look of grave interrogation, a woman foursquare and impassive as an oceanic statue. Figures distanced, isolated, backs turned or in profile, squatting, crouching, lying face down or flat on their back, stiff-limbed as dolls. Strange fruit, haunted clearings, statues that appear alive, living people as immobile as statues: and all carefully placed in a time-stopped Eden.
But what is really going on? That raven perched above the Tahitian girl in Nevermore: is it a harbinger, a real bird, a heavy allusion to Edgar Allan Poe? Why is this woman repudiating that woman? What is happening in this silent standoff? The mysteries are sustained in Gauguin's titles, those fragments of Tahitian dialect that materialise on the canvas like overheard speech one can never understand; those ambiguous questions (mortal or rhetorical?): what are we? where are we going?

Writing about the "deliberately sombre" colours of Nevermore, Gauguin observed that "sadness is my key", which will be news to anyone who associates him with chromatic heat and hedonism. But his true intent was never for our simple delight. Against all the optical pleasures of his art runs a tide of darkness and pain; and within that a strain of sardonic humour. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.

Gauguin, big drinker, hams it up with a self-portrait in the form of a Toby jug, eyes closed as if dozing. But there are rivulets of blood pouring down his face, as if to say go ahead and drink my blood: everyone else does. And look at The Loss of Virginity, with its naked girl laid flat beneath a crimson landscape, a torn blossom in one hand, fondling a vulpine critter. It has to be a joke, doesn't it, a parody of violation and shame? But perhaps Gauguin is serious – exaggeration in the service of truth.
The tone of his art is so hard to catch. But there is no sense of duplicity here. Rather it feels as if Gauguin, irrepressible, cannot help his perverse and rebellious tendencies. The famous Yellow Christ, with its peasant women worshipping a crucifix outdoors in the Breton fields, sings with pure high notes of colour that may imply grace, or even ecstasy. But then there's that little man, Brueghelesque, legging it over the wall in the background in low pursuit of some ladies.

Despite the heavy perfume of ease and eroticism some associate with Gauguin, these paintings are among the most thoroughly calculated in art. Look at the reproductions of Delacroix, Toulouse-Lautrec and Cézanne conspicuously inserted into self-portraits and still lifes; look at the overt homage to Hokusai and Degas. Gauguin's instinctual look is sophisticated, hardwon. And that dichotomy is repeated in the canvases themselves. Up close, the paint is pressed flat into the warp and weft: laborious, dry and even crude. But stand a few inches away and somehow these brushstrokes resolve into images of supersmooth power.

This is a stunning show, almost overpoweringly various in idea, theme and medium. But the focus upon narrative gives it, so to speak, a guiding light. Once you have seen Gauguin depicting himself as hero, martyr, even as Christ betrayed, you begin to see that his art is a continuum, a proliferating mythology in which all people and places are equal. Bible stories may be transposed to Brittany or Polynesia, Tahitian girls can double as goddesses or water sprites so that life's experience may be expressed as timeless, primitive, essential. For Gauguin the myth-maker, all stories are true.

1 comment:

  1. M e ha gustado mucho lo que has escrito sobre Gauguín , ayuda a entender las pinturas de este artista. Mis felicitaciones.Saludos. Victoria.