Review: The portraits of ‘Gauguin’ reach the big screen, #MeToo issues and all

Detail from the painting 'Merahi metua no Tehamana' (1883) by Paul Gauguin, featured in the documentary 'Gauguin From the National Gallery London'
Detail from the painting “Merahi metua no Tehamana” (1883) by Paul Gauguin, featured in the documentary “Gauguin From the National Gallery London.”
(Gauguin Films)

Following the 2018 release of the poorly received biopic “Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti,” starring Vincent Cassel, French Postimpressionist Paul Gauguin now gets the nonfiction treatment with “Gauguin From the National Gallery, London,” a diptych of sorts divided between a traditional biographical documentary and a tour of that institution’s exhibition of portraits by the artist, nearing the end of its run.

The film, produced and directed by Patricia Wheatley, opens with a compelling hourlong overview of the man who described himself as a “savage” and an outsider long before he visited the South Seas, where he eventually did his most famous and controversial work. The seemingly self-aware artist is brought resonantly to life in letters read by British actor Dominic West.

At less than 30 minutes, the exhibition tour, directed by James Norton and hosted by art historian Kate Bryan, is a brisk look at highlights from the London show and feels more like a teaser than a substitute for those unable to make the trek to Europe.

While the film emphasizes Gauguin’s complex artistic merits, it also address the more troubling aspects of his life and career with scholars and contemporary artists discussing his work through gender and post-colonial political perspectives. His more ardent critics may be disappointed, however, that his depiction of and relationship to the people of French Polynesia aren’t even more front and center.

“Gauguin From the National Gallery, London” is part of a welcome trend toward importing the arts, including opera and live theater, to cinemas. The film is too brief to be revelatory and is not the virtual museum experience it appears to aspire to, but does serve as a strong introduction to the artist for the uninitiated and offers a deeper dive into Gauguin’s portraiture, the most telling fact of which may be that his most constant subject was himself.


'Gauguin From the National Gallery, London'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes

Playing: Starts Jan. 21 in limited release; also Jan. 27-28, as part of Laemmle Theatres’ Culture Vulture series