A fresh look at Paul Gauguin

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Many artists and historians look on the painter Paul Gauguin as one of the founders of modern art. His work in the 19th century brimmed with innovation. He tried to paint with his mind rather than his eyes. He colored grass red and figures of Christ yellow. He played with perspective. His obsession with primitive peoples engaged and influenced Picasso.

Yet, as Gauguin specialist Belinda Thomson points out, the innovations that excited everyone 100 years ago “are not necessarily those that have the strongest appeal” in the 21st century. Old innovations do not surprise anyone; they turn into clichés instead. Gauguin’s paintings must be regarded differently now. They must be examined, Thomson says, for “their beauty and complexity.”

Thomson, an honorary fellow at the University of Edinburgh, has put together an exhibition that celebrates Gauguin not as a prophet of modern art but as a painter of beautiful and complex canvases. The show, called “Gauguin: Maker of Myth,” has opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., after a long and popular run at the trendsetting Tate Modern in London. Closing in Washington on June 5, it will be seen nowhere else.


Thomson was joined as co-curator in Washington by Mary Morton, the National Gallery’s curator of French paintings. Their exhibition demonstrates how Gauguin spun myths — often lies — about himself and his exotic travels to excite interest in his paintings and sculptures.

The show, in fact, does nothing to enhance the personal reputation of the painter. The art historian Paul Johnson, while extolling Gauguin’s work and idealism, once described him as “a self-indulgent scoundrel,” and there is much evidence for this on view at the National Gallery. But his egoism and gnarled spirit add much complexity to his paintings.

Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848 but spent much of his life outside France. His father was a political journalist, his mother the daughter of Flora Tristan, a well-known French socialist and feminist. When Gauguin was an infant, his family fled France after the failure of the leftist revolution in 1848 and took refuge in Peru. Through Flora Tristan, whose mother had been Spanish, the Gauguins had relatives in Peru. These relatives would cause Gauguin to boast years later that he had Inca blood, but there was no truth to this.

They returned to France when Gauguin was 6. When he was 17, he joined the merchant marine and later the French navy and spent six years at sea. Then he settled into the humdrum life of a stockbroker in Paris, marrying a Danish woman, raising five children and painting only on Sundays.

Gauguin did not have formal training at an art school but was lucky enough to befriend a distinguished painter. After Gauguin’s return from naval and merchant marine service, his guardian, a wealthy art collector, introduced him to the painter Camille Pissarro. Pissarro became his mentor, both instructing him and helping him meet the Impressionists working in Paris.

In his early 30s, Gauguin gave up his job and devoted himself completely to painting. He eventually abandoned his wife and children and spent most of the rest of his life searching for primitive paradises both in Brittany and in exotic places such as Martinique, Tahiti and the remote Marquesas Islands in the Pacific. He painted scores of canvases describing a primitive life that, in fact, no longer existed but still appealed to customers in France. He died of syphilitic heart failure in 1903 at age 54.


A dark side

The show revolves around two kinds of myths. In the first, Gauguin tried to portray himself, according to Thomson, as a person of “divided nature — part sensitive, part savage.” The supposed savageness came out of his imaginary Inca heritage.

In his 1889 “Self-Portrait,” an example of his dark side, Gauguin seems to depict himself as the fallen angel Lucifer handling a serpent under an apple tree. In his “Christ in the Garden of Olives” (1889), in contrast, he is an oppressed, scorned Christ. Thomson describes this painting as “blasphemous, arresting and shocking.” It was so shocking, in fact, that it upset Vincent van Gogh, who had recently spent a couple of bitter, quarrelsome months with Gauguin as they tried to paint together in southern France.

The second myth — Gauguin’s search for earthly paradises unspoiled by modern commercialism and industrialization — dominates the exhibition. He first tried to find this in the French region of Brittany, where the women still wore white helmet-like hats, high collars, long dresses and wooden clogs.

In “Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel),” an 1888 painting long regarded as a breakthrough in modern art, Gauguin depicts pious Breton women praying and watching the smaller figures of Jacob and an angel wrestling on red-colored grass. “I think I have achieved in the figures a great simplicity, rustic and superstitious,” he wrote to Van Gogh.

But Brittany did not satisfy his urge for Paradise, and Gauguin set off to hunt for it finally in French Polynesia. Tahiti, his first home, had been described by traveling writers years before as a land of innocence unspoiled by civilization. But, in fact, missionaries had been diffusing Christianity there for more than 100 years, and the French had ruled it for half a century as a protectorate and colony.


By the time Gauguin arrived, the missionaries had covered the near nakedness of the Tahitian women with unrevealing Mother Hubbard dresses. European disease, alcohol and commerce had taken their toll of the innocence. Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings, surely his most popular, sometimes revealed the limits of Paradise but often hid it.

He liked to title his paintings in his broken, ungrammatical version of the Tahitian language. “Merahi Metua no Tehamana or Tehamana Has Many Parents” (1893) is a portrait of his 13-year-old mistress, clothed in a missionary-inspired dress but surrounded by Polynesian and other exotic religious symbols. In a far more troubled and enigmatic painting, “Manao Tupapau or The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch” (1892), a fearful Tehamana lies naked on a bed while the Tahitian spirit of the dead sits on guard. His colonialist exploitation of young Polynesian girls, which would have enraged his feminist grandmother, has diminished his personal reputation in the 21st century.

Sometimes his paintings, brimming with nude swimmers, lush vegetation, abundant fruit and lavish beauty, depicted a Tahitian paradise that had disappeared. “Fatata te Miti (By the Sea)” (1892) and “Two Tahitian Women” (1899) are popular examples.

In 1901, ever searching for an exotic paradise that would please both himself and buyers, Gauguin left Tahiti and moved to Hiva-Oa island in the remote Marquesas. By then, he was ill with syphilis.

He built a studio decorated with wooden panels carved with images of nude native women. The lintel over the door proclaimed that this was a “House of Sexual Pleasure.” The carved panels and lintel, which have been lent to the exhibition by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, seemed to mock the nearby Catholic bishop.

Gauguin evidently knew he was near death when he moved to the Marquesas. He died two years later and is buried there.