Detail from Nevermore O Tahiti 1897; Courtauld Gallery, London

The Trouble With Gauguin

8th October 2010

Hard on the heels of the rampantly popular Royal Academy exhibition on Van Gogh comes one on his old sparring partner Paul Gauguin, at Tate Modern. Jack Watkins goes to to see if a modern master, whose lofty reputation has lost a little of its gloss in recent years, still shapes up…

If the Broadway playwright Neil Simon had been born a century earlier, he might have been tempted to transfer the setting of The Odd Couple to rural France, framing it round the tempestuous liaison of Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh. With their contrasting approaches to painting, yet correspondingly combustible temperaments, it certainly would have set the stage alight. While their professional association may have been creatively stimulating, when the pair shared a studio in Arles, things eventually became so supercharged that they ended with Van Gogh chasing his older friend round the room with a razor blade.

Even in death, it’s rare to see one of the pair mentioned without reference to the other. But if Van Gogh died in obscurity in 1890, while Gauguin was lionised both in his own lifetime and after his death in 1903, they are viewed differently now. Van Gogh’s critical and popular standing has scarcely ever been higher, but Gauguin is barely a four-letter word in some quarters.

You can’t help but detect that a certain modern moralistic stance accounts for the reversal. Both painters lived for their art, sure enough, but whereas Gauguin mythically seems to have had a fair amount of fun while he was at it, swaggering around bragging about how great he was and pleasuring lots of native girls, Van Gogh’s biography reads as if he was suffering nearly all the way though. Isn’t that, some might think, how it’s supposed to be with artists?

In fact, even if the pathos of Van Gogh, from the distance of time, makes him easier to like, the more obviously alpha male Gauguin endured periods of wretchedness and poverty too. And it’s a total misreading of his art to dismiss him, as some do, for a Western touristic approach to the work he did in the South Seas. In the end, it comes down to the fact that Van Gogh’s pictures, for all the demented fury of the brushstrokes, are simply prettier – all those starry nights and rippling cornfields – than Gauguin’s large-limbed ladies, flat perspectives and thickly simplified bands of colour.

You walk into Tate Modern’s Gauguin blockbuster – the first London exhibition devoted to him for fifty-five years – to be greeted by a room of self-portraits. Here we go, you might think… was there no end to this man’s egocentricity? Among the battalion of self-portraits on canvas, here is one he did for a Toby jug, and there’s another of him as severed head, à la John the Baptist. What a martyr I am for my art, he’s implying. There are paintings of him saintly or cerebral, and others that are corporeal or demonic. In a later room, in his Christ in the Garden of Olives, he has even used his own face for that of Christ’s, for this tender contemplation of the moment of facing death. As his friend Emile Bernard once said, the trouble with Gauguin is that it’s all about Gauguin.

You may start to soften as you reach the second room. Clovis Asleep and The Little One is Dreaming, two pictures of his children – caught in the land of Nod, dreaming children’s dreams – are the first hint that Gauguin could be soothing and even charming. But Two Children reminds you that he had no gift for, or rather, no interest in conventional physiognomy. The infants are as stiff and eerily unreal as wooden dolls in a 19th century kindergarten.

Inside the Painter’s House, produced as early as 1881, is a rare glimpse of Gauguin’s more conventional style in his younger years, when he was combining a career in stockbroking with burgeoning ambitions of becoming a full-time artist. But, by and large, he didn’t do ‘normal’. Even a Gauguin still life is strange and other-worldly. An icon disconcertingly hovers in the background of a vase of flowers, and a weird, slit-eyed little girl peers at a bowl of fruit, their shades reflected in her greenish complexion – such works raising genre painting out of the yawningly predictable.

The two regions, Brittany and Tahiti, that were famously the settings for some of Gauguin’s most inspired works, are sumptuously represented here. In both these locations, he went in search of ‘primitives’, and was dismayed to find in the South Seas that Christian Western influences had largely extinguished the ancient Polynesian traditions. He’s been accused of seeking to reimpose the image of the unsophisticated savage, a form of cultural colonialism of his own. But what matters in painting is truth of mood surely, and these works have it in spades. The simple thing to do is just to stand before them and let their sheer beauty, their rich, unnaturalistic colours, sweep over you. In Tahiti, Gauguin’s images became even more striking and saturated in colour, but in Brittany they were bold enough. Breton Girls Dancing and Breton Shepherdess seem relatively muted, but look at Haystacks in Brittany, and Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin. They thrill with their colour, and in their jettisoning of accurate perspective and scale, and of petty essentials.

It was in admiring Black Pigs, a work not especially celebrated, that I discovered something apparent in Gauguin’s paintings when seen in the flesh that is absent when seeing them reproduced in books: the quality of stillness. It is there in the farm girl with her head on her chin, and even in the static, grazing pony. And once you connect with this serenity and calm, you go on detecting in other works, again and again: in Nevermore O Tahiti, for instance, and in Te Faaturuma (Brooding Women), and in Manao tupapau – figures lost in inner worlds and the silence of their thoughts.

Gauguin was fascinated by atmosphere. “Always the silence,” he wrote, after arriving in Tahiti. “I understand why these individuals can rest seated for hours and days without saying a word, and looking at the sky with melancholy.” There’s no lie in paintings that capture these moments so hypnotically, surely.
The final room in this exhibition is called Earthly Paradise, and features later works when, though by now racked with financial worries and the onset of syphilis, Gauguin remained entranced by “fabulous Tahiti… these women whispering in an immense palace decorated by nature itself”. Was he perhaps now ready to accept that paradise was lost, though? In one of his most atmospheric works, the twilight-set The Ford (The Flight), there’s a sense of impending doom in a heavenly setting, with a ship preparing to leave its mooring as a hooded horseman of death moves in. Gauguin himself was dead two years later, of heart failure, aged 54.

Earlier this year, the Van Gogh Royal Academy exhibition made quite a stir and so, after this reposte, how do the old rivals measure up? I’d rate it a high-scoring draw, end-to-end stuff, with no call for penalties… and certainly no chasing round the room with razor blades.

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