The stuff of legend
The myths surrounding Gauguin’s life and work are explored in this major Tate show, writes Martin Bailey
Martin Bailey, Wednesday, 1st December 2010
The term Post-Impressionism was invented in London in November 1910, but sadly the centenary of Roger Fry’s path-breaking exhibition is not being marked with an anniversary show. Nevertheless, Londoners have been able to feast on the movement’s two greatest artists – Van Gogh at the Royal Academy earlier this year and now Gauguin
at Tate Modern. In terms of visitor numbers, these two shows look set to be the UK’s most popular exhibitions of 2010.
‘Gauguin: Maker of Myth’, with 100 works, is the most important retrospective on the artist since the 1998–99 show in Washington, Chicago and Paris. It is also the largest exhibition of Gauguins ever held in Britain, with more works by the artist than in either his 1955 retrospective or the Tate’s 1966 Pont-Aven show.
Curator Belinda Thomson has bravely opted to present the exhibition with an essentially thematic approach, rather than chronologically. This is revealing in emphasising the similarities between Gauguin’s Breton and Tahitian periods, although profound differences remain.
More problematic is the presentation of the exhibition’s theme, ‘Maker of Myth’ (which rather echoes that of the last big Gauguin show, held in Rome in 2007, entitled ‘Artist of Myth and Dream’). The Tate exhibition argues that ‘in choreographing his career, Gauguin mythologised his role as creator’ with a self-promotional urge that was central to his making of art. However, Gauguin was not particularly successful in commercial terms and he could have promoted his work more successfully by making short visits to Polynesia and living in Paris instead.
In a quite different sense, Gauguin mythologised the myths of Tahiti. He adapted (and sometimes misunderstood) Tahitian legends, but this was artistic licence and it inspired his work. The complex arguments around the ‘maker of myth’ are explored in Thomson’s introductory catalogue essay, but prove more difficult to present on the walls.
The Tate show opens with a room of self-portraits, providing a stunning introduction. The first wall has five works, from c. 1876, Gauguin’s stockbroking days, to 1903, the year of his death. This sequence offers an unusual opportunity to examine the earliest work (Fogg Museum), whose sitter appears rather different from the others. But is it really a self-portrait? Although described as such in a 1924 sale catalogue, this is the only pre-war reference to support the title. The first room also has an important pairing: the reclining nude of Manao Tupapau of 1892 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery) with the self-portrait of a year or two later (1893–94) which has the Tahitian work in the background (Musée d’Orsay).
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