The blank look on Tehamana’s face is not an “enigmatic” smile in the long tradition of western images of sexually available women, but a mask. And it is much the same look of blank exhaustion we see on the faces of the supposedly sensual, innocent “Two Tahitian Women,” painted six years after the earlier painting. For Gauguin, paradise, paradise lost and paradise invented existed simultaneously. Tehamana did indeed have “many ancestors,” and Gauguin, with his historical and cultural baggage, was one of them.
The catalogue to the exhibition calls this kind of myth-making a “narrative strategy” and it goes on to detail other, similar strategies. One room is devoted to self-portraits, which show the evolution of Gauguin’s painting from a conventional and confidently rendered image, circa 1876, depicting him in a proper collar and a smug, smartest-boy-in-the-class smile on his face, to a self-pitying 1889 painting called “Christ in the Garden of Olives” in which Gauguin is Christ, to a more complicated self-portrait from the same year in which Gauguin appears against a brilliant dichotomy of red and acid yellow, with a halo over his head and a serpentlike figure in his hand, suggesting a blunt and rather embarrassing angel-devil sense of divided self.
But, as so often with Gauguin, the most fascinating self portrait isn’t found among the paintings, but is in fact a strange ceramic piece, a vase “in the form of a severed head,” with Gauguin’s features and a bloody drip of red glaze suggesting decapitation. This vase, and similar ceramic objects with distorted shapes and features, is so weird — it has a handle making it easier for the artist to drink his own genius — it reminds the viewer, despite all the focus on narrative strategies, that it is Gauguin’s basic, formalist encounter with materials that really matters. Narrative elements can help you discover connections between the work, and where it was made; but the radical, jaw-dropping stuff that is beyond explanation rarely requires reference to, or illuminates anything about Gauguin’s life.
Perhaps the most thrilling work in the exhibition is a print made about 1900 that recapitulates some of the artist’s basic repertoire of images: an exotic “Eve,” whose demure stance and insinuating glance suggest the artist’s fascination with Christian ideas of man’s fall, transposed onto the degraded but still enticing fantasy of a noble savage beyond reach of Christian ideology. But it is the technique that matters. Gauguin produced this “traced monotype” by inking a piece of paper, overlaying it with another and then drawing on the back of the blank sheet. The result is two-sided. The working side, where he incised the image, is a rough, somewhat frantic drawing; the “printed” side is a blotchy, almost monochromatic image that looks a bit like contemporary art produced by burning the paper surface.
The National Gallery is displaying both sides of the image, the handmade and the printed. Here one senses Gauguin’s pure perversity. Printing, after all, is supposed to create a series of images that can extend the artist’s reach beyond the single artwork. But this print is an original and a reproduction at the same time, and there’s something brilliant and impotent about it, like a dollar bill that cost a dollar to make. Yes, there are perhaps multiple narrative strategies at work here, including a dizzying set of inversions and substitutions — the public print and the private drawing, Western “reproduction” and Eastern authenticity.