Gauguin Is Still Gaudily Good; ART

Article excerpt

Byline: by Philip Hensher

Gauguin

Tate Modern, London until January 16, 2011

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Amazingly, this is the first major Gauguin exhibition in London for half a century. He must be one of the most instantly recognisable of great painters whose style - luminous, flat, vivid in colour, its forms bounded and layered - stands at the beginning of modern art.

And his interest in sexuality, storytelling, the primitive and the sophisticated seems almost more exciting now than ever before.

There is, too, his astonishing story. The version Somerset Maugham tells so unforgettably in The Moon And Sixpence has been chipped away at over the years, but it still remains in outline. He abandoned his wife and children in search of an artistic career, but success eluded him, whether in Brittany, Paris or, ultimately, the South Pacific.

His nine-week sojourn with Van Gogh in Arles in 1888, at the end of which Van Gogh mutilated his ear and retired to a mental institution, remains unbeaten as an episode of artistic extremity. Polynesia was not what he hoped for, but Gauguin was transformed by the exposure to non-Western morals and art.

His own morals were not of the highest, and some of his most dubious behaviour in the South Pacific is recorded in his portraits of naked adolescents.

And yet there is the wild beauty of his art at its greatest. …