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October 21, 2010

Christie Davies is ravished by Gauguin: Gauguin: Maker of Myth at Tate Modern

Posted by Christie Davies

Gauguin: Maker of Myth
Tate Modern, London
30 September 2010 - 16 January 2011
Monday - Thursday 10am - 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)
Friday, Saturday & Sunday 10am - 10pm (last admission 9.15pm)

To call Gauguin a maker of myth is misleading, for he was so buffeted by sudden change from a young age that his identity must have been unsure even to himself. Being an artist was his only fixed point.

When he was a baby, one of France's regular political upheavals drove his father into exile and the father died on the boat to Peru, the land of Gauguin's mother's relatives. Gauguin as a child spoke Latin American Spanish and his family's equally sudden return to a strange France was yet another upheaval.

He escaped the horrors of a French Roman Catholic boarding school for would-be seminarians by running away to sea. Merchant voyages to Brazil were followed by service in the French navy in the Franco-Prussian war. What myth could be odder than such an actuality? Gauguin sought the exotic because he was himself exotic. It is his brief time as a prosperous stockbroker with a free-spending Danish wife that stands out as atypical. It ended with the French stock market crash of 1882 and his wife's insistence on returning to her family in Denmark. Gauguin again failed in business (selling French tarpaulin) in cold Copenhagen and her relatives in effect threw him out.

Gauguin retreated back into the exotic, recreating in wood and clay the images of his part-Peruvian mother's collection of pre-Columbian art and fleeing to the wilds of "primitive" Breton Finistère, the end of the earth, the peninsula that invades the Atlantic. Here the romantic French image of Brittany as what France had once been was imposed on peasants and fishermen who spoke a Cornish language unrelated to French. They would say:

Oui et non. C'est tout le français de cette maison.
Much of Gauguin's greatest work is focused on intensely Catholic rural Brittany, the antithesis of secular intellectual Paris. Gauguin hated and baited the Church but "once a Catholic…." His Breton masterpiece is Vision after the Sermon, Jacob wrestling with the angel, 1888. The square white headdresses of the Breton women (the only man present is the sermon giving priest, who has Gauguin's nose) confront a strong red background in which their dream of the theme of the Biblical scheme [Genesis 32:22-32] is only separated by a tree from a very real cow. In The Yellow Christ, 1889, he has the crucified Christ grow symbolically from the prayers of the Breton women of Pont Aven into the patterns of leaves of the autumn trees.

Gauguin portrayed Brittany in hard, decorative, unusual colours but he could not give it real sun. He had known the strength of the sun in Martinique and in Arles in Provence, where he briefly joined Vincent van Gogh in their stressful "‘studio of the south" but it was in Tahiti that he finally sought, found and caught up with it. Tahitian Landscape, 1891, has the same structure and blocks of flat colour as his Breton Harvest: Le Pouldu, 1890, which hangs next to it in the exhibition but now the tropical sun has allowed Gauguin to give full rein to his love of bright and striking colour.

Likewise the pale, naked recumbent woman, his seamstress mistress, on her back in the fields of Brittany in The Loss of Virginity, 1890-91, gives way to the warm brown of an alluring, unclad young Tahitian lying on her stomach on a couch in Munao tupapau, Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892. The rich tone of the latter's skin is emphasised by hints of red and by having her lie on a light but bright yellow blanket. The setting of Munao tupapau within fearful and mysterious beliefs about the ghostly was all that prevented it from being denounced at the time as indecent.

Today critics are taken aback only by the knowledge of Gauguin's sexual relations with the thirteen year old Tahitian girls he painted. Yet, not only was this congruent with the customs of the Tahitians, but was permitted by the laws of France. The age of consent in France at this time was 13. It had been eleven until 1863 and was only raised to 15 in 1945. Gauguin was not a monster but merely, like Roman Polanski, a Frenchman.

He was not a foreign exploiter and he edited a satirical journal Le Sourire, defending the local people against the arrogant decivilising mission of the French which was destroying local autonomy and traditions. Gauguin's representation of the Governor, General Gustave Gallet, as a sordid, sworded oaf clumsily riding a bucking rocking horse cleverly derides the man who brutally put down uprisings in the adjoining Society Islands in the 1890s. It is the most humorous item in the exhibition. Gauguin was a great caricaturist as well as a great painter, sculptor, potter, wood-carver and print-maker.

Gauguin had a striking gift for combining the abstract and the human. His pictures are disciplined blocks of wild colour but there is always a striking face, an implicit story or a mysterious landscape to which the viewer can immediately relate. Gauguin is perfectly positioned between the crass tellers of tales who preceded him and the abstract geometries of a later age. The Tate is to be congratulated on an exhibition that, through care and comprehensiveness, has paid proper tribute to his unique genius.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain.

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