The myths behind the scoundrel Paul Gauguin
A big new show at the National Gallery will do little to enhance the personal reputation of Paul Gauguin. The art historian Paul Johnson, while extolling Gauguin’s work and idealism, once described him as “a self-indulgent scoundrel,” and there is much evidence for this on view at the National Gallery. But his egoism and gnarled spirit add much complexity to his paintings.
The show revolves around two kinds of myths. In the first, Gauguin tried to portray himself, according to curator Belinda Thomson, as a person of “divided nature — part sensitive, part savage.” The supposed savageness came out of his imaginary Inca heritage.
In his 1889 “Self-Portrait,” an example of his dark side, Gauguin seems to depict himself as the fallen angel Lucifer handling a serpent under an apple tree. In his “Christ in the Garden of Olives” (1889), in contrast, he is an oppressed, scorned Christ.
The second myth — Gauguin’s search for earthly paradises unspoiled by modern commercialism and industrialization — dominates the exhibition. He first tried to find this in the French region of Brittany, but Brittany did not satisfy his urge for Paradise, and Gauguin set off to hunt for it finally in French Polynesia. Tahiti, his first home, had been described by traveling writers years before as a land of innocence unspoiled by civilization. But, in fact, missionaries had been diffusing Christianity there for more than 100 years, and the French had ruled it for half a century as a protectorate and colony.
By the time Gauguin arrived, the missionaries had covered the near-nakedness of the Tahitian women with unrevealing Mother Hubbard dresses. European disease, alcohol and commerce had taken their toll of the innocence. Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings, surely his most popular, sometimes revealed the limits of Paradise but often hid it.
To read my Arts & Books article about the exhibition, click here.
Photo: "Self-Portrait Vase in the Form of a Severed Head," 1889; stoneware. Credit: National Gallery of Art