Gauguin, the man and the myth

Paul Gauguin, Nevermore O Tahiti, 1897, Paul Gauguin, Nevermore O Tahiti, 1897, - The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Posted: Fri Oct 1 2010

In a new exhibition at Tate Modern Gauguin is clearly revealed as a great artist masquerading as faux naif

Standing face to face with Paul Gauguin - or P Go, the half-Peruvian, Inca-descended adventurer, as he liked to tell it - is a new experience every time. The self-portrait is near-ubiquitous in his art, but he remains disconcertingly fugitive. Gauguin starts off as a struggling and impoverished young painter, then looks tanned and travelled in a later picture. The artist appears apparition-like, cloaked and bereted, at the front gate of a house, casting himself as a betrayed 'Christ in the Garden of Olives' and, finally, plump and impossibly youthful considering his rampant syphilis, just a few months before his death from a heart attack in 1903.

The only constants are that tufty beard, those pulsating colours and a scrubbed, dry surface that suggests he was dragging and stabbing his brush across the canvas like some untrained yet naturally gifted cave painter.
Gauguin was clearly a great artist masquerading as faux naÔf, which is why he was also a great 'Maker of Myth', to give this show its title. The idea that he spent over a decade as a savage, painting among tribal people on a remote Polynesian island, was for the most part an elaborate construct of his own shaping. In private correspondence, Gauguin admitted Tahiti was already too westernised to really fulfil his fantasy of living off the grid, besides which he still ate tinned food imported from Europe and secretly wished to make a triumphant return home to bask in the otherworldly glow he'd created through his beguiling pictures. In his desire to be different - turning his back on the Parisian intelligentsia who at first shunned him, to become a pugnacious, swashbuckling, hard-drinking raconteur - he ended up living out his Hemingwayesque lie as a lonely, if belatedly successful old man.

This is nothing we didn't know already, of course. We've long sneered at Gauguin the marauding tourist, hunting out his exotic bathing babes and capturing them in his greedy gaze. But we've failed to look at the details, which this exhibition points up delightfully. Gauguin began flouting pictorial rules in France, making misshapen ceramics and painting uncomfortable, unfashionable still lifes. His subjects were less heroic than the world-conquering Impressionists of the time, but it's often what's going on in the background that sends Gauguin's work tilting off its axis - indeed, the horizon lines in his pictures are often awkwardly skewed. Flying creatures and fantastical dreamscapes hover behind his sleeping children's heads, as they do in later reclining nudes, and it's these abstract intervals, again hidden in the details, which perform the visual equivalent of poetry - refracting or distorting reality without ever quite breaking free from it altogether.

It was after his first visit to the tropical colony of Martinique in 1887 that the world began to look radically different for Gauguin (where even the sight of newly introduced pigs could be read as a reminder of supposedly recent cannibalistic tendencies on the island). From then on he painted in full colour but incredibly selectively - sticking more or less to women and animals in rustic harmony with virginal landscapes - so as to focus his mind squarely on the primitive and unknowable, even when he returned to the relatively civilized paysages of Brittany. An important middle period spent bunking up with Vincent Van Gogh in Arles was prolific and explosive (culminating when the Dutchman lopped his earlobe off), but was mere preamble to the painterly fireworks he set off after landing in the Tahitian port of Papeete in 1891.

From then on, Gauguin's trademark nubile females take centre stage. Variously squatting, lazing or washing in horizontal frieze-like processions, these totemic and oddly ambisexual figures are scattered across his pictures like tree trunks or nymphs in the glade. Gauguin's painted ladies, often a wahine or girlfriend, were made to act out the role of Eve, ashamed at their nakedness, or else the supplicant muse, waiting patiently in bed for their master. Amid this beauty pageant are more lyrical passages of abstraction, as though the amorphous shapes and pools of colour are where even Gauguin's intimate grasp of his subject matter begins to disintegrate. These momentary gaps in knowledge are fascinating to behold and mirror his inability to go fully 'native'. The passionless stares of his sitters also speak volumes. These were the ultimate objects of affection in his final paradise, but he failed to understand them either. They, like his long-lost identity, were unattainable to the last.

'Gauguin' is showing at Tate Modern until January 16 2011