Wed, Oct 06, 2010 - Page 15 News List

Gauguin — into the mystic

The artist, subject of a major new show at the Tate Modern in London, is celebrated for his astounding color and ravishing design. But his work is also full of mysteries — idols, angels and spirits of the dead

By Alan Hollinghurst  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Paul Gauguin, Nevermore O Tahiti (1897).

Photo courtesy of THe Tate Modern

What a surprise this fresh-faced young man is, meeting you just inside the door with his level blue gaze and his pink complexion and his air of successfully balancing business and pleasure. You wonder for a minute if it can really be Gauguin, “the savage from Peru” whose image is synonymous with rebellion, escape, repudiation of all social and artistic norms. He wears the fashionable black fez of an art-lover, but with smart wing collar, black tie and suit. There’s a hint of truculence, perhaps, about the mouth, though the eyes invite you to overlook it. Almost under his chin are the little blond stubs of a beard, but he lacks a moustache, the feature that, with the hooded eyes and long, hooked nose, was to define the icon of the mature Gauguin.

Rarely will he look us in the eye like that again. Thereafter, he angles his head (showing off that “Inca” nose) and views us askance, as people who would be lucky to get to know him. Wary, touchy, proud, sometimes slightly absurd, he becomes a wonderful subject for himself. Nine years later, embarking on the career that looks like worrying lunacy to his family, he’s pointedly wrapped in a thick overcoat, with palette beside him and the sloping timbers of a garret ceiling above. Eight years after that, at the end of his first stay in Tahiti, he poses in striped Breton jersey and polka-dot bow tie with a Polynesian idol looking on: a cultural eclectic with hand on chin as if to say, “What do you make of that?” Back in France a few months later, he has his traveler’s hat on and the slope of the ceiling has turned to gold — a bar of the intense yellow Gauguin loved; hanging behind him, in reverse, is the major work of those travels, the disturbing Manao Tupapau, in which a naked teenage girl lies face down on a bed, watched over by the black-swathed Spirit of the Dead. In all these self-images, the invitation to admire the artist is hedged with defiance — the boast about Manao Tupapau is part artistic, part sexual braggadocio about the kind of teenage “bride” available to the exotic traveler he had become. In Christ in the Garden of Olives he takes it dangerously far, appearing as a scarlet-haired Jesus, brightly lit against a dark background in which shadowy figures are glimpsed approaching. Throughout there is an unavoidable sense that a good deal of Gauguin’s self-projection was, precisely, a pose, yet one that confounds our sense of the poseur by the repeated production of works of genius.

In Manao Tupapau we understand that the crude black idol at the foot of the bed, very evident to us, may nonetheless be simply a projection of the sleepless girl’s terror — her head on the pillow is turned away from it, towards us, and her eyes convey an incalculable blend of passivity, accusation and fear. It’s a large bed she lies on, on the very edge, with space beyond her where someone else has lain, and will do so again. If the magnetic oscillation in the painting of her body, between the eyes and the pink highlight of the cleft of her buttocks, is uneasily pornographic, Gauguin was understandably at pains to emphasize the strong but ambiguous air of the metaphysical that permeates the picture. In the mauve night beyond the bed, indecipherable forms and phosphorescences seem hints of both natural and supernatural worlds. The power of the painting lies in part in its confusing but irreducible mixture of motives.

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