JBD

 

Nov 2010 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

Paul Gauguin liked to regard himself as an artiste-sauvage, a painter who preferred the South Sea islands to the salons of Paris. He loved myth, despised the church, but often painted himself as a red- or green-haired Christ figure, an artist reviled and misunderstood by his peers. In one work, his body is held up by three Tahitian women wearing Breton hats – a clear symbol of freedom versus restraint. He also portrayed himself as a fox, implying wisdom in Maori lore. A proto-hippy, his rounded and squat portraits of women are filled with symbolism; his Breton landscapes contain the wistful glimpse of a ship ready to take him away, back to the South Seas.

Gauguin: Maker of Myth at Tate Modern until 16 January, the first major London exhibition of his work in half a century, offers a lush and colourful perspective of the Post-Impressionist who helped launch Modernism and clearly inspired Picasso in the sensuality and symbolism of his subjects.

Rejecting Impressionism and European culture by his self-imposed exile in Tahiti, Gauguin failed to notice that the old life of the South Sea islands was itself being overtaken by modernity. Though he travelled widely, leaving his wife and children in Europe and spending two long periods in Tahiti with various lovers, in one sense he barely moved from his original exploration of religion, tradition and myth which began in Brittany.

Gauguin started out as a banker, a stockbroker, before gaining notoriety as a journalist, editing Le Sourire, a satirical journal, before his transition to self-conceived bohemian savage, painter and author of Noa Noa, a Tahitian memoir. He desperately sought a return to nature, to the South Sea islanders, with their solid, robust beauty. He was a careful, reflective painter, slowly applying his brushstrokes, painting a field pink or orange rather than green. If he saw a piece of red glass on a beach it might inspire him to paint the whole meadow red. His work cut through the distinctions between civilisation and the primitive. Contrast his paintings of Breton women with the physicality of his tribal subjects among whose mysterious peace he sought his nirvana: he painted them in the style of Polynesian carvings, accentuating their primitivism. What is exciting in his work is that, in the stillness of his female subjects in particular, there is a sense of becoming, of change.

The vast panoply of European history is present in over 200 works from Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts partnered by the Hungarian National Gallery in The Royal Academy’s Treasures from Budapest: European Masterpieces from Leonardo to Schiele, until December. Religion and myth in portraits, sculptures, still lifes and landscapes from the Italian Renaissance to the High Baroque include British artists like Reynolds and Constable and Hungarians like Ferenczy and Rippl-Ronai. Some works are from the Esterhazy collection, acquired by the Museum in 1871. There are popes, peasants and a bucolic wedding scene alongside works by Schiele and Picasso. It is a generous show but one or two more contemporary works would also have been welcome.
 

Gloria Tessler

previous article:A call to the Third Generation
next article:Bringing war criminals to justice (review)