Few 20th-century painters carved a niche for their craft like Paul Gauguin. His portraiture is some of the most recognisable work in modern art. From 7th October 2019 to 26th January 2020, the National Gallery in London has on display a large representation of Gauguin’s short career as a painter featuring a collection of portraiture and sculpture. For an artist like Gauguin, it makes sense to focus solely on his portraits; they are his most notable work. However, not to include his work pre-1885 means that information about the artist is left out. This was a period when Gauguin worked with Pissarro, the artist who convinced him to start painting, and Cézanne. Despite the colourful array of portraits gathered by the National Gallery, this is not the only missed opportunity to connect Gauguin to portrait painting.
The exhibition lacks context concerning how Gauguin’s painterly style fits into larger art movements. Synthetism, a term associated with symbolic representation characterized by bold outlines and flat areas of colour, is mentioned early on in the exhibition, but that is the only categorisation of Gauguin’s artistic style. Neither Impressionism nor Primitivism is mentioned, yet the word ‘primitive’ is. Post-Impressionism and Cloisonnism are not mentioned either. Gauguin’s arguable influence on Fauvism, a style of painting that favoured strong use of colour or realistic representation, is not discussed, even though Fauvism began shortly after his death, and Gauguin’s influence can be seen in works by artists such as Matisse.
It is as if the curator(s) of this exhibition were trying to place Gauguin as a stand-alone genius in art history. A lone-wolf of artistic representation and execution, which of course is not true considering his reliance on other artists throughout his career. No artist is beyond context. We as the audience for these exhibitions need some bearings before we dive into the works and history of the artists. Even if the National Gallery and the curators of this show wanted to focus exclusively on the artist and the portraits, it leaves those without prior exposure to Gauguin’s life in the dark.
This close up look at Gauguin’s portraits is definitely a passion project for the curators. While walking through the space, looking at the paintings, reading the literature, you are provided with information that takes you right inside the mind of the artist. You learn how Gauguin painted, but also what his creative process was and what aspects of life motivated him to create. Gauguin was a self-obsessed individual, as shown in numerous self-portraits and even triple self-portraits. His ego was the fuel that drove his artistic career and he believed that his perspective was the manner in which the world should be viewed. Through direct self-portraiture or a persona, Gauguin frequently references his own self-worth and ego as an ambassador to the world he wanted to occupy.
Gauguin relocated multiple times, Tahiti being the most well-known, seeking a realm untouched by the bourgeois lifestyle he stood against. This was an artist who sought out the primitive and pure. But in his attempts to find his pristine muse he left his own mark; Gauguin cannot be separated from the concept of exploitation. European colonialism and misogynistic perceptions about the
Polynesian cultures was widespread in Gauguin’s day. The irony is that later in his life while living in the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa, he involved himself in local politics and allegedly was a vocal opponent of colonial rule. As an artist, Gauguin crafted visual narrative mixed with religion, mythology, and the idea of ‘self’, but in creating these fantasies he exploited the indigenous communities. Many of Gauguin’s self-portraits feature objects connected to Tahitian culture. The composition of these works suggests that the artist is placing ownership over the objects, and thus an implied ownership of the culture. Is Gauguin the only artist who should be subjected to this kind of scrutiny? Absolutely not. However, it does seem that the curators of this show said what they deemed necessary about Gauguin’s less-than-desirable qualities and pursuits, and quickly moved forward. This results in a missed opportunity to take an in-depth look at how this artist perceived his actions and how they influenced his work.
Unsavoury qualities aside, Gauguin did not compromise. Yes, his career perpetuates the stereotype of an artist only becoming famous after death or that artists are misunderstood deviants. His passion and ambition, albeit misguided at times, drove him to create a new method of painting and portraiture. I have never been a fan of Gauguin the artist or Gauguin the individual. But regardless of personal preference, you cannot ignore (as this show does) the role Gauguin had in the larger scope of Western art history.
Volume 34 no 3 January – February 2020 pp 30-31