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The stuff of legend: the myths surrounding Gauguin's life and work are explored in this major Tate show.

Gauguin: Maker of Myth

30 September-16 January 2011

Tate Modern, London

Catalogue by Belinda Thomson (ed.)

ISBN 978854379023 (paperback), 24.99 [pounds sterling]

(Tate Publishing)

The term Post-Impressionism was invented in London in November 191o, but sadly the centenary of Roger Fry's path-breaking exhibition is not being marked with an anniversary show. Nevertheless, Londoners have been able to feast on the movement's two greatest artists--Van Gogh at the Royal Academy earlier this year and now Gauguin at Tate Modern. In terms of visitor numbers, these two shows look set to be the UK's most popular exhibitions of 2010.

'Gauguin: Maker of Myth', with 100 works, is the most important retrospective on the artist since the 1998-99 show in Washington, Chicago and Paris. It is also the largest exhibition of Gauguins ever held in Britain, with more works by the artist than in either his 1955 retrospective or the Tate's 1966 Pont-Avert show.

Curator Belinda Thomson has bravely opted to present the exhibition with an essentially thematic approach, rather than chronologically. This is revealing in emphasising the similarities between Gauguin's Breton and Tahitian periods, although profound differences remain.

More problematic is the presentation of the exhibition's theme, 'Maker of Myth' (which rather echoes that of the last big Gauguin show, held in Rome in 2007, entitled 'Artist of Myth and Dream'). The Tate exhibition argues that 'in choreographing his career, Gauguin mythologised his role as creator' with a self-promotional urge that was central to his making of art. However, Gauguin was not particularly successful in commercial terms and he could have promoted his work more successfully by making short visits to Polynesia and living in Paris instead.

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In a quite different sense, Gauguin mythologised the myths of Tahiti. He adapted (and sometimes misunderstood) Tahitian legends, but this was artistic licence and it inspired his work. The complex arguments around the 'maker of myth' are explored in Thomson's introductory catalogue essay, but prove more difficult to present on the walls.

The Tate show opens with a room of self-portraits, providing a stunning introduction. The first wall has five works, from c. 1876, Gauguin's stockbroking days, to 1903, the year of his death. This sequence offers an unusual opportunity to examine the earliest work (Fogg Museum), whose sitter appears rather different from the others. But is it really a self-portrait? Although described as such in a 1924 sale catalogue, this is the only pre-war reference to support the title. The first room also has an important pairing: the reclining nude of Manao Tupapau (Fig. 1) of 1892 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery) with the self-portrait of a year or two later (1893-94; Fig. 3) which has the Tahitian work in the background (Musee d'Orsay).

The exhibition moves on to still lifes and objects, with paintings, sculptures and works on paper, a mix that works well. Gauguin's sculptures are highly imaginative, but often fail to get the attention they deserve, so it is a pleasure to have them so well integrated into the display. There is, however, one oddity: Head with Horns (Getty Museum), a wood sculpture dated to c. 1895-97. As I reported in the November 2009 issue of Apollo, the work was reproduced in a 193o book overlooked by the Gauguin specialists. This included a photograph from France's colonial office of the sculpture, which is not attributed to Gauguin but is instead captioned as an Oceanic 'idole'. The work is atypical of native Polynesian sculptures and rather different from most of Gauguin's works, so Head with Horns remains something of a mystery (it is one of the few works in the Tate exhibition not reproduced in the catalogue).

Landscapes have a room to themselves. One of the most telling juxtapositions is a typical Breton scene, Harvest: Le Pouldu (Tate) of 1890, next to The Loss of Virginity (Fig. 2; Chrysler Museum of Art), done a few months later. In the latter work, the naked maiden and the powerful pinks and blues of the landscape transform this into a picture which could almost have been done in Tahiti. This reinforces the point that Gauguin's work develops rather than suddenly changes with his arrival in Polynesia.

The Tate show continues with rooms on religion, femininity and the telling of tales. Look closely at the labels, and you will spot that a small sheet of sketches belongs to art critic Waldemar Januszczak, who bought it in 2005 with the proceeds of a BBC documentary he made on the life of Gauguin. One notable absentee is from an Egyptian collection: Life and Death (Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, Cairo), which is in the catalogue. This was forbidden to travel after the 21 August theft of the museum's other masterpiece, a Van Gogh still life.

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There is also a fascinating selection of documentary material. Among the exhibits is a page from a Gauguin sketchbook with a list of names and addresses, including one in London. Gauguin names the person simply as 'M', recording their address in Sydenham (10 Grosvenor Place, Venner Road). Tate's label says that 'M' is thought to be a supporter of Manuel Ruiz Zorrilla, a Spanish revolutionary in exile. 'M' is actually George Maraux, one of Ruiz Zorrilla's French associates. Gauguin probably visited Maraux during a short visit to London in August and September of 1885, when he also went to the British Museum.

The Tate show ends with a bang, with some of Gauguin's most powerful Polynesian works, including The Ford (Pushkin Museum) of 1901. When The Ford was unpacked, Thomson spotted that the reverse of the picture has striped lines, suggesting that it was painted on ticking (a material used for mattress covers). Gauguin had presumably run out of canvas on his Marquesan island.

It was in the Marquesas that Gauguin died in 1903, after having received only rudimentary medical care. We see him just before then in his last self-portrait (Kunstmuseum, Basel), with a haggard and resigned expression. Surely he lived out his final years in remote Hiva-Oa because that is what he wanted, for himself and for his art--not to create a myth. It is later generations which have embellished the story of the Parisian artist who escaped to a Polynesian idyll.

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The thematic approach of Tate's presentation may be frustrating for visitors who want to follow the story of Gauguin's life, but the upside is that it encourages us to concentrate on his art. Tate's catalogue also avoids biography. However, the opening essays are overly academic and not related closely enough to the exhibition. Entries on individual exhibits would have been helpful in explaining the works and adding to our knowledge. Most visitors who buy the catalogue will simply enjoy the images of this excellent show. After London, the exhibition moves on to Washington in February. For Gauguin enthusiasts, there is also a more modest show entitled 'Paradise Remembered: The Noa Noa Prints' at Princeton University Art Museum (until 2 January 2011).

Martin Bailey is a correspondent for The Art Newspaper.
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Author:Bailey, Martin
Publication:Apollo
Date:Dec 1, 2010
Words:1168
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