Surely an exhibition entitled ‘Gauguin Portraits’ should have been housed at their next-door neighbours in St Martin’s Place? However, the National Gallery have been busily borrowing over 50 works from all over the world, with half a dozen from private collections, never before seen in the UK. But why so few nudes? Are they not portraits? In the exhibition, one of his last paintings, Barbarian Tales, features three figures, of which two are topless Polynesian girls and the third, a demonic portrayal of his old friend Meijer de Haan. The other is Exotic Eve, an oddity on loan from the Pola Museum in Japan, which is a watercolour of a young, naked girl, standing in a Tahitian version of Eden. How is that a portrait? Has the National Gallery suddenly got cold feet about his exploits in South Polynesia, ahead of an avalanche of criticism? In reality, when Gauguin arrived in the South Seas in the late 1880s, Tahiti was already colonised and Christianised, and women did not wander about half-clad. Instead, they wore Christian missionary gowns, which was not what he either expected, or wanted. However, he persuaded these girls to pose for him in an idealised setting close to nature, which meant nudity and an innocence they possessed before the French arrived to influence them through ‘civilisation.’ He also saw himself as a ‘savage’, standing outside the European tradition. ‘I am a savage,’ Gauguin wrote. ‘and civilized people suspect this.’ He was a stranger to the truth when he claimed that his aquiline nose was a sign of ‘Inca blood’, as his great-grandfather on his mother’s side was Peruvian, but it transpired she was a Spanish colonial settler rather than an indiginous Incan descendant. That did not stop him promoting his ‘savage’ side and ‘otherness.’
The exhibition opens with a number of self-portraits, including some depicting him as Christ near Golgotha and in the Garden of Olives and one with a Yellow Christ on the cross in the background. The little pocket guide captions the latter by stating, ‘By expanding the terms of the traditional self-portrait Gauguin affirms his strong belief that the world can only be perceived from a subjective point of view.’ It then adds an extraordinarily fatuous remark. ‘Everything an artist makes is, in effect, a self-portrait.’ Wow! Gauguin came to painting relatively late in his life, having been trained as a stockbroker, only painting in his spare time. He exhibited a landscape at the Paris Salon in 1876, and then met such luminaries as Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne and the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. He gave up being a stockbroker when the market crashed in 1882, and took up painting full-time. He moved his wife and five children briefly to Rouen to save money, but his Danish wife Mette moved back to Copenhagen with their children, where Gauguin eventually joined them, taking on odd jobs to earn money. The following year, he visits the artists’ colony in Port-Aven in Brittany, where he painted the locals in their traditional dress, some of which are on display. He met the painter Charles Laval, with whom he travelled to Panama and Martinique, and he then was introduced to Vincent van Gogh and his art dealer brother Theo in the South of France, and he stayed and painted with Vincent from October until December 1888, when they had a monumental row. With sponsorship from the French government, Gauguin set sail from Marseille to Tahiti, arriving in the capital Papeari, which he found too ‘French’, and moved to the other side of the island. He seemed to have forgotten that he was married with five children, when he met and ‘married’ a 13-year-old Polynesian girl, named Teha-amana Tehura, who posed for the great cocksmith on numerous occasions. The following year he returned to France, where he remained for 2 years, exhibiting his Tahitian work, which was critically acclaimed, but resulted in few sales, and then going back to Brittany, as well as visiting Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges, working all the time on his woodcuts for his book about his time on the islands, Noa Noa, meaning ‘fragrance’ in Tahitian.
Without appearing to be too judgemental, Gauguin was a complete and utter bastard, literally abandoning his wife and children to chase after exotic Tahitian girls, even having a very public affair in Paris with a half Indian, half Malayan girl in her teens, known as Annah the Javanese, as well as cheating his estranged wife out of an inheritance. He returned to Tahiti, then the Marquesas Islands, via New Zealand, and took up with other young girls, fathering several children. His health was failing, possibly due to cardiovascular syphilis, and he had had his ankle shattered in a drunken brawl in Brittany. The injury, an open fracture, never healed properly, and debilitating sores were erupting up and down his legs. In spite of the pain, he continued to paint, producing his last self-portrait in 1903, aged just 54. He was an important figure in the Symbolist movement as a painter, sculptor, printmaker, wood engraving, ceramist, as well as a writer, and his influence on Picasso with his interest in primitive art, was colossal, but being Picasso, he would play down Gauguin’s nudge that sent him down the road to Primitivism.
Until 23 January 2020
Admission £22 Mon – Fri. £24 Sat & Sun.