The eagerly anticipated Gauguin exhibition has now begun at the Tate Modern and includes Gauguin’s recognisably famous landscapes and beautiful Tahitian women. The title of the exhibition ‘Maker of Myth’ uses the hidden meanings of myth and the personal nature of storytelling to unravel Gauguin’s life and his art.
The vast exhibition (11 rooms and well over 100 pieces of work) brings together paintings, woodcarvings, ceramics, watercolours, etchings and sculpture to showcase Gauguin’s unique ability to use several mediums and to master a number of different techniques, which would have taken many accomplished artists a lifetime to learn.
For a time Gauguin lived in fashionable and wealthy Montparnasse with his wife and children before losing his job and financial security. It was under the wing of Pissarro and in the shadow of impressionists like Degas and Cezanne that Gauguin began to paint in 1873 while he was still a successful stockbroker. The distinct changes in Gauguin’s subject matter are marked in this exhibition by his self discovery when, in the 19th century, he endured hardships and travelled extensively first to Brittany, then Martinique, Tahiti and finally Hivaoa. The exhibition takes us on a journey of discovery. The mystery surrounding Gauguin unfolds through his art and travels and more aspects of the artist himself are revealed.
It is apparent from his self portraits in room 1, that Gauguin saw himself primarily as an artist. Often in his self portraits we see the undefeated face of a creator. Despite the hardships he endured and the feelings of being misunderstood by Parisian critics, he looks out at the world armed with a palette in one hand, or for example, a painting by him hung on a wall in the background of a self portrait. We see that Gauguin the person and the artist are one, with no visible distinction.
Gauguin himself was an intense and difficult person, he had strong and violent relationships and his volatile relationship with Van Gogh for example is mentioned in room 6 of the exhibition. We see Gauguin portray himself as a sinister, scary character in ‘Head with Horns’ 1895-7 a wood sculpture that depicts a demonic self portrait in which he appears with horns as an idol wielding power and creating fear. However in his later life his work appears gentler and perhaps reveals a softer side to the artist.
The exhibition includes two separate rooms of rarely seen illustrated letters, writings, sketchbooks and memoirs which provide more insights into the life and mind of Gauguin. He was a writer as well as an artist and saw these two forms as being quite separate from one another. Gauguin wrote, ‘I have always said (or if not said) thought the literary poetry of the painter was special and not the illustration or transformation into forms of written texts’ (letter the Monfreid 1901). The exhibition cleverly changes its tone as you disappear into the two discrete side rooms to learn more about the many other literary and poetic sides to Gauguin. The exhibition is carefully ordered to create a narrative that reinforces the wonder and mystery of Gauguin’s life and art.
Gauguin believed he too had made sacrifices and in his paintings there is so much suffering evident in his style and use of colour. In his painting ‘Christ in the Garden of Olives’ 1889, Gauguin depicts himself as Christ, tormented and misunderstood. This caused a lot of uneasiness but also set Gauguin’s work apart and elevated him, allowing him to break away from impressionism move into the abstract and mysterious.
Throughout the rooms, Gauguin’s work as surreal and dream-like is highlighted. One painting depicts a child, possibly his sonasleep and seemingly lost in an imaginary world with a block of deep blue wallpaper with swirling shapes surrounding the child. His paintings show bold colours, disproportionate figures and distorted still lives, which all add to the uncertainty of the reality of what we see before us. The additional figures that loom in the background in many of Gauguin’s paintings glance out at the viewer and invite us to take a second look, to go beyond the literal meaning to a world of the imagined. Gauguin in this way creates mystery by suggesting there is a narrative without ever explaining what it is.
In the surreal and consciously naive figures and in the lack of perspective, shadow and depth characteristic of his style, Gauguin created a way to move from 19th century fascination with realism to a 20th century allure to the abstract. ‘The Ham’, 1889 oil on canvas for example, shows 3D objects in space unrelated and a piece of meat with bright orange wallpaper in the background. He imagines the world in an abstract way. Some critics suggest this painting may allude to the presentation of John the Baptist’s head to Salome.
Gauguin liked aesthetics in his art, we see this throughout the exhibition and in particular in the latter rooms where Gauguin focuses on Tahiti. Landscapes infused with luminous colours, sundrenched rural Caribbean scenes, which actually had little to do with reality but which illustrate the importance of the imagination and Gauguin’s awareness of the potential of his art.
Gauguin’s relationship to religion was complex. He had an antipathy to the Christian religion with which he grew up but he respected the importance and relevance of Christianity. For example in ‘Memory of Meijer Haan’ 1889, a watercolour portrait of Jacob Meijer de Haan, a student of Gauguin’s, the lamp is said to represent enlightenment and the apples the tempting of Adam and Eve.
Gauguin was interested in indigenous religions and went in search of evidence of religious cults and indigenous artefacts but was disappointed by the extent of western missionary influence and so he created in his art hidden indigenous meanings and primitive spirituality unaffected by the missionary era.
Gauguin did, however acknowledge the importance of Christianity to the people he encountered on his travels and also recognised that his audiences back home would welcome Christian themes in his paintings coupled with a taste of idyllic paradise, however mythical that might be. So Gauguin gave his work a mystical quality by marrying traditional Christain scenes with perceived indigenous spirituality, ancient myths and the Bible. ‘The Yellow Christ’ 1889 in a Breton Landscape, here the scene from the Bible seems to emerge from the imagination of the women in the foreground of the painting seated in prayer. A mixing of the two perceived cultures. Western Christianity and indigenous scenic landscapes are brought together and each aspect of culture is made more accessible to the other.
By the 1890’s missionaries had already began to change parts of the South Seas and Gauguin saw this as a paradise lost. Gauguin was thoroughly disappointed when he went to Tahiti hoping to find an idyllic paradise with unspoilt landscapes and pagan religion, something which was itself imagined. So Gauguin embellished Tahitian settings with Christain themes and Pagan ideas, ultimately creating and providing for the Western world and Modernism. It is fitting that the last room in the exhibition is entitled ‘Earthly Paradise’ because in the end what Gauguin creates is an imagined place where people relax all day, in a peaceful paradise, under blankets of colour.
The exhibition highlights through Gauguin’s paintings his love of the mysterious and the imagined. The intense colours side by side, sometimes complimentary and sometimes not, and lines and shapes that unravel to suggest multiple stories, overlapping mysteries and themes. In his work there are moments when Gauguin attempts to reach beyond this world to the next. He is creating rather than documenting a culture, shaping something that until then did not exist, a familiar and yet unspoilt creation we long for.
The Revd Elizabeth Adekunle is vicar at St Luke’s Homerton, Hackney in the Diocese of London and is an artist.
Elizabeth Adekunle is Archdeacon of Hackney