Magazine article The Spectator

Tropical Paradise

Magazine article The Spectator

Tropical Paradise

Article excerpt

Tropical paradise Sebastian Smee is seduced by the Tahitian art of Paul Gauguin

False seduction is not something we like to equate with great art. But it's a feeling, a suspicion, that presses in on you when looking again at Gauguin, as we are invited to do by a spellbinding new exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, marking the centenary of Gauguin's death.

Drenched in a kind of lurid, late-in-the-day Romanticism, Gauguin's Tahitian paintings have not only had to contend with becoming postcard cliches in the manner of, say, Van Gogh's sunflowers or Degas's dancers; they have taken on the appearance, in many people's eyes, of pictorial prototypes for 19th-century colonial rapaciousncss and 21st-century sex tourism.

All the same, I remain very keen on the pictures themselves - more so than ever, in fact, after this exhibition, which pulls together Gauguin's Tahitian paintings, as well as carvings, woodcuts and sculptures, from great collections such as the State Hermitage in St Petersburg, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, the Metropolitan in New York and the Courtauld in London. How intoxicating they continue to look! How refreshing their invitation to drink in visual experience without having to police ourselves as we do so!

By nature a boastful, easily aggrieved man, Gauguin threw himself into painting in the early 1880s after a fitful career in finance. After several impecunious years spent painting in Brittany and Aries (where he and Van Gogh had the spat which ended with Van Gogh hacking into his own ear), his first experience of a tropical paradise was in 1887, when he spent four, dysentery-wracked months in Martinique.

Undeterred, he went to Tahiti four years later, after reading an official government handbook which described the Tahitian woman thus: 'With her large, dark eyes . . . her almost excessively full lips and her marvellously white and regular teeth, she looks so sweet and innocently voluptuous.' Enough: Gauguin was away. But Tahiti, for all its orgiastic, three-in-a-bed pleasures, liberated him from neither illness nor poverty. At the end of his first stay there he wrote: 'After the disease of civilisation, life in this new world is a return to health.' It was an ironic, even nauseating declaration from a man who would spend so much of his time in Tahiti suffering ulcers, heart attacks, and advancing syphilis, which he callously spread around among numerous teenage lovers. …

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