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Paul Gauguin has been dead for more than a century and the art world still isn’t sure what to do with him. In 1910, seven years after the French painter died penniless, syphilitic, and alone in French Polynesia, British artist and critic Roger Fry tried stuffing his work under the umbrella of Post-Impressionism, showing him alongside Cézanne, Seurat, and van Gogh. The problem: According to Fry, this new art eschewed narrative, literary references, and myth—where Gauguin relied on great heaping doses of all three.
Attempts to understand the art through the artist’s biography didn’t help much, either. Here’s Gauguin’s life in a nutshell: He lost his money; he abandoned his family; he moved to the tropics and had sex with underage natives. No matter how beautiful and strange the paintings are—and in person, they surely are, full of curious color choices, startling transitions, and sinuous lines—these simple facts make them more difficult to love.
Finally, attempting to make sense of Gauguin through historical context leads one to conclude that he’s a byproduct of the golden age of colonialism, perpetuating through his work the myth of the languorous yellow-skinned savage, lounging topless in the flowers, or the Happy Negress, barefoot, poor, and swaddled in colorful cloth. Everyone agrees that Gauguin is important to the history of art, but given these unsatisfactory takes on him, it can be hard to suss out why.
Originating at the Tate Modern and now on view at the National Gallery of Art, “Gauguin: Maker of Myth” is the latest attempt to unpack the artist, and it follows a familiar curatorial strategy: Try reconstructing a modern artist so that he looks contemporary. To this end, guest curator Belinda Thomson emphasizes Gauguin’s reliance on narrative, his cross-cultural mash-ups of different codes and images, and his creation of an outsized celebrity persona. The makeover is not particularly convincing, but the show is nonetheless a welcome opportunity to see Gauguin’s freak flag fly in 100 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper.
Gauguin’s use of narrative—or at least familiar tropes—makes him a very different sort of painter than, say, Cézanne, an artist with whom he was lumped shortly after his death. There were reasons the two were shown together, though. Unlike the Impressionists, both artists used heavy contour lines. Impressionist painters like Monet were mainly interested in the action of light across surfaces, and accordingly remade the world into a field of splintered colors in which the edges of objects melt or break apart.
Objects get pulled out of shape in Gauguin’s world, but they don’t dissipate. Take “Portrait of Meijer de Haan by Lamplight” (1889), for example, a painting in the first room of the show. Gauguin has rendered his Dutch artist friend’s bulging forehead and nose with some sensitivity to observed light and shade. But de Haan’s hand is stylized, transformed into a horned serpent wriggling under his fiery orange moustache. A bold, curving shadow frames de Haan’s face and echoes the hand’s serpent shape. It’s a confusing marriage of naturalism with over-determined lines and broad single-color expanses.
Cézanne gave his objects heavy outlines, too, but they’re not the loosey-goosey illustrational type Gauguin used. Both artists also created topsy-turvy spaces—paintings in which objects look like they should spill out of the frame and into the viewer’s lap. In “Portrait of Meijer de Haan,” two books seem to hover in the middle of the picture as the table’s edge drops away from them; a lopsided bowl of apples sits pitched at an impossible angle in the lower left-hand corner.
But whereas Cézanne’s tables would organically curve this way and that, Gauguin’s table is a straight line: It bisects the canvas diagonally, appearing more as a design decision than an observation. The objects are merely suspended in front of it. In a similar fashion, in the storybook-like painting “Still Life With Three Puppies” (1888), instead of sitting on a tablecloth, the cups, fruit, and three tiny dogs lapping up milk appear to float in front of a vertical drapery.
Cézanne’s spaces reflect the artist’s desire to stitch together disjunctive observations into one continuous image; this idea led to Cubism. Gauguin, however, was not interested in fractured perception. His art described fractured consciousness, seeing past, present, and elements of myth all at once.
Gauguin’s art looked backward through Western tradition as much as it groped forward—and across cultures—for new ways of seeing. “Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling With the Angel)” (1888), for example, takes a trick from the pre-Renaissance European playbook: Praying Breton women stand in the foreground, in close-up. Again we see some degree of naturalism in a face or two, but most striking is the way Gauguin has reduced their elaborate white headgear, making it rigid abstract sculpture.
The background is an intense field of red in which two distant, barefoot figures paw at one another. None of the figures in the foreground looks directly at the wrestlers, and it becomes clear that the background is a different order of reality: not physical, but mystical. Gauguin’s paint-handling may seem modern, but his narrative device—showing external and internal worlds in the same pictorial space—dates back to devotional diptychs from the 15th century, in which contemporary patrons were shown occupying the same physical space as visions of biblical events.
This fracturing defines Gauguin’s Tahitian pictures, too. “Te Pape Nave Nave (Delectable Waters)” (1898) shows four Tahitian women in the foreground; all face away from one another, and float on a patch of orange-red earth. Across the purple stream behind them, a shrouded figure in a darkened grove stands next to a blue idol, which strikes the pose of a Hindu deity. Does this painting stitch together two separate scenes? Three? Four?
In “Te Rerioa (The Dream)” (1897), two seated women stare off into space. In the distant background, a man on a horse travels along a path; in the foreground, a child sleeps in an elaborate cradle—based on a bowl Gauguin saw in New Zealand. Does one figure dream the rest? Gauguin claimed not to know the answer himself, but it’s clear much of the picture does not depict the visible world.
In both pictures, Gauguin’s cultural references are as incoherent as they are far-flung. The artist often threw together tablets from Easter Island, friezes from Indonesia, and vessels gathered in New Zealand as if they belonged to the same people.
His version of Tahiti—or Martinique, or New Zealand—is equivalent to the ancient Greek Arcadia, or the Christian Garden of Eden. Many Tahitian paintings depict the nativity, or the last supper, or something like these stories. It’s actually a Western fantasy world with exotic window-dressing, ignoring facts on the ground: We see few or no men, and little backbreaking manual labor.
Gauguin belonged to a long line of hucksters and fabulists, and was appealing to a fin de siecle colonialist—and perhaps distinctly French—willingness to suspend disbelief regarding all things “savage.” He often referred to his own “Indian blood” to explain his special affinity with other cultures; the artist had family in Peru, but this hardly made him part-Inca.
Gauguin’s contact with other cultures allowed him to reinvent himself. But it’s hard to equate Gauguin’s celebrity with that of contemporary artists. Toward the end of his life, Gauguin wanted to return to France; his friend Georges-Daniel de Monfreid advised against it. “You are at the moment that extraordinary, legendary artist who sends from the depths of Oceania his disconcerting, inimitable works,” de Monfried wrote, “…you enjoy the immunity of the great dead, you belong now to the history of art.”
This was not an analysis of Gauguin’s celebrity as something Warholian, an end unto itself to be exploited during his life. This was fame as a romantic, fatalistic fantasy, the rewards of which his works could only reap after his death—which came a year later.
Ultimately, Gauguin’s work makes him look more like a 19th century opium dreamer than a 20th century formalist. While the way Gauguin painted may have liberated subsequent generations of artists, the story he told about Tahiti was a fantasy projection that said more about French dreams of empire than about native culture. Gauguin seems to have largely accepted Western stereotypes, or at least fervently wished them to be true. We can’t reconstruct Gauguin as one of us, as a harbinger of post-modernism, because in his own time, he was already something of a relic—as misunderstood, marginalized, and doomed as the cultures in which he tried to lose himself.