Enter Gauguin the Trailblazer, Exit the Myth

By Darwent, Charles | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), October 3, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Enter Gauguin the Trailblazer, Exit the Myth


Darwent, Charles, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


Tahiti was only part of the painter's colourful story Visual art Gauguin: Maker of Myth Tate Modern LONDON

Three things have counted against Paul Gauguin in the British mind. First, there is the misleading term "Post-Impressionist", dreamt up by Roger Fry to describe French art made after 1900 or so. Coming to Gauguin from Monet is a very bad idea indeed. Second, the house-share episode with Van Gogh in Arles has left us with the vague impression that Gauguin was somehow behind Vincent's cutting off his ear, if not his madness and suicide. The British taste for the underdog does overdogs no favours. Last, but not at all least, there is the sense that Gauguin is, well, French, which is to say prone to sleeping with under-age girls and dying of syphilis. All in all, it has been hard to separate Gauguin the artist from Gauguin the myth, which is the point of an excellent new show at Tate Modern.

Although -isms are often unhelpful, it is as well to remember that Gauguin, who was handily dead by the time Fry coined the term in 1910, did not call himself a Post-Impressionist but a Synthetist. Far from implying a descent from Impressionism, this suggested a reaction against it. Synthetists, scarily modern, believed in celebrating the flatness of their canvases with areas of strong colour separated from each other by the hard outlines of Chinese enamels. The point was not to represent the actual but to evoke the Other, whatever that Other might be. To do this, you had to make the familiar unfamiliar and vice versa - to depict Tahitian beaches and Breton hayfields as though they were interchangeable, to paint your own face as Christ's or mould it in clay as a guillotined aristocrat's.

And so one of the first works in this show, Clovis Asleep (1884), is both the domestic image of Gauguin's son and the evocation of an entirely unknowable world. The wallpaper behind the sleeping child's head - a pattern of fish and squid on a sea of blue - also reads as a projection of his dreams. Here is a scene at once mundane and strange, real and symbolic. Freud had only begun his studies with Josef Breuer the year before - it would be 1899 before he published The Interpretation of Dreams - and yet there is a premonition in Clovis Asleep of Freud's royal road to the unconscious. Gauguin's wallpaper may owe some vague debt to the Symbolists, but the psychology behind it looks forward to the 20th century rather than back to Puvis de Chavannes.

Perhaps his lack of formal art training - he was, in his youth, a trainee ship's pilot, a naval rating and a stockbroker - stood Gauguin in good stead.

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