He changed painting for ever, but Paul Gauguin’s despicable lifestyle presents a challenge to our appreciation of his greatness, says Alastair Smart.
Life’s not easy as a Paul Gauguin fan. You are on the defensive too much to be effusive. Gauguin was both a syphilitic paedophile and an artist more important than Van Gogh. See the problem? Foul man, fine artist. Some say our knowledge of the former should change our opinion on the latter. Others, myself among them, think otherwise.
The trouble we aesthetes have, though, is that in Gauguin’s case – just like Van Gogh’s – his life was so dramatic it’s hard not to read the biography on to the art. Indeed, much of the power of his most famous works – the Polynesian-babe paintings – derives from our uncomfortable knowledge of the context they were created in. Although rendered innocent and unerotic, these brown-skinned nudes were more than just Gauguin’s models; they were his sex slaves, too.
Feminists have justifiably given the Parisian a good hammering down the years. After dumping his wife and five kids, Gauguin upped sticks to Martinique, Brittany, Arles (where he spent nine notorious weeks with van Gogh in 1888), and finally the South Pacific islands of Tahiti and Hiva Oa. He took three native brides – aged 13, 14 and 14, for those keeping score – infecting them and countless other local girls with syphilis. He always maintained there were deep-rooted ideological reasons for his emigration, that he was quitting decadent Paris for a purer life in a fecund South Seas paradise, but one wonders how pure things really were in the hut he christened La Maison du Jouir (“The House of Orgasm”).
In short, posterity has Gauguin down as a sinner, and his posthumous punishment is a lack of exposure. The forthcoming retrospective at Tate Modern is the UK’s first major Gauguin show in 50 years.
Contrast that with the mass pilgrimage to the Royal Academy last winter for The Real Van Gogh. A marketing masterstroke, that exhibition showed the Dutchman’s works alongside letters he wrote. Avidly we looked for the story behind the art, for a glimpse into the mind of a genius, almost disregarding the very reason we proclaimed genius to begin with: the paintings themselves.
But perhaps Van Gogh’s art isn’t enough any more. Yes, it was unique, and brilliant in its day, but those boots, sunflowers and cypress trees have become rather old hat. They’re fit for greetings cards, fridge magnets and hotel-wall reproductions, but no longer for inspiring the wow factor. Gauguin, by contrast, was too much of a cad in life to ever reach such heights of commodification in death. Besides which, his outrageous range of colours is poorly served by reproduction. They have to be seen to be believed – which makes the Tate show all the more exciting.
It’s often held against Gauguin that he couldn’t draw (they said the same about Titian) and that his figures are crudely shaped (well, it never did his disciple Picasso any harm). But who cares about that when his colouring is so sumptuous?
Inspired by the flat fields of unmodulated colour in Japanese prints, Gauguin cast realism aside in a quest for more profound meaning. He had no time for naturalistic appearance or the Impressionists’ shimmering evocations of it: that was too superficial. He believed, rather, in “the music of painting”, in finding a harmony of intense colours to reflect the deeper harmony of the universe. Think of 1897’s meditation on the course of human life, D’où venons-nous?, where the complementary golds and browns of Tahitian bodies are set against the complementary blues and greens of the tropical glade.
With his patches of strong, undiluted colour, it was but a small step to Matisse – and the rest, as they say, is art history. But how sincere were Gauguin’s claims of taking painting to a higher realm? Many peers distrusted an ex-stockbroker who had turned to art only in his late twenties. “He’s not a seer, he’s a schemer,” one-time mentor Camille Pissarro railed, arguing that Gauguin never really lost his capitalist streak; that with his paintings of sun-soaked islands, Gauguin was just cashing in on the Parisian bourgeoisie’s fondness for all things “other”.
As its title, Gauguin: Maker of Myth, suggests, the Tate show will tackle this charge head-on. Far from revealing any deep truth, were Gauguin’s images of the South Pacific really just contrived, faux-exotic picture postcards? The case for the prosecution is strong – take Noa Noa, his journal about life on Tahiti. The occult local legends it relates were actually lifted from a Dutch ethnographer’s accounts of the 1830s. Likewise, his renderings of “Polynesian” statuary were largely inventions, inspired by photographs of South-East Asian art he brought from France.
Gauguin had never been a stranger to mythologising, of course. Part of our perception of Van Gogh as a mad, tortured genius stems from Gauguin’s tales of their troubled weeks together in Arles – most notably that of the Dutchman “charging at” him menacingly, “razor in hand”. And Gauguin was a fine self-mythologiser, too. As a self-portrait such as 1889’s Christ in the Garden of Olives exemplifies, he even embraced the role of Christ: martyr for a better type of art that no one else grasped.
So, was he a fraud? The romantic in me likes to think not. Besides, moving for good to a hut halfway around the world isn’t really the sort of thing you do lightly. If he was deceiving anyone with his idyllic island pictures, it was most probably himself. To Gauguin’s disbelief, Tahiti wasn’t the “august land” he claimed or had expected – there were too many French missionaries for that.
In some paintings, one senses another dark truth surfacing, too: that however hard he tried to “go native”, Gauguin always felt like an outsider, unable to share in the islanders’ profound mysteries. Consider The Ancestors of Tehamana (a portrait of his wife, wearing a high-necked missionary dress). Tehamana sits in front of a frieze that depicts the alien combination of a Buddhist idol, indecipherable glyphs and two evil spirits. She smiles at us, sort of, with all the enigma of a Polynesian Mona Lisa. Beneath the Westernised clothing, and in all but the sexual sense, it seems Gauguin found her impenetrable.
His pioneering work with colour and form make the Tate retrospective long overdue. Along with Cézanne, Gauguin must rank as one of the two fathers of modern art, and one hopes he’ll now re-emerge – with characteristic brilliance – from his Dutch sidekick’s shadow.
Last year, German art historians voiced the theory that Van Gogh’s ear had actually been hacked off by Gauguin with his fencing sword. Nonsense, of course, but it struck a chord with the public, partly because we’re engrossed by every detail of the turbulent maestros’ coming together, but more because it reflected the distinct images we have of them. In the popular imagination, Gauguin is considered the sinner to Van Gogh’s saint. A Rolling Stone to Van Gogh’s Beatle. The 1956 movie Lust for Life captured this perfectly, with Anthony Quinn as the brutish Paul opposite Kirk Douglas’s fragile and unhinged Vincent.
It’s as though we feel a collective guilt for our forebears’ failure to spot Van Gogh’s genius while he was alive, and we assuage it by blaming that bounder Gauguin for all the heated clashes that hastened the Dutchman’s demise. He was a graceless survivor, and everyone prefers a heroic victim. No matter how majestic Gauguin’s canvases, it’s hard finding sympathy for the devil.
- Paul Gauguin: guilty as charged (guardian.co.uk)
- Our love for Van Gogh costs Paul Gauguin dear | Jonathan Jones (guardian.co.uk)
- Gauguin uncovered (independent.co.uk)
- Gauguin’s double entendre nearly trips up the Tate Gallery (telegraph.co.uk)
- Paul Gauguin at the Tate Modern: desire, death, myth (telegraph.co.uk)
- Gauguin: Maker of Myth at the Tate Modern, review (telegraph.co.uk)
- Major exhibition of Gauguin’s work (bbc.co.uk)