Saturday, January 15, 2011

Gauguin at the Tate

Gauguin was a bad boy and he paid for it, dying of syphilis aged just 54.

You see him in this self portrait with one of his classic paintings in the background. In it a naked young girl is observed by a devil like death - or is she is dreaming of it? Gauguin excused himself as so many have done in the past: he is a genius and it is for art's sake.

But what does that make the gallery visitor? As you enter the Gauguin exhibition currently on at the Tate Modern you find yourself face to face with this very picture, the Manao Tupapau or Spirit Of The Dead Watching.

It is a disconcerting image on many levels, but that is something that Gauguin would have relished. Often in his paintings he seems to challenge the viewer. Rather than just paint a still life of fruit there'd be a mischievous face to one side, watching.

Many of his pictures are from his time in Tahiti. He imagined it to be unchanged and unspoilt since the first westerners arrived on HMS Dolphin, where the sailors were warmly welcomed by the local girls. He was depressed to find a land changed by French colonialism and Catholic missionaries.

Gauguin, though disappointed, seems to have replaced the reality by layers of imagined or reconstructed myths taken from sources as wide apart as Greece and Easter Island. Though surrounded by the most beautiful of blue water it rarely appears in his paintings. There are just the odd boat, not very good ones at that.

For his eyes were most definitely on land, and on those young girls in particular, and you could see the resignation in their faces.

The exhibition leaves a disturbing picture of a man with many demons of his own: I did wonder whether the devilish figure in the picture above was Gauguin himself, aware of his own mortality and the path that would take him to his death.

6 comments:

Tillerman said...

"We never really know what stupidity is until we have experimented on ourselves."

- Gaugin


"Most of the quotes you find on the Internet are wrong."

- Abraham Lincoln.

Baydog said...

I was gonna say something, but "I think I'll go to bed now."

-

O Docker said...

"I should have listened to Gauguin"

- Vincent Van Gogh

JP said...

There were a lot of good quotes by G. on the wall but I can't remember any of them!

Greg and Kris said...

Gaugin sought out that mythic Polynesia, didn't he? I mean in his time in Marquesas and other islands. I'm looking forward to making that stop, some day (soon, I hope). I imagine the Marquesas Islands to be the most remote, in the sense that there's no real tourist industry, nor easy travel routes. It holds a deep fascination. I often wonder how much global communication reduces the remotest places, by showing the young of those places the images of the rest of the world, thereby inspiring them to run off as soon as they can to experience the big wide world. In the end, do we have a big wide homogenous world?

JP said...

Greg: good point - reminded me of seeing that DirectTV dish deep in the Venezuelan jungle or the Warao guide use his mobile phone to take pictures of the sunset over the Orinoco delta.

Hopefully cultures will be able to retain a degree of differentness!