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Gauguin Portraits

The National Gallery until 26 January 2020

“Gauguin firmly believed that the world could only be apprehended from his personal point of view”, we read on the board in Room 1, entitled Self Portraits. Was he really self-obsessed, as the curators suggest? Or is there a form of ‘honesty’ in a vision that analyses the other from the point of view of the self? A vision that does not try to annihilate the self in order to better understand the other? If you are looking for answers about the human condition, or about Gauguin as an artist, a person, and a supporter of the primitive life, you will probably come out of this stimulating exhibition with more questions than when you entered it. Featuring over fifty works in different media, from paintings and drawings, to prints, and sculptures in ceramics and wood, and spanning the artist’s entire career, this is the first-ever exhibition entirely focused on the portraits of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). It is accompanied by an extensive and informative free booklet, and a series of events that shed new light on the controversies surrounding the artist’s philosophy and approach. As already mentioned, Room 1 opens with an amazing array of self-portraits. They were the artist’s favourite tool to explore the self and the narratives he identified with, namely his role of misunderstood prophet, embodied in the passion of Jesus, or his identification with a more primitive, natural world, incarnated in a distorted idol with his thumb in his mouth (Anthropomorphic pot, 1889). The most striking painting in this room is Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ (1890-91). It is in fact a triple self-portrait in which a black-clad Gauguin stands between two of his recent works, Yellow Christ (who bears his features), and his Anthropomorphic pot. The geometry of the space hints at a tryptic, and we follow the connection of the eyelines of the three ‘incarnations.’ Ever hoping to solve a puzzle that possibly can never be solved. In Room 2, Family and Friends; Brittany, we encounter the early days of Gauguin’s career, with what might appear at first as traditional portraits of his family, such as Mette in Evening Dress (1884), or Clovis Asleep (1884), but the seeds of a much wider idea of portrait as symbol and personal journey of the artist, are already there, in the blue tapestry with angelic forms that seem to emanate directly from Clovis’s dreams.

Soon we notice that the sitters are and yet are not central to Gauguin’s portraits, we do not learn much about them, their personalities, their background, their feelings. They are more like ‘interactive pawns’ who take up roles on the artist’s stage, or display their essence through the artist’s lenses. By moving away from the Western traditional portraits, which focused on features, moods, and environment, Gauguin seems to tap into the Ancient, Medieval, and primitive traditions of surrounding the subject with symbols. But we don’t know if the symbols are relevant to the subject or to the associations that the subject evokes in the artist. Often the symbols are in the form of previous works that appear in the background, next to or behind the sitter. It’s like being faced with a game of mirrors, of frames within frames, paintings within paintings, a story that snakes through the life and works of the artist, and whose interpretation is ever changing. Through time his human subjects change their role, his friend and fellow artist Meijer de Haan morphs from the pensive thinker and reader we see in Room 3, to the devilish faun of Barbarian Tales (1902) in Room 7, who represents the evil Western civilisation, as compared to the innocence of the Polynesian life. If you love Gauguin for his exotic representation of Polynesian people, immersed in nature, freedom, grace, colour and heat, you will be rewarded by the presence of many of his most famous paintings. Yet, you might now see them from a different perspective, and ask yourselves different questions.

First published in the East Finchley Open Artists November 2019 Newsletter - Click HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

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