But in the end, it is the most basic, dryly formal fact of all that bowls you over: He forged a new way of capturing and organizing visual data that is fresher and more haunting than any other of his “exotic Eve” images.
There is something obfuscatory and slightly weaselly about words like “narrative strategies.” In the evolution of the show, from its first appearance at the Tate to its current manifestation at the NGA, it feels like some of this academic focus and jargon have fallen by the wayside. What is on display is a standard presentation, with images grouped by broad themes, and a lot of wall text that explains the recurring tropes and idees fixes that animated Gauguin’s imagination. It will be a successful show and it will appeal especially to visitors who supplement it with reading from the journals and other writings of Gauguin, which are excerpted and printed on the walls. Twenty years is a long drought between Gauguin exhibitions, and a new generation needs to be refreshed by these images.
But Gauguin still awaits a proper understanding, a reckoning that is both artistic and moral. The worst thing about phrases such as “narrative strategies” is that they reduce biographical data to a post-modern stew of moral relativity: Fraudulent self-promotion becomes “self-mythologizing”; theft becomes playful appropriation; the repeated rape of a child — for what else can you call sex with a girl who wasn’t mature enough to consent or economically or socially powerful enough to refuse — becomes something grouped under the theme “fictions of femininity.”
“Paul Gauguin: Maker of Myth” is a move towards grappling with both the art and “the exotic, troubled and fascinating life that has attained almost mythological proportions.” But, as with figures such as Richard Wagner and Ezra Pound, we aren’t there yet. Like the solitary horseman that recurs in some of the artist’s most haunting paintings, Gauguin placed us on a long journey, with little hope of arriving at any satisfying reconciliation between his genius and his utterly odious self.
Gauguin: Maker of Myth
Sunday to June 5
at the National Gallery of Art, East Building,
Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW