Gauguin at the National Gallery

By Philip Kennicott
Friday, February 25, 2011; 5:52 PM

The life of Paul Gauguin, dimly remembered from a bad art-appreciation class, used to go this way: Well-off stockbroker abandons wife and children to devote himself to art; decries the increasing vacuity of his impressionist forefathers; rebels against bourgeois society; leaves Paris for places warm and exotic; and eventually makes his way to Tahiti, where he discovers the primitive, reinvents himself and produces paintings of lush sensuality filled with the enticing forms of native women.

When the National Gallery teamed up with museums in Chicago and Paris more than 20 years ago to mount a monumental exhibition of works by Gauguin, it was precisely that understanding of the pioneering post-impressionist that they sought to undermine. The blockbuster 1988 exhibition, according to its organizers, aimed to stress "his production as an artist rather than the exotic, troubled and fascinating life that has attained almost mythological proportions and is better left to biography and film."

Today, with a new Gauguin exhibition opening at the National Gallery on Sunday, taste and scholarship have changed. Subtitled "Maker of Myth," the current Gauguin show is not so large or comprehensive as the one seen in 1988. Rather, it is focused on many of the things that would have been held in bad odor two decades ago: biographical tales, narrative elements and the relation between the artist and the places and people he painted.

Perhaps the old Gauguin myth did deserve a wooden stake through the heart if anyone still believed it two decades ago. Most of it was piffle and what was true - he abandoned his wife and family and slept with underage native girls - was not very flattering to Gauguin. Close attention to Gauguin's writing, including letters not published until long after his death in 1903, revealed many of the swashbuckling elements of his life story were part of a carefully calculated PR campaign, a reinvention of himself as part "savage" in an effort to create a brand for his work, which wasn't selling as well as he had hoped and had diverged from impressionism long before he made his way to places where the weather was warm and the sex plentiful.

The old made-for-PBS-style Gauguin narrative contained two major distortions that particularly limited understanding of his work. It placed too much emphasis on Tahiti for the introduction of the large fields of bold color, flattened forms contained within dark outlines and willful conflations of two-dimensional and three-dimensional space that allow surface patterns and distinct objects to flow seamlessly into one another. And it limited collective memory of Gauguin's work - the general understanding you can hear at a cocktail party - to a small subset of his work: paintings only, and generally paintings that seem to represent the tropical paradise he hoped to find when he left Paris for the first of two extended sojourns in the South Seas in 1891.

In fact, Gauguin was already the Gauguin we know when he was working in Brittany, beginning in 1886. And the Gauguin "we know" isn't worth bothering with unless it includes Gauguin the sculptor, the printmaker, the ceramicist and, most of all, Gauguin the contrarian, the critic and social observer who could see through everything and everyone, including himself, who wrote like an annoying autodidact who has read too much Nietzsche and whose art is consequently far darker, troubling and contradictory than a handful of sunny, sexy, come-hither winking canvasses suggest.

If "Paul Gauguin: Maker of Myth" has a thesis, it is that in undoing the old Gauguin mythology, too much important information was taken off the table. But it is also arguing with the old "modernist" or formalist fetish for Gauguin, the sense (common in the history of music and literature as well) that the only thing that matters in art is the purely formal, the innovative, the interrelation with other art, not the reflection of the artist and his times.

Today, with artists once again interested in everything under the sun, especially themselves, we can rethink Gauguin in ways that make him seem terribly relevant to things such as the role of accident and chance in the creation of new forms and ideas, the fashioning of personal myths, the insertion of the artist into the art and the invention of post-modern fantasies that reach across cultural and historical lines.

The viewer is challenged to see paintings that represent the familiar but distorted view of Gauguin, such as "Two Tahitian Women," from 1899, in the context of work that shows a far darker view of paradise. "Two Tahitian Women," so familiar that you wonder whether it's from the cover of a cheap paperback edition of Herman Melville, shows a pair of bare-breasted women, one holding a plate of flowers and directly facing the viewer with a vacant expression, while the other leans in slightly and engages sideways through the corners of her eyes. Around them, a dark forest and yellow sky is so roughly and flatly rendered it might be a giant carpet hanging in a studio.

Here, it would seem, is the paradise French men had been fantasizing about since Louis-Antoine de Bougainville visited Tahiti in the mid -18th century and returned with a romanticized vision of a simple society, filled with happy people, untroubled by civilization and its discontents.

Contrast that with "The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana Has Many Parents," painted in 1893, in which a young girl is seen in a striped dress and prim collar, with flowers in her hair and strange runes or characters on the wall behind her. Tehamana was one of Gauguin's teenage mistresses, and the dress suggests the degree to which the brutal imprint of French colonial administration had "westernized" her. The strange characters on the wall and an Indian-looking statue to one side, however, have nothing to do with Tahiti but are borrowed from iconography and inscriptions from India and the Easter Islands.

Upon arriving in Tahiti, Gauguin came face-to-face with what he could have easily learned had he done his homework: There was no paradise left. French rule had spread prostitution, disease, alcoholism, ennui, despair and cultural decimation. So Gauguin invented his own paradise, borrowing from different cultures, fusing Christian elements with vague approximations of the vanishing Tahitian religion. And yet many of his images are as angry with the people of paradise for failing in their appointed role - stewards of the unsullied garden - as they are celebrations of a lost ideal.

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.

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 5at the National Gallery of Art, East Building,Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW

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