The glory of Gauguin

When Picasso and Matisse were inventing modern art, three names were on their lips: Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin. Cézanne supplied modernism’s pictorial structure, Van Gogh its expressive colour, and Gauguin – well, what did Gauguin supply?

Tate Modern’s new exhibition calls Gauguin “maker of myth”. What he was after was visionary content, something psychically deeper than impressionism’s flickering sensations. He was not the first to look for it in versions of the exotic – French artists from Delacroix in Algiers to Rousseau at the Jardin des Plantes preceded him. But he was exceptional in seeking in the South Seas to reinvent his way of life so that man and art became fused: a living legend – or a canny publicity job.

“Civilisation is falling from me little by little,” Gauguin wrote from Tahiti. In Tate’s first room, a parade of self-portraits charts his studied evolution as romantic savage. As a bohemian in a black fez, he is a conventional impressionist. In decorative Breton waistcoat he is wilder, playing up his dark complexion, lazy hooded eyes, hooked nose. In a wood carving “a monster who looks like me is taking the hand of a naked woman”. By 1893-1894, in “Portrait of the Artist with Idol” and “Self-portrait with Manao Tupapau”, Gauguin is a demonic seducer: sultry, world-weary but careful to include, within these canvases brought home from Tahiti, images of his latest barbaric, sensual sculptures and paintings.

“Manao Tupapau” is among the most provocative. Opening with it, Tate nails Gauguin’s real significance: not as a formal innovator but, in a Europe sick of its cultural limitations, as the force unleashing the primitivism that made modern art possible. Subtitled “The Spirit of the Dead Watching”, “Manao Tupapau” portrays Gauguin’s 14-year-old Tahitian lover Teha’amana stretched naked against a lush purple background. Manet’s transgressive odalisque “Olympia” is the model – Gauguin took a copy to Tahiti as a talisman. But whereas Olympia stares back aggressively at us, a feminist heroine, Teha’-amana is the opposite: depicted face down, buttocks exposed, her vulnerability enhanced by a ghostly black figure – “spirit of the dead” – she is a haunted victim.

Tate showcases, too, an important variation on this picture, “Nevermore O Tahiti”, a beautiful harmony of dark skin on yellow drapery, with a rich panel behind the somnolent, passive girl. “With a simple nude I intended to suggest a certain savage luxuriousness of a bygone age,” Gauguin boasted. “Neither silk nor velvet ... creates this luxury, but rather the paint surfaces enriched by the artist’s hand. Solely the imagination of a man has enriched this interior with his fantasy.”

So Gauguin was proudly a dreamer; indeed, frieze-like compositions such as “Tahitian Pastoral” here recall the willowy reveries of the Pre-Raphaelites. Yet his 1906 memorial show with Tahitian nudes was pivotal: within a year it inspired Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles”. Gauguin thus became a hinge on which the 19th century swung into the 20th. It is the complexities and contradictions of his position as proto-modernist that Tate commandingly surveys.

Born in 1848, Gauguin came late to painting, after a career as a stockbroker. Tate smashes superbly the fiction that he trod an easy path; an exquisite series of zincographs on canary yellow paper featuring landscape and genre scenes such as “Human Misery”, luminous “Noa Noa” woodcuts and delicate watercolours show the precision, attention to detail, care for materials and long apprenticeship that Gauguin pursued through poverty, isolation and the collapse of his marriage.

Early forays as an Impressionist in the 1880s – “Interior, Rue Carcel”, with its lonely empty chair; “Vase of Peonies”, unbalanced by the inclusion of a cropped Degas reproduction – are dark, awkward, overworked. But enigmatic portraits of his children, such as his daughter Aline guarded by a strange doll in “The Little Dreamer” and his son slumped alongside a glowing wooden vessel, mysterious counterpart to the child’s head, in “Clovis Asleep”, already show Gauguin’s obsession: not Impressionist surfaces but the inner life – making visible the invisible.

Brittany’s wide fields, cliffs and peasants, romanticised as “medieval”, provided the motifs for the flat patterns of colour and ornamental lines with which Gauguin left Impressionism behind around 1888. “I find the wild and the primitive here. When my clogs resonate on this granite ground I hear the muffled and powerful thud that I’m looking for in painting,” he wrote. “Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel)”, depicting black-clad Breton women praying, wearing yellow-white coifs like giant helmets, was a breakthrough. “I have just painted a religious picture, very badly done but it interested me,” Gauguin told Van Gogh. “I have achieved in the figures a great simplicity, rustic and superstitious.”

The stylised “Breton Calvary (The Green Christ)”, and the crucifixion surrounded by Breton women “The Yellow Christ” – Jesus’s features resemble the artist’s – were painted after Gauguin’s sojourn chez Van Gogh, and influenced by his simplifications of form and brighter palette. Gauguin for his part urged Van Gogh to paint from his imagination. For all their disputes, both were religious artists, answering 19th-century materialism with symbolic statements about human destiny and emotion.

For Van Gogh, fidelity to what he saw and felt was the moral anchor of his work. Gauguin, cherishing the romantic ideal of the Noble Savage, was by contrast concerned with dreams and fables demonstrating in paint “what a stupid existence is European life”. By the time he arrived in 1891, Tahiti was wrecked by French bureaucracy, missionaries and drink. Gauguin painted his idyll anyway, because “these nymphs, I want to perpetuate them, with their golden skins, their searching animal odour, their tropical savours”. And so he did, in ravishing hues of mango, peach, cherry, pink. A harem of half-naked women disport themselves in “Nave Nave Mahana (Delightful Days)”. Girls offer tropical fruit and flowers in “Eu Haere Ia Oe (Where Are You Going?)”. A pair of reclining melancholy black nudes in “Aha Oe Feii” was sent home to European viewers with the challenging subtitle “What! Are You Jealous?”

Gauguin, like Van Gogh, risked his life for his art; he died prematurely in the Marquesas Islands in 1903. But unlike Van Gogh, he was not a painter of “terrible lucidity” but of fantasies. Especially when contrasted with the Royal Academy’s recent Van Gogh show, this fascinating exhibition makes clear that Gauguin belongs with the Symbolists of the fin de siècle. He mythologised the primitive with histrionic brilliance, but also with a sentimentality and nostalgia that exposes the limits of his truth-telling – and, in the end, of his greatness.

‘Gauguin: Maker of Myth’, Tate Modern, London to January 16,; National Gallery of Art, Washington, February 27-June 5 2011. Sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch

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