Gauguin Portraits
exhibition review

Running from 7 October 2019 to 26 January 2020, the National Gallery presents the first-ever exhibition devoted to Paul Gauguin's portraiture. Featuring around fifty works executed throughout Europe, Tahiti and Polynesia, the show celebrates the artist's innovation and experimentation with color, form and the use of symbols in the genre of the portrait.

'Gauguin was undoubtedly self-obsessed': this is the opening line of the exhibition text which greets the visitor to a show which is arranged thematically, and neatly illustrates the point with ten self-portraits of the artist in the form of eight canvases, one drawing and one ceramic. In three of these works Gauguin presents himself as Christ – a strong preface with which to start the exhibition, and an apparent hubris which is tempered slightly by the ceramic pot which distorts the artist's features into that of a twisted gargoyle, quite unlike the confident jutting tilt of the artist's visage in Self Portrait dedicated to Carrière or the martyred elegance of his embodiment as Christ in the Garden of Olives.

We see portraits of his wife, children and friends in the following room, in which rather less attention is paid to the sitters themselves than technique itself, their compositions acting as vehicles with which to explore the flattened planes and bold pigments of his Sythentist technique, whilst playing with supernatural and symbolist elements. In Interior with Aline, 1881, for example, Gauguin's four-year-old daughter is dwarfed by a display of giant oranges, her presence reduced to a small, restrained shadow. In Clovis Asleep, 1884, Gauguin's young son is beautifully painted, but placed next to a towering red tankard which is given equal if not greater presence. The viewer's attention is inexorably drawn away from the sitter to the dreamlike azure blue background above, where wallpaper motifs morph into otherworldly forms.

One gets the sense that Gauguin did not seek to flatter his sitters, even when formally commissioned: Young Breton Woman, 1889, depicts the daughter of a Breton aristocrat with a dour, downcast expression against a heavily stylised background; her unhappy countenance, along with the addition of one of his own tribal sculptures of a naked woman menstruating, may have gone some way to explain the Comtesse's refusal to buy the portrait.

The space dedicated to Gauguin's Tahiti works is undoubtedly the highlight of the exhibition, as the jewel-like yellows, pinks and blues of these lavish portraits sing out against the darkened gallery walls. The curators delicately tread the line between praise for the artist's skill and condemnation of his abuse of his position as a Westerner, exploiting the sexual freedom that his escape to Tahiti allowed him. Arriving here in 1891, having abandoned his wife and five children, Gauguin entered into numerous relationships with young Tahitian girls, 'marrying' two of them and fathering more children. His actions were at odds to his opposition to the Western colonization by missionaries of this hitherto unspoilt idyll, an uneasy tension which is apparent in works such as Faatuuruma, 1891, and Merahi metua no Tehemana, 1893, where local women are trussed up awkwardly in modest high-necked dresses, the former wearing a Western wedding band, and the latter stood against glyphs and symbols of her own threatened heritage such as a female Polynesian goddess and three hovering heads which denote the Tahitian spirits of the dead.

One of the most unsettling works displayed is an 1894 lithograph of Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Watching), executed after the 1892 oil painted in Tahiti. Teha'amana, one of Gauguin's island 'wives', was thought to only be around 13 or so when the pair first met, and is shown here lying naked on a bed surrounded by the spirits of her ancestors. The overwhelming, raw vulnerability which exudes from the surprisingly small composition makes for very uncomfortable viewing.

An unusual attempt to frame the still life as portrait follows the Tahiti room, as four compositions are reinterpreted by the curators as 'surrogate portraits', an interesting but not completely convincing proposition which precedes the final space, 'At the End'. The Self Portrait of 1903 which closes the exhibition is simple and pared down, a portrait of an older artist no longer adopting dramatic personae. Gauguin himself however is surely overshadowed by his art: Barbarian Tales, 1902, is a mystical, haunting, and spectacularly saturated masterpiece in which the serenity of two beautiful young Polynesian girls seated naked on the forest floor is juxtaposed vividly against the jarring presence of the seated male figure above, shown with glowing green eyes and clawed foot, an unwelcome and intrusive presence. This proves a fitting close to an exhibition which transports the viewer to another time and to exotic worlds, but forces one to look beyond the surface and re-examine Gauguin's masterpieces through modern eyes.


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