This typist recently had the opportunity to visit the Gauguin exhibition at the Tate Modern art gallery in London.
Paul Gauguin’s paintings have interested me for his use of bold colour and his depiction of ”Other” in the figures of his Tahitian women.
So I was looking forward to seeing this collection of his life’s work. Interestingly, I came away from the show with a very different view of the man than I’d expected.
I’m not attempting to capsize the reputation of an artistic giant. I’m in no position to do that. I only offer an honest response based on my experience in the exhibition.
I do appreciate his accomplishments. He was a pioneer in his use of colour - the dreamy blues, lush greens, tropical yellows and striking fushia evoke the heat and humidity and “otherness” of place. And he deserves credit for busting out of the bucolic French countryside of Impressionists in search of a new subject and way of seeing. He brought to modern art a new way of seeing.
But what a found in Gauguin was a wholly unpleasant man who exploited his subjects and showed (I thought) questionable talent in some respects. His early work in Brittany was unremarkable and it was clear that he needed something new to make his mark as a “world class” artist.
My strongest reactions emerged as I moved onto the Tahitian women who made him famous. I began to turn on him, despite the seductive colours.
Gauguin arrived in Tahiti expecting a land and people untouched by Western sensibilities and values. To his disappointment, the Christian missionaries had beat him to it and his subjects were not the tribal water nymphs he’d hoped for.
He was just another tourist in paradise.
So he made up the story. He mythologized the women, imagining them as primitives and gentle savages, lounging by pools, their pert breasts displayed without shame, their eyes gazing in innocence. Imagine the contrast to the laced-up women of French Impressionism.
Gauguin called up a fantasy that predated the reality, if that vision ever existed at all.
I was unimpressed by the forms of his women. They appeared out of proportion, thick and squat, almost amateurish in some instances. The depictions weren’t disjointed in the purposeful Cubist sense seen in Picasso or in the native works of folk artists. They just appeared unskilled.
I had a similar response to his clouds. Unconvincing.
Syphilitic and nasty in character, it would be easy to dislike him as a person.
But I disliked him as an artist. He used these women to promote himself in the competitive market of French art. He made a fiction of subjects but sold them as the reality of the “Other.”
He was very successful in creating a legacy. He is regarded amongst the greats of post-Impressionism.
But I don’t buy it and that is the joy of visiting a life exhibition like this. You can see and decide for yourself – whether it’s the work of a master or not.
Thanks again to the lovely Zed for the prompt on this post.