Getting ready for a week of paper proposals, readings, slide tests and so on brought me on to a subject that really gets me going: Paul freaking Gauguin.
He didn't just magically spring into my head, unfortunately he was summoned there by my Gender & Modernism readings for the week. The paper that did the damage was Abigail Solomon-Godeau's, "Going Native: Paul Gauguin and the Invention of the Primitivist Modernism". Our topic of discussion is Gender, Race and Modernism and we're supposed to ask ourselves why modern art 'fetishizes' otherness? I'll get to that in my reading response, but the reason I came on here today was because the man incenses me and reminded me of yet another paper I wrote that expresses my thoughts on Gauguin and the Tate Modern exhibition I reviewed for a class last spring.
I'm trying to establish a writing style that engages and educates, so again I hope you enjoy and feel free to disagree. While I think the artist is deplorable, I think his art is brilliant. So here it is:
Maker of more than a few mistakes: Gauguin: Maker of Myth (at the Tate Modern) leaves something to be desired.
Stepping into Gauguin: Maker of Myth is like leaving the brightly lit corridors of the Tate Modern and setting foot into the arrivals hall of a foreign country: there are crowds milling, there is little to no English spoken, and a sense of frenetic excitement of what is to come once the doors to the unknown open. After the allotted fifteen minute wait to enter one is enveloped by the psyche that was the tortured genius of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), the Post-Impressionist painter who was one of the cult artists of the early twentieth century. However the confused exhibition title and thematic hanging of the works leaves what should be a spectacular show falling slightly flat and with a tepid grasp for the artist and his merits.
It is a show characterized by what one can only assume to be an extensive advertising campaign and you could almost accuse the Tate of showboating. To elaborate, a name as famous as Paul Gauguin is sure to generate attention and attract the masses - especially if the institution is toting the show as the biggest retrospective of the artist’s work in fifty years. It is what is commonly known as a ‘blockbuster’ and is meant to have visitors crowding to enter and exit with a kitschy memento such as the knit your own Gauguin puppies.
Such a tactic worked favourably, the show was a safe gamble opening to positive acclaim and record-breaking numbers. Yet the biggest offense was the choice to show the works not chronologically but by theme. The exhibition notes state that ‘Rather than following a strictly chronological sequence, Gauguin: Maker of Myth is organized according to thematic sections that emphasize the parallels between different stages in his career.’ Curating the show this way is a bold move as it makes it very difficult for those who are not familiar with the artist’s work to get a sense of his growth and stylistic advances. The effort is applaudable but nevertheless fails as the themes often feel contrived and fail to be completely convincing.
Stepping into the first room, titled Identity and Self-Mythology literally brings you face to face with the artist. Along the right hand wall there are series of self-portraits moving from oldest to most recent and this is one of the only instances where the exhibition achieves a sense of the evolution in the painter’s style. It is an intimate moment to see the young Gauguin change to the seasoned painter and traveler in the year he died in Tahiti and it is the lack of this intimacy in the rest of the show that leaves you with unresolved feelings as you leave.
The next room, Making the Familiar Strange, succeeds in exposing a mythical aspect of his painting yet it seems a strange phrase to umbrella the range of work in the room which include still lifes, experimentations in pottery, wood carving and several preparatory drawings. The painting that best suits this title is Clovis Falling Asleep, 1884, an unusual look into the painter’s family. The painting depicts the young son of the artist drifting into sleep, resting his head on a table upon which also rests a large wooden tankard, which stood on a plinth next to the painting. The relatively simple canvas is divided into two planes: one firmly anchored to earth which is the surface Clovis rests his head upon and the other is the bright blue patterned wallpaper that seems to present the child’s subconscious as it flits through a dream. The articulation of brushstrokes can be compared to Van Gogh’s loose style and the array of colors is a magical haze that seems to solidify the idea of dreams. The eye moves from the pale shades of the boy, to the solid figure of the tankard and then takes in the translucent figures that seem to float above the child’s head. Clovis Falling Asleep is one of the monumental successes of the exhibition because it touches briefly on an intimate moment of Gauguin’s and reinforces his status as a modern artist, as it was due to subconscious themes.
Walking through the show, one gets the feeling that the curators are aiming to squeeze you through the U-shaped exhibition getting glimpses of the famous works here and there, but aiming for you be in and out within a half an hour slot so as to keep the onslaught of crowds churning through. There are several rooms that project off of the ‘path’ where you find compilations of books, newspaper clippings, photographs and posters aimed to give some context into the time around the painter. These would be more successful had there been less to see as one feels guilty that they cannot read every single article or take in every single picture in detail. There is far too much to absorb and one needs several visits to the show to get a complete taste for the sheer amount of art.
Passing through rooms of Gauguin’s drawings and landscapes give you a mediocre idea of the artist’s style, but it is in the sixth room, Sacred Themes, that there is a moment of pure satisfaction. For a man who seemed to reject society and religion much of his art is pervaded with religious themes and here it is refreshing to see a new side of the artist, not just Tahitian nudes and colorful landscapes, but various biblical scenes, all rendered in his hazy Symbolist style. Yet, this small triumph is quickly overshadowed by a succession of rooms that re-enforce why arranging works thematically can be so problematic.
The largest flaw of the exhibition is the room dubbed Gauguin’s Titles, a room with five large Tahitian paintings each depicting a majestic native woman. This choice seems so extremely contrived that it almost ruins the experience. Gauguin is well known for implementing Tahitian colloquialisms as his titles and there seems to be no need to devote a room to this ‘theme’. It seems a gigantic waste of a title as each of the paintings is majestic and comes close to shining light into the myth of the tropical Edenic paradise.
Perhaps a change in title would lead to less disappointment. Maker of Myth conjures up a fantasy of a man exploring the exotic and unveiling his secrets to the world- one expects the show to be full of completely mind blowing revelations. But where is the myth that the show alludes to? Is it in the man behind the painting or the subject matter that Gauguin chooses to paint? After one sets aside the rather deplorable father and husband from behind the paintings it should have been easy to discover this mythic vision, which was quite avant-garde and mysterious. However, the lack of cohesion between many of the themes leaves you without a solid idea of the painter that Gauguin was. It is an awe-inspiring collection of work, but lacks the chemistry that would have elevated it to more than just a collection of interesting paintings.
- Life is good
Listening to: country music... seriously
Observations: Tree of Life has some wicked brilliant visuals
Craving: not Thai food, that's for sure.