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

Gauguin — whose affinities with the symbolists were deep — had already explored a simultaneous depiction of the real and the imaginary in The Vision After the Sermon, painted four years earlier in Brittany, where the praying peasant women and Jacob wrestling with the Angel are shown together, the broad diagonal of a tree trunk dividing the two arenas of experience. It is a spectacle that all but one of the women observe with their eyes closed. Clearly a large rich history of the depiction of saints’ visions in Western art lies behind the painting, but Gauguin has wrenched it into a new configuration by his stylized flatness of treatment, boldness of design and the astounding vermilion field against which the vision is seen. Though he repudiated Christianity, Gauguin’s eye for visionary experience was that of a mystic as much as of an anthropologist of “primitive” beliefs.

He had also made more intimate and domestic approaches to the threshold of dreams, in haunting pictures of two of his children asleep. In The Little One Is Dreaming his daughter Aline lies turned away from us, upper body huddled in nightclothes, legs out in the cold, while above the black dado rail behind the bed, dark leaves and birds swoop in the green, as though the wallpaper had come to life. The pointy-capped jester of a doll by the bed head is less frightening than the Spirit of the Dead, but nonetheless vaguely malign — the clownish plaything that is also the impresario of her dreams or nightmares.

There’s a doll, too, in the picture of his son, Clovis Gauguin Asleep, the face blurred as if by sleep, the blue vertical brushstrokes of the wall beyond ridden over by whirling forms of creatures or flowers. Clovis’ hand stretches out, as if for reassurance, to a huge carved tankard. This — 18th-century, Norwegian — is displayed close by in the new exhibition at Tate Modern, giving the viewer, too, a vaguely uncanny sense of being within reach of the dream.

Dream isn’t always the right word to convey the mysteries and disjunctions in a Gauguin painting, in which there’s frequently something unexpected going on. The pleasant many-colored apples in one still life sit on a white cloth beside the more troubling organic form of one of his own brown ceramics, the ensemble surveyed at close range by the bespectacled profile of his friend Charles Laval, so that one genre seems to have invaded another, the result being a sort of oblique conversation between the two artists. (It was with Laval that Gauguin was shortly to make the visit to Panama and Martinique that would be a turning point in his art.) In the busier Still Life With Fruit three years later, the spread of fruit is inspected at even closer range by the apple-green face of a hungry and impatient child. And in the captivatingly eccentric Still Life With Three Puppies, in a steeply sloping picture-plane, the puppies at the top, puce and tan and gray, lap milk from a pan, while in front of them on the patterned tablecloth three blue wine glasses stand, with a plum placed by the foot of each one, and in the foreground a round bowl and platter of pears complete the composition. The pears and puppies show the fondness for cusped forms that recurs in Gauguin — leaves, distant trees, clogs, animals’ tails, leaf and fruit patterns on fabric — and a mysteriously calculated still life (the glasses and plums prepared for a formal dessert perhaps) is offset by the very wriggly life of the guzzling dogs.

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