Would you have left your teenage daughter alone with Paul Gauguin? If her expression in Gauguin’s portrait (above) is anything to go by, Thérèse-Josephine de Nimal was none too happy at the prospect. Actually, I presume she was chaperoned but even so, the studio must have been positively crackling with electricity that day. Gauguin decided to celebrate what the National Gallery’s blurb coyly refers to as Thérèse’s ‘transition to womanhood’ by including a sculpture – one of his own, in fact – of a copiously menstruating figure in the bottom right-hand corner of the canvas. Not surprisingly Thérèse’s mother, the Comtesse de Nimal, was not amused and declined to buy the painting. Gauguin always loved to push the boundaries.
These days Gauguin (1848-1903) is a problematic artist: white privilege, cultural appropriation, #MeToo, he ticks all the boxes. The NG is upfront about this, conceding that ‘European colonial and misogynist fantasies about Polynesian women were widespread…(and) the artist did more than most in acting these out’. It’s rather telling that, with a single exception, all the paintings of Tahitian beauties shown here are the ones in which they’re not nude but wearing ‘missionary’ dresses. On the other hand, the organisers don’t help the defence by retaining the artist’s original titles with their frequent references to ‘savages’, although Gauguin would have considered the term a compliment and often applied it to himself. He also went round telling everyone he was a great artist and in this respect at least he has surely been vindicated. Besides, we might have to wait another decade for a major Gauguin show in London (the last was in 2010), so this isn’t one to miss.
On the face of it, the idea of focussing on Gauguin as a portraitist is rather odd, because his whole schtick lay in subjective experience rather than literal reality; he would not be ‘shackled by the need of probability’, as he put it. Not surprisingly, though, as a man obsessed with his own persona he painted a lot of self-portraits, ostensibly grouped in the first room but actually scattered round the whole show. And naturally he had no qualms about representing himself on the slopes of Golgotha or more explicitly as ‘Christ in the Garden of Olives’ (1889), sporting – for reasons not explained here – shocking ginger hair. Why wouldn’t he? Had he too not suffered and been forced to offer himself up for martyrdom? (To be fair, Gauguin was hardly the first artist to make this association).
Otherwise, although Gauguin did do a few ‘straight’ portraits like that of Thérèse-Josephine, he mostly employed his friends and associates, both in France and later on Tahiti, as stock characters in his narratives. He had great fun, for example, with the lugubrious features of fellow artist Meijer de Haan, whom he used as a sinister foil to the natural innocence of the native girls in ‘Barbarian Tales’ (1902), pictured above. Gauguin also did at least one portrait of another, far better-known Dutch artist: Van Gogh. This isn’t in the show, although the curators have included a painting of sunflowers which, they suggest, may be a ‘surrogate portrait’ of him. Maybe, maybe not.
This is quite a small exhibition – just 55 works – but as well as paintings there’s a good selection of his often neglected but highly original sculptures in clay and wood. Of the latter, one in particular not only shows that Gauguin did a good line in satire but also makes you warm to him. Monseigneur Joseph Martin was a local bishop with whom he conducted a lively feud during his final sojourn in the remote Marquesas. Martin had chided the artist for his loose morals while at the same time, Gauguin knew, he was carrying on with his own housekeeper. In 1902 Gauguin did a carving of him as ‘Père Paillard’ (‘Father Lechery’), squatting totem-like with horns, which he set up on a plinth outside his house. Pot – kettle – black! Martin had to walk past it every day.
Unfortunately ‘Père Paillard’ had the last laugh because within a year Gauguin – embittered, debilitated by syphilis, seemingly forgotten – was dead. He was only 54. His last self-portrait is a revelation: bespectacled and with a neat goatee, he looks the very model of propriety. Less the devil incarnate, more like the retired banker that in another life he had indeed once been. Was this the real Gauguin, beneath all the bravado and bluster? Probably not. Strange man.
Header image: Paul Gauguin, Young Breton Woman, 1889, Oil on canvas, 46 × 38 cm, Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner