The Tate’s blockbuster autumn show on Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) takes as its title the artist’s role as mythmaker, and splits it three ways, focusing on his self-mythology; the people he depicted during the Tahitian period for which he is best known; and thirdly, the myths that have sprung up around him since his death.
It’s perhaps this third myth that is most prevalent in contemporary attitudes towards Gauguin. Whether it be (as the exhibition guide suggests) “over-familiarity” with his work, post-colonial disdain of his methods, or discomfort at his sexual tendencies, his reputation, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, hasn’t recently enjoyed the heights it deserves; the last major Gauguin show in Britain took place over 50 years ago. This show attempts to shift such attitudes.
Opening with a series of self-portraits that stretch across many years and different periods in Gauguin’s life, the show sketches the artist’s development from and later disillusion with the predominant Impressionism of his peers, and how he found self-expression in the exotic. Yet it was an ersatz type of exotic; finding himself in Tahiti, Gauguin was dismayed to learn that the despised Catholic church had already converted the locals. No matter: Gauguin fashioned fetish objects and sacred totems himself, and subtly inserted them into his art.
Abandoning the usual chronological formula, the show pivots thematically around Gauguin, with the work arranged in various rooms around a pair of central spaces which look into the artist’s life and influence; one room covering his first trip to the South Seas, the other his second. The meaning is clear: the movement of this peripatetic journeyman is the key to understanding how he felt about himself, and how he reflected this in the art he produced.
Gauguin: Maker of Myth runs until 16th January 2011, and as you’d expect from such a major show (over 90 institutions across the world loaned artworks), it’s extremely popular. Best visit early in the day before the crowds have a chance to descend.
Image: Paul Gauguin, Tehamana Has Many Parents, or The Ancestors of Tehamana, 1893.