Gauguin at the National Gallery is a unique cinematic event – a sixty-minute documentary about the painter Paul Gauguin, followed by an exclusive private viewing of the National Gallery exhibition, Gauguin Portraits. Created by the Gallery for those of us outside of London, the very fact that this film exists is a positive effort in broadening access to the arts.
The film explores his unique legacy, both in terms of post-impressionist art history, and through the lens of social power hierarchies of gender and nineteenth-century French colonialism. Despite his international pre-eminence, Gauguin – and his art - have been problematised for his sexualised representations of teenage Polynesian girls, including his thirteen or fourteen-year-old ‘wife’ Teha’amana. Gauguin at the National Gallery openly explores these issues, in part through interviews with the descendants of Gauguin’s European and Polynesian relations. Instead of discrediting his art entirely, this perhaps reinforces the value of his work today – as historical artefacts, depicting the filtered, and sometimes fictionalised, representations of Polynesia through the European colonists’ eyes.
In just sixty minutes, the documentary covers remarkable ground and depth in the life of the artist. One of the most widely travelled of his contemporaries, Gauguin is best-known for his works from Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. Yet, the details of his European artistic exploits – including his brief time at Van Gogh’s Yellow House in Arles - equally illuminate his difficult character. I would argue that his attitudes and artworks were defined by two obsessions – to become the ‘savage outsider’, and simultaneously, the ‘cultish leader’.
Exhibition co-curator Christopher Riopelle dissects the painting ‘Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel)’ (1888) – which is currently on display in the Scottish National Gallery. Despite its overt biblical context, I find the piece embodies many facets of Gauguin’s own character and artistic approach. Aesthetically, the use of bright colours and a stylistically Japanese tree represents his burgeoning interest in decorative, non-naturalistic forms, developed during his time in Brittany. The depiction of Jacob and the angel wrestling draws upon the tradition of Breton wrestling, in which a cow (a non-traditional element, featured in the corner of the piece) is given as a prize. The painting also features Breton women in traditional dress, perhaps exemplary of Gauguin’s tendency to romanticise and essentialise women in his works. Indeed, Gauguin himself features as the priest – the principled judge over proceedings. This divine association is no mere token – throughout his self-portraits, Gauguin most frequently depicted himself as Christ, suffering for his art.
The artist’s life was riddled with contradiction. Gauguin flaunted his artistic status and privilege, to receive government funding for his ‘back to nature’ trips to the Polynesian islands. He romanticised that he could self-suffice in the Tahitian nature, but ended up surviving on tinned sardines and French brandy. I left the screening with even more contempt for the individual, and yet greater historical interest in his life and works - as aesthetic artefacts of colonial and gendered hierarchies, which still resonate today.
Gauguin at the National Gallery is in cinemas now. Reviewed at the Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh.
Gauguin Portraits runs at the National Gallery until 26 January 2020.