The Courtauld Gallery Has Been Collecting Gauguin

In the excellent Becoming Picasso the Courtauld gave us new insight into an artist we thought had been explored to completion – it was a very successful exhibition in terms of visitor numbers as well. But can its follow-up exhibition on Paul Gauguin prove just as revelatory and popular?

Gauguin is most famously known for ditching Paris and fleeing to Tahiti, where he lived among the natives  and painted them, particularly the women. His paintings of exotic women and jungle environments distinguished him from his Impressionist peers whose focus remained firmly on depicting Europe.

Two of his paintings of Tahitian women are on display here, including one of his greatest works – Nevermore. A raven watches over a naked woman who looks back at it uncomfortably, an ominous take on the standard Renaissance reclining nude.

We also have a few landscapes, but this was never Gauguin’s strength and despite the bright colours the exotic locales warranted, they can never measure up to the Cezannes and Monets in the Courtauld’s collection.

A highlight is the set of prints from the Noa Noa series, where the spirits of the dead circle night time rituals in a much darker tone than we’re used to seeing in his paintings. Despite these great works, the fact that Tate Modern had a comprehensive review of Gauguin’s work less than three years ago means that this exhibition often feels like it’s re-treading old ground.

The adjacent gallery, in response to the Gauguin exhibition, explores the general theme of escaping to islands and the impact of humans on pristine environments – featuring both classical and contemporary artists. The stylistic and temporal variation of the works means this show doesn’t always hold together well, but there are a few highlights – most notably Marc Quinn’s floral arrangement that couldn’t exist naturally as the component flowers bloom at different times of the year.

Collecting Gauguin: Samuel Courtauld in the ’20s is on at The Courtauld Gallery, Strand, until 8 September. Imagining Islands in on until 21 July. Tickets are £6 for adults, concessions available and includes access to the fantastic permanent collection as well.

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