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Gaugain- Tate Modern

From: Sir Henry Lightfoot
Date: 10 Oct 2010
Time: 17:31:12 -0500


Though I'm especially partial to the art made in France in the latter half of the nineteenth century, with the paintings of Renoir, Manet , Monet, Degas, Pissarro,Seurat, Cezanne ,and the Dutch exile Van Gogh being , to my mind , literally to die for, Gaugain has always been low on my list of favourites. I never quite got the nudge he made in his paintings back to the symbolic. Here were the other artists of the time facing up to reality, being empirical and observing and commenting on the social world. Gaugain's work seemed too much an escape from reality, a flight into a fanciful kingdom. He seemed to play up the decorative potential of his painting with unreal colours . Yet the paint seemed dry and flat. Compared to the fireworks of Van Gogh, Gaugain applies the paint in a solid, slow work-a-day way , filling in the areas with his tiny brushstrokes. His pictures of Tahitian woman seemed too homogenised to be real portraiture, yet the paintings weren't landscapes either. The show at Tate Modern managed to allow me to adjust my confusion.When you see the paintings en masse, and realise their consistency, it sharpens the focus on what Gaugain was trying to do. Gaugain made paintings from his imagination, as visions. The visionary capacity of his paintings is expressed it seems to me more in line and composition, than the colour. The colour is beautiful and subtly contolled. But Gaugain's sinuous line, that has to appear on the canvas and weave and contain all the information necessary for the image in the instant you first look at it , the elemental flattening of depth and its replacement with shape, make Gaugain's paintings "all-over" in the same sense as post war American art. The scale, however, is typically French; small, modest , intense, sparing, economic . Van Gogh and Gaugain famously got together and shared a studio, "The Yellow House" , for a couple of months in the South of France in 1888. They both suffered from terrible problems .Van Gogh was manic , and his paintings have a mad glint in their eye. Gaugain's work kept him sane , but he was perceived by his family as insane , immoral. Four years earlier he had abandoned his family while working as a stockbroker in Copenhagen, and returned to Paris to become a painter. His wife and kids had been forced to return back to her family as he left them entirely destitute. As with Van Gogh, he suffered from the ocassional bout of suicidal depression . Van Gogh looked up to Gaugain, and in this exhibition you can see why. Whereas Van Gogh was unable to invent without the presence of an empirical motif or appropriated image , Gaugain could paint from his imagination. A literary bud like Van Gogh would have wondered about the potential superiority of that. Gaugain's problem was where to ground his imagination , what empirical source would give him the information and specifics to prevent the paintings lapsing too far into symbolic generalisation. His voyage to Tahiti in 1891, supported by the dealer Ambroise Vollard (who presumably deducted the cost of shipping the paintings back to France ) may have been , paradoxically, a desire to find the perfect motif, rather than the usual reason given; that desperation , poverty and lack of recognition drove him to it. Gaugain was to die at the age of 54 in Tahiti,penniless, syphilitic , a used up alcoholic with a prison sentence behind him.The tragedy of his life colours the work , but in a heavier way than Van Gogh. He followed his art and sacrificed his life and family, and that feels difficult , uncomfortable . Van Gogh is easier to like as he only inflicted harm on himself and is seen as a victim of his own madness. Poignantly, Gaugain's art emanates an extraordinary warmth, and often towards figures that are different from him ; the " otherness " of others . . In Brittany he buried his heart with local, primitive religious belief. In Tahiti, he found a different object of worship- the naked female body.For post-structuralist moralisers ,this territory is laced with all the problematics associated with power relations not only between (relatively) privileged western males , and passive , colonialised and exploitable young women .Yet Gaugain seems to relax into the territory with amazing ease, perhaps because the young women themselves recognised that he was giving something back to them, honouring their beauty . Compared to the realities of life on the island (Tahiti was a French Colony rife with prostitution) Gaugain must have seemed special .Therefore its possible to imagine love blossoming, as well as obvious desire. Part of the way Gaugain honours the young Tahitian women is by putting them in their own space , back in what he imagines to be their home, the world on their terms. The paintings are figure paintings, with the figures surrounded by hallucinatory landscapes .The effect is magical - the empiricism of the figures, so clearly painted from life , against the imaginary of their own selfhood, their own existence represented by the landscapes. The landscapes seem to emanate from the figures, surrounding them , enfolding and caressing them.The women are strong and individual. He represents them in all their dignity , and gives them the privileged status of existing in a world that is better than our own . Perhaps for these reasons, we see Gaugain, not as the coloniser , but as the worshipper and lover. This is an illusion however, a delusion . Tahiti was never like this, and Gaugain was just a painter.