Gauguin: Maker of Myth

Tate Modern, London: 30th September 2010-16th January 2011
National Gallery of Art, Washington: 27th February – 5th June 2011

Sue Hubbard

Gauguin_Tehamana_has_many_E34711 There can be few artists who have been as lionised and lambasted as Gauguin. Condemned by many as a colonial pederast who bought the syphilitic worm into a South Seas heaven, an arrogant self-promoter who abandoned his wife and children for the life of a lotus eater, he represents for others the archetypal painter who gave up everything for his art, breaking away from the bourgeois strictures of a career as a stockbroker and the dab-dab of Impressionism to create paintings full of flat vibrant colour that pre-figured German Expressionists such as Nolde and Kirchner. For his champions he has long been held up as the hero of modernism, a painter who released art from the confines of the naturalistic world and liberated colour to create works of universal symbolism and mystery.

[Photo: Paul Gauguin
Merahi metua no Tehamana (Les Aїeux de Tehamana / The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana has many Parents) 1893
Oil on canvas 76.3 x 54.3 cm
The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Mr and Mrs Charles Deering McCormick.]

So much of the narrative that surrounds Gauguin is myth, often of his own making. He has been the subject of countless representations from Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence to Mario Vargas Llosa’s historical novel The Way to Paradise. One of the first artists to have the media savvy to exploit the narrative of his own life, the Faustian pact he made with posterity finally came back to taunt him when, in 1902, isolated and ill, he dreamt of settling in the Pyrenees. “You are,” his friend Daniel de Monfreid wrote, “ at the moment that extraordinary, legendary artist who sends from the depths of Oceania his disconcerting, inimitable works, the definitive works of a great man who has disappeared, as it were, off the face of the earth…. In short, you enjoy the immunity of the great dead; you belong now to the history of art.”

That he had an extraordinary life is not in question. His father was a political journalist and his mother Aline the daughter of the writer and political activist, Flora Tristan, a pioneer of modern feminism. After the 1848 revolution his family left France for Peru and political exile, where his father died of a heart attack leaving Aline to bring up her two young sons in Lima at the residence of an elderly uncle. It was here that Gauguin spent the first five years of his life, which would later allow him to claim Peruvian heritage and caste himself in the role of a ‘savage’. “The Inca according to legend,” he wrote in a letter to his friend Emile Schuffenecker in 1888, “came straight from the sun and that’s where I will return.” Yet his mythic, archetypal images of Polynesian women and his ‘essentialist’ stereotypes of Breton peasants have often proved problematic for contemporary audiences in these more politically correct times.

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