Gauguin Maker of myth at Tate Modern is a very big exhibition, a real crowd puller. It is the first major exhibition of Gauguin’s work in Britain for fifty years or so and there is some beautiful work on show, along with an interesting selection of background material and documents. I know Gauguin’s work, as just about everybody does, and I knew the basic story of his life but this was the first time that I had given him some serious thought and I’m not sure that I was completely convinced. There was a lot to like. He had a wonderful understanding of colour, a bold sense of design, and a real appreciation for female beauty, but I began to wonder whether the title Maker of Myths wasn’t a polite way of saying that he was a poseur who fed his ego by creating a story around himself which others would buy into. After all, only someone with a fair amount of arrogance would make a painting of Christ in Gethsemene into a self portrait. The exhibition does him more than justice, showing his development and setting him in context, although I did think that it could have been better lit.
Gauguin begun his career as an artist as a Sunday painter, pursuing his art alongside his day job as a stockbroker, until he was driven to paint full time and left his wife and family in pursuit of his dream and moved to Paris. For a long time he had little success and suffered periods of depression, even attempting suicide. He finally set out for Tahiti and the Marquesas, financially destitute, saying that he was looking for a purer simpler way of life and wanted to escape convention. The years that followed were those which led to the making of his most beautiful and iconic work.
When he arrived on Tahiti he set about creating a way of life that was certainly unconventional in the eyes of western society. He set up his Maison Du Jouir (which translates not as playhouse but as house of orgasms we are told in the audio guide) along with a series of beautiful young Tahitian girls and created a version of himself which he could sell, as well as enjoying the obvious fringe benefits which came with it. He also worked hard. He kept in touch with his wife while he was out there but that is all. He had found his paradise but it was not as exotic as he made it seem. The Christian missionaries had got there well before him, and the work that he sent back to France was selling a dream of an exotic mysterious Tahiti which no longer had much basis in reality. His religious imagery, for example, owed as much to the art in churches back in Brittany as it did to anything that he saw in Tahiti. Not that this matters, necessarily- part of his early life was spent in Peru and that had left his mark too- its what an artist does.
So was all the hard work, sacrifice and self belief justified? That’s not for me to say. The best of his work is full of life and colour and absolutely leaps off the canvas. There is also some which doesn’t. He certainly had great talent, but one of the very greatest? Perhaps not. All the same I was very glad to have the chance to see so much of his work and make up my mind. If I had been in the yellow house (which must have been a complete nightmare for both of them) I would have been firmly on Van Gogh’s side. His paintings in the Van Gogh: the man and his letters exhibition at the Royal Academy last year made me cry. These just made me wonder.