The one thing everyone knows about Gauguin and his work, is that he made a number of trips to Tahiti where he produced some of the most beautiful paintings of the day, representing the people of the islands with great care and love. That his love for some of the women of the islands was somewhat questionable, can make him an uncomfortable figure for modern audiences and at times over shadows his work, but in this, the first ever exhibition dedicated to Gauguin’s portraits, it is the quality of his work, his genius and his view of himself that shines through.
Portraiture was his most plentiful genre of work, through it he questioned, developed and tested ideas, styles and issues. So this being the first such exhibition is perhaps surprising. The show is a joint exhibition between the National Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada where the exhibition was first shown. The curator on behalf of the National Gallery is Christopher Riopelle and whenever he’s involved you know the exhibition is going to be engrossing, lively and a true pleasure to view (just as he is to listen to if you ever get to tour an exhibition he curated with him). And it’s true here. It explores the unconventional man that tried to be conventional, an artist with a stormy relationship with other artists, and his time in Tahiti and the commercial nature he try to develop with his work.
We find and learn so much more about the man and the artist. He traveled far wider than just Tahiti through his life, something we learn before even entering the first room thanks to the map above the shop in the entrance space. Tahiti was only towards the end of his life; he lived much of his early life in Peru (his father dying en route), and before becoming a stockbroker in Paris, he joined the Merchant Navy. How could such experiences not impact how he saw things, inspired him and opened him up to new ideas, cultures and techniques?
The exhibition opens with a resume of his portrait career shown via his self-portraits. With his self-portraits you don’t get to know the man but to see what he wants us to think of him and the ideas he sees himself connected to. Only early on in his career, when he was trying to be a more traditional and respectable family man, did he paint that traditional self portrait of artist with easel. Instead the notion of him as a suffering artist is often conveyed through his incorporation of the figure of Christ, or even depicting himself as Christ. His self portrait has an allegorical nature to it, and no more so than with Self Portrait near Golgotha, where he is in Polynesia dressed like Christ and sets the hill of the cross in the background. The room also contains Anthropomorphic Pot where Gauguin has used the medium of clay to create an allegorical, contorted and pained self portrait where it’s as if he is doubled over in the fires of hell suffering for his work. If anything, all this suffering for ones work does give you the sense of a man that was somewhat narcissistic and that his sense of persecution was something of an idee fix.
Certainly Gauguin was not a conventional man of the time, as much as he perhaps wished he was. He became a successful stock broker, making a conventional marriage a wealthy Danish woman, and collected Impressionist art, while painting in his spare time and being taught by Pissarro, who’s style and influence is very much evident in the portraits of his family in Room 2. He even exhibits, at the invitation of the Impressionists, with them. After the stock crash he moved to Denmark, then leaves the family there before returning to France to paint full time. The problems and separation within the family unit can be felt in the portraits of his wife and children. A dream like quality is in them which pulls him away from the Impressionist style, and marks, in many ways, Gauguin’s surrender to his nature and being non conforming or traditional in the way he lives his life. He move to a painting colony in search of the primitive culture untouched by modern life – perhaps a search inspired by the financial crash and his early exposure to such world’s and cultures that were not slaves to the modern world of finance? Portraits of his early, young, artist followers at this time make up rest of Room 2 and you see compositions involving the bright flowers from Japanese prints that were sweeping France and influencing artists.
The most interesting aspect of the exhibition is how his friendships with two Dutch artists impacted on his portraiture and its form. The lesser known Meijer de Haan inspired him intellectually rather than stylistically resulting in a portrait of him carved from an old oak tree that’s full of allegorical illusions and jokes; the branches and the bird on his head (a pun on De Haan’s name in English). As you move through the exhibition these non portrait portraits, where Gauguin takes the genre off the canvas, or surrogate portraits where he removes them from it entirely, feature increasingly heavily as he bends and tests the boundaries of what a portrait must be.
His most famous artist friend was the second of the Dutch artists, Van Gogh. It was, unsurprisingly given the temperaments of the two artists, a turbulent but highly creative relationship; it was in Gauguin’s house that Van Gogh painted his sunflowers that now hangs in the National Gallery’s collection, and after a fight between them both that Van Gogh cut off his ear. Van Gogh’s style is unquestionably evident in the portrait of Madame Roulin, while Gauguin’s drawing of Madame Ginoux is clearly recognisable having been given to Van Gogh to use as the base of three paintings. Their shared work went further though, with the development of surrogate portraits. Van Gogh’s famous wicker chair is a self portrait, built from his objects. It’s like removing the Ambassadors from Holbein’s The Ambassadors and leaving just the objects that represent them and who they are, it’s the idea that someones space and belongings are as much a representation of them as their own image. Van Gogh also painted, as a sister piece to his wicker chair in the Yellow House, the red chair of Gauguin as a portrait of his friend. While the friendship ended violently, Van Gogh still had a looming influence on Gauguin even after his death; in the penultimate room the sunflowers of Still Life with ‘Hope’ are a surrogate representation of the Dutch artist.
Tahiti is of course not over looked, Room 4 is all about his first trip to Tahiti. While he did love the islands and the people, it’s clear that he firmly has the Paris art market in mind when creating his pieces there. He takes images and ideas that were known in France through photos and applies them to his work. Almost all his Tahiti work is made up; Arii Matamoe (The Royal End) was not a painting of the decapitated head of the dead King as he made out, but the head of an executed criminal and has closer links to the Peruvian mummies he encountered in childhood than anything to do with Tahiti. This fake story was entirely for the Paris market who would recognised such a trope, given the historic executions of French Monarchs, and he hoped this would help him sell in the Paris and earn much needed money; he was kept going in no small part thanks to Degas, who was almost solely buying his work to ensure Gauguin had some form of income. His hope though, that being know as the French artist who had been to Tahiti, did not particularly help sell his work.
The last portrait in the exhibition is by far the simplest image, a self portrait of Gauguin at 55, completely striped back, poor, diseased and a failure in his eyes, there is nothing but him, nothing he uses to try and challenge the form or push an agenda or idea of himself. It is the perfect end to an exhibition that reveals so much about the man and his complexities, after all in the end he was human, frail and fragile like all of us, inescapably carrying his past.
Gauguin Portraits at the National Gallery until 26th January 2020
Tickets available here
Feature Image –
X8286, Paul Gauguin, Self Portrait with Yellow Christ, 1890-1891, Oil on canvas, 38.1 x 45.7 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Acquired by the Musées nationaux with the participation of Philippe Meyer and a Japanese patron, coordinated by the newspaper Nikkei, 1994 (RF 1994-2)(RF 1994 2). © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / René-Gabriel Ojéda