It’s not easy to like Paul Gauguin. He was, in almost every way, an absolute prick. He abandoned his wife and five kids, liked to paint himself as Jesus, called provincial French people ‘savages’, married a child, used his Western dominance to shag half of Tahiti and died of syphilis as a miserable, lonely old man.
So how do you deal with his art (in this case his portraiture)? Can you separate the man from the work? Or even the aesthetic from the intention? Erm… no. But let’s try,
The show opens with eight self-portraits. Gauguin’s heavy jaw fills each canvas like a lump of fleshy rock, his sharp nose carves through each composition like a butcher’s knife. He’s the diligent artist at his easel in one broody work, the wanton, louche creative in another, and in one he’s the Messiah. He was an arrogant, self-aggrandising mythologiser. That’s the message.
The images that follow of his wife and kids are painfully dark and sour. His daughter Aline is a crushed little figure, dwarfed by fruit. It’s a heartbreaking painting. Visions of his friends are uncompromisingly unflattering, but the portrait of Władysław Ślewiński is stunning, all bold slabs of colour with thick, angry outlines.
The colours become cooler and more slab-like over the years until he heads to Tahiti in search of new ‘savages’ to inspire his art. ‘Woman with a Mango’ is an incredible burst of yellow and lilac, ‘Faaturuma’ is a morose, dripping cascade of pink hiding a despondent Tahitian face. They’re beautiful paintings, but deeply uncomfortable, and the gallery doesn’t shy away from talking about how Gauguin exploited these women. Behind the colours and shapes is a deeply misogynistic, sexually repugnant, colonial narrative that just can’t be ignored. Look at ‘Barbarian Tales’, a painting of two topless, and very young, women being watched over by a grim, looming white figure (based on an image of his friend and fellow artist Meijer de Haan who had died years earlier). It’s so gross it makes your skin crawl.
So what do we do with Paul Gauguin? We can’t separate the man from the art or the subject matter from the skill. But we can try to find the beauty in it while acknowledging its very deep problems. If nothing else, this exhibition does a brilliant job of making you do both.