Sculptures Steal The Show In Gauguin's Portraits At The National Gallery

Gauguin Portraits, The National Gallery ★★★☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 11 months ago

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Sculptures Steal The Show In Gauguin's Portraits At The National Gallery Gauguin Portraits, The National Gallery 3
It takes a certain person to depict yourself as Christ. © Norton Museum of Art

Let's get this out of the way first: Paul Gauguin was a truly detestable person. He abandoned his wife and five children for Tahiti and the opportunity to spread syphilis among the native girls.

In his exhibition of portraits at The National Gallery, the curators thankfully don't try to hide his nasty side. I actually came out of the show realising Gauguin was more of an arsehole than I initially thought he was — it takes a certain kind of person to paint himself as Christ, or to give out self-portraits as gifts. Then there's the poor bishop who admonished Gauguin for his affairs, so Gauguin created a sculpture of the bishop as a horned devil and displayed it outside his house.

This time it's only a Christ comparison (how humble). © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / René-Gabriel Ojéda

However, it's important to separate art from artist, and Gauguin was a brilliant painter — there's plenty of the solid blocks of searing yellow and cool blues we've come to expect from his work. It's this exotic palate from his trip to Tahiti that always makes his work stand out when placed next to his peers, such as Cezanne and Van Gogh.

His use of colour was fantastic, but this show is all about the people in his paintings. When it comes to capturing emotion and personality, a lot of these works don't have the tension and beauty of his landscapes — very few of his portraits demand your attention compared to his other works that can transport one to the tropics in a single glance. The exceptions are his self-portraits where his high opinion of himself clearly shines through, in thoughtful poses designed to be as flattering as possible.

The sculpture is superb and the winner of this show. © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot

The surprise revelation of the exhibition is his carved sculptures. Heads made from bronze, terracotta and wood are superbly detail with a lovely smoothness to the skin of a wooden carving of his young wife — perfectly mimicking the freshness of her youthful face. It's an aspect of his work the public is less familiar with and they steal the show.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Gauguin Portraits is on at The National Gallery from 7 October to 26 January. Tickets are £20-24.

Last Updated 09 October 2019