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Gauguin & the autumn arts review Art of a modern man Lucy Vickery on Tate Modern’s wide-ranging retrospective
Gauguin: Maker of Myth Tate Modern 30 September – 16 January 2011 I
n October 1897, in disconsolate mood, Paul Gauguin wrote to his friend Daniel de Montfreid, looking ahead to ‘a time when people will believe I am a myth, or rather an invention of the press’. Five years later, shortly before the artist’s death, a letter from De Montfreid clearly indicates that the myth-making machine was already gathering momentum: ‘He [the art dealer Vollard] can already perhaps scent how your celebrity will become uncontested and universal.’
Fast-forward more than a century to Tate Modern’s unveiling of its autumn blockbuster — the first major showing of Gauguin’s work in London for more than half a century — against a backdrop of press stories peddling the legends and murky half-truths that cling to this Protean, contradictory figure. From the banal — the cliché of a man in the grip of a midlife crisis ditching his family and taking off in the name of art in search of a lost and ultimately illusory Eden — to the exotic: shape-shifter, Satanic seducer, sophisticate-savage, hell-raiser and allround thorn-in-the-side.
Given all this biographical baggage, the work may well have been in danger of being eclipsed, in a very 21st century way, by the artist’s colourful life. But the exhibition’s curator Belinda Thomson embraces what might be a crushing legacy and turns it round to make a strong case for Gauguin’s contemporary relevance. We are invited to consider his work in the context of the artist as master storyteller, with a seemingly infinite appetite for selfinvention; in other words, a thoroughly modern man.
The first room, which comprises selfportraits that span Gauguin’s career, sets the scene by providing a powerful introduction to some of the faces fashioned by the artist for his viewing public. His distinctive features provide the foundations for the construction of various personae — the earliest work in this room, ‘Self-portrait’ (1885), shows Gauguin wearing the black fez associated with bohemian artists and intellectuals. In ‘Self-Portrait Dedicated to Carrière’, he reinvents himself as a Breton fisherman;
and elsewhere he morphs into suffering Christ and horned devil. The artist’s profile is even discernible, I fancied, in the slab of meat at the centre of ‘The Ham’ (1889), a remarkable still life that amply demonstrates Gauguin’s gift for making startling the mundane and the quotidian.
The range of the show is breathtaking. Touching images of the artist’s sleeping offspring brought to mind Paula Rego, another painter who is driven by the need to tell stories. In ‘Clovis Asleep’ (1884), the child is watched over by a squat brown object whose presence could be benevolent or malign. On the blue wall above hover what might be angels but might equally well be malevolent creatures from the deep.
At the heart of Gauguin’s work, steeped as it is in enigma and paradox, is a brave and relentless quest to find a visual language through which to make tangible the unseen. Inevitably, then, this is an exhibition that leaves many questions hanging in the air. But Gauguin was a smart cookie, who no doubt understood the psychology of playing hard to get. And perhaps it is that which keeps us coming back for more.
the spectator | 16 October 2010 | www.spectator.co.uk