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Gauguin’s Gap Year

5 September 2013

The decline of the summer blockbuster exhibition is a rather conspicuous consequence of the austere climate. While major galleries, including the Royal Academy of Arts and Tate Modern, remain committed to high profile exhibition programmes, others such as the National Gallery and Courtauld Institute have adopted a more thrifty approach. ‘Collecting Gauguin’ (until 8 September) at the Courtauld Gallery in London, draws chiefly on the institution’s permanent collection, reuniting the works by Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) collected by the museum’s founder, Samuel Courtauld (1876–1947).

Critics may claim false advertising – art lovers drawn by Gauguin’s name alone may be disappointed by the five oil paintings on display. However, no regular visitor to the Courtauld’s modest exhibition space will expect a vast retrospective.

To be successful, collection based exhibitions require a narrative distinct from the regular museum experience. As such a small number of loans may be required. One example here is the Bathers at Tahiti (1897), on loan from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the Bathers, or indeed any of Gauguin’s Tahitian scenes. Allured by the promise of a ‘primitive’ way of life, Gauguin abandoned France in 1895, eventually settling in Tahiti. Rather like a gap-year student, Gauguin too found solace in the remote Tahitian landscape or –perhaps more likely – the remote Tahitian women. Those same urges that drew Gauguin across the planet still seem to motivate disaffected westerners today.

In the Bathers he re-sexualises ‘natural’ nudity, instilling the scene with western taboo. The anonymous women service both artist and viewer, and their coquettish glances hint at untold secrets and ambiguous relationships. This is a performance full of sexual promise, but also conspiracy. Gauguin may have rejected the ‘noble savage’, but in his place is a shroud of erotica and pagan mysticism. The results amount to orientalist fantasies.

All the same, the Bathers demonstrates Gauguin’s mastery of colour and composition. His thin paint layers, vivid colours and coarse support make for a bold artistic statement. Gauguin merges water, forest and bodies into one swirling and vivid apparition. This illusory approach culminates in the gold-green foliage and tree limbs reminiscent of antlers, which crown the left bather like a flamboyant and cascading headdress.

In the context of this exhibition, the Bathers is an integral piece of the puzzle. Britain was rather late to the party when it came to collecting Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. But the textile magnate and philanthropist, Samuel Courtauld, was a pioneer in this regard. In 1923 he donated £50,000 to the National Gallery, specifically for the purchase of 19th-century French paintings. This legacy was added to after his death in 1947, when his own impressive collection was bequeathed to the eponymous Courtauld Gallery.

Due to conservative collecting habits of the past, and Gauguin’s vast current market value, Courtauld’s Gauguins remain the finest examples of the artist’s work in Britain. And yet the Courtauld Gallery’s collection is incomplete. After a rare change of heart – Courtauld only ever sold six of his paintings – he off-loaded the Bathers in 1929 to the Czech composer and collector, Josef Stránský.

The painting eventually made its way back to Britain and was finally purchased by the Barber Institute in 1949. The work remains one of just 17 paintings by Gauguin – and one of only five Tahitian scenes – still in British public ownership. This alone makes the painting important in the context of our national cultural heritage. But more significantly the loan is integral to the story of Courtauld’s collecting habits – a man who did much to bring collecting and art education in Britain firmly into the 20th century.

‘Collecting Gauguin’ is on at the Courtauld Gallery until 8 September 2013