Portraits are one of the oldest art forms in the world and Paul Gauguin’s are considered some of the best. Now, the first ever exhibition dedicated to these iconic pieces is being held in London. From the 7th October 2019 to 26th January 2020, the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery will display the artwork of Gauguin, spanning his early career to his, now notorious, time in French Polynesia. The exhibition is a real journey, demonstrating how the artist revolutionised the portrait and transformed the traditional style from purely objective to a subjective, personal and psychological experience.
This transformation is the overarching theme of the exhibition. The visitor witnesses the ways in which Gauguin rebelled against the Western definition of the ‘portrait’, which, for centuries, had been largely based around the sitter’s social standing, personality or family background. Gauguin was not interested in any of this.
Gauguin’s portraits range from sculptures to paintings, most of which blend fantasy and reality in order to symbolise his own feelings and impressions. Anthropomorphic Pot, for example, is a distorted sculpture of Gauguin himself, reflecting his melancholic mental state. Christ in the Garden of Olives is a self-portrait of Gauguin in the persona of Christ about to be betrayed by his soldiers, expressing his own feelings of isolation as a struggling artist. His portraits of friends and acquaintances also often contain symbolic references that represent his own perception of them. His work adds a new dynamic to the traditional ‘portrait’ and affirms that art is, and can only be, a reflection of subjective and individual experience.
One of Gauguin’s most frequent muses was his friend and fellow artist Meijer de Haan, who he met in Paris in 1888. De Haan later accompanied Gauguin to Brittany, where they worked together, developing their artistic style and an intense relationship in the process. The first of many pieces dedicated to de Haan was Portrait of Meijor de Haan, a grand sculpture carved out of oak. This intricate bust depicts de Haan as a thinker and great creative force. However, not all of Gauguin’s creations were quite so flattering.
From as early as 1889, exaggerated features and devilish qualities began to creep into Gauguin’s sketches and paintings of his friend. De Haan was increasingly depicted as animal-like with furrowed brows and hair resembling animal ears. Perhaps as a representation of the threat of Western culture on art. Perhaps a symbol of Gauguin’s fierce competitiveness with his friends and artistic peers. Whatever the reason, de Haan began to symbolise for Gauguin something far more than just a friend.
De Haan’s image haunted Gauguin, long surpassing their friendship and even de Haan himself. In Gauguin’s 1901 painting, Bouquet of Flowers, six years after de Haan’s death, his face appears to lurk behind a bouquet of exotic flowers. In 1902, just a year before Gauguin’s own death, he painted de Haan yet again in Contes Barbares. In this painting, de Haan appears to have fully transitioned into the animal-like form hinted at in earlier works. His image is now far removed from the man himself. Reduced to a monstrous caricature, Gauguin’s later portraits of de Haan represent not the real man but Gauguin’s warped and disturbed idea of him.
Another friendship that came back to haunt Gauguin in his later years was his relationship with Vincent Van Gogh. The two artists also met in 1888 and briefly lived with each other in the Southern French town of Arles. During this short but intense period, they both produced iconic works, including Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers. They also proposed the idea that an artist is able to evoke a person’s presence simply by depicting an object associated with them, further challenging the traditional notions of the ‘portrait’.
Gauguin’s art frequently experimented with this idea, culminating in his 1901 painting Still Life with ‘Hope’, over a decade after Van Gogh’s death. This painting is a masterpiece, containing a still life of sunflowers surrounded by treasured possessions and art that both Gauguin and Van Gogh admired. It has been suggested that, in this piece, Gauguin is summoning the presence of Van Gogh, demonstrating their shared belief that one can evoke a person’s essence through objects alone. If this is the case, this painting is the most extreme challenge to the ‘portrait’ yet: a portrait of a man, long dead, represented only by symbolic and personal objects.
This exhibition also explores another of Gauguin’s complicated relationships: his relationship with his own cultural identity. Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848 but soon sailed to Peru to escape the 1848 revolution, known as the February Revolution, that was taking hold of his country. Having been brought up in this exotic land, Gauguin returned to Paris with his family as a teenager. However, because of his early influences, Gauguin always felt removed and judgemental of European tradition.
He felt (in his own words) that there was a ‘purer’ way of living, a ‘virgin land’ containing a ‘primitive’ and ‘simpler race’. Racist and ignorant today but, in colonial Europe, the mystification of other cultures was common. Gauguin was particularly driven by this belief, perhaps due to his upbringing in a faraway European colony, and in 1891 he travelled to the Pacific island of Tahiti in French Polynesia. Conveniently speaking his native language due to French occupancy, Tahitians provided endless artistic inspiration for Gauguin. These paintings, mostly of Tahitian women, would often mystify Tahiti with fictional symbolism and common imagery used in Europe to signify the ‘exotic’.
Gauguin’s work during this period had an inescapable colonial presence. The paintings often integrated Western expectations of art with an idealising colonial gaze. He also often incorporated Christianity into his depictions of Tahitian culture, painting women dressed in Christian missionary dresses and reimagining biblical tales in ‘exotic’ settings. This is perhaps a reflection of his confused cultural identity: feeling alienated by Western life, fascinated by the other world he had a taste of in Peru and combining the two in his art. It could also be an example of a man fulfilling a common European colonial and misogynistic fantasy.
It is most likely a bit of both. Nevertheless, Gauguin’s art from his time in French Polynesia provides a valuable insight into the impact of colonialism and some very beautiful paintings.
This momentous exhibition is endlessly interesting and thought-provoking, posing era-defining questions and challenging traditional ideas about the meaning of a ‘portrait’. Gauguin’s multi-faceted portraits depict the evolution of Western art itself as it became increasingly personal and psychological, foreshadowing the huge impact Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious had on art in the twentieth century. An important and captivating exhibition for anyone interested in the evolution of art in the late modern period.
The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Gauguin Portraits is taking place at the National Gallery, London from 7th October 2019 to 26th January 2020
The exhibition is organised by the National Gallery, London and the National Gallery of Canada